Semi informed ramblings about Elminage Gothic Jun 6, 2021 13:57:25 GMT -5
Post by backgroundnoise on Jun 6, 2021 13:57:25 GMT -5
For reasons I may potentially regret in the future, I decided to organize my thoughts on this game. I apologize in advance if the amount of text is a bit much. The least I can do is provide links to a few relevant articles and interviews for your perusal.
Old traditions have a tendency of persisting far longer than one would expect and no computer role playing series is more of an indicator of undying traditions than Wizardry and its direct descendants. Released in 1981 for the Apple II as a commercial adaptation of the type of games seen on American university terminals, the first entry quickly garnered a devoted following, ensuring its influence on future RPGs going forward, including those developed in Japan. In 1982, developer and publisher Sirtech was approached by both Starcraft and ASCII Corporation for the localization and distribution of Wizardry games in Japan. ASCII would go on to release the first 5 games on Japanese home consoles and computers, eventually leading to the the creation of Wizardry Gaiden: Suffering of the Queen in 1991, kick-staring the lineage of Japanese developed Wizardry games that would outlast even Sirtech themselves. ASCII would soon be joined by Starfish in the development and publishing of original Wizardry titles, with both companies releasing their output somewhat concurrently with each other from 1999 to 2007 or so. It should be noted that in 1998, the rights to the Wizardry IP, along with their other assets, were transfered from Sirtech to the oddly named 1259190 Ontario (also owned by the Sirtech founders) around the time the American branch of Sirtech closed its doors. They would eventually license out the series to Sirtech Canada (the developers of Wizardry 8, released in 2001), as well as ASCII and Starfish, to name a few (in fact, the copyright notices in Wizardry: Dimguil and Wizardry Empire both mention 1259190 Ontario Inc.).
Starfish was founded in 1993 by former Hot-B employees, probably best known for the Black Bass series of fishing games and scrolling shooters like Cloud Master and Steel Empire. The year 1999 saw them releasing Wizardry Empire for the Gameboy Colour which slavishly followed the design of the first five mainline Wizardry games while adding their own additions on top of that. After the release of Wizardry Empire III (which is either the 5th or 6th Empire game, depending on how you count Wizardry Asterisk) for the PSP in 2007, Starfish seemingly lost the rights to the Wizardry license. At the risk of engaging in unwarranted speculation, this may have something to do with the fact that the license was transfered from 1259190 Ontario to Aeria IPM (later known only as IPM) in 2008. Nevertheless, we would see a continuation of the Wizardry Empire line in the form of the Elminage series, which lasted from 2008 to 2012, with the release Elminage Ibun, not counting ports and re-releases.
The focus on this already excessively long ramble will be the 4th installment, Elminage Gothic. Initially released in 2012 for the PSP (just 4 months before Ibun, for the record), Gothic was jointly developed by Starfish's internal staff, Pleocene and Opera House. From what I can be gather, we can trace the internal staff's contributions as far back as Wizardry Empire III, such as with dungeon designer Takahiro Ando, scenario writer Takahiro Matsuya and monster designer Takeshi Miyauchi. Pleocene seems to have been a relative newcomer at the time, though they would later on assist during the development of Monster Hunter Generations, Dragon Ball Xenoverse and Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright. Opera House, founded by Satoru Miki and Hiroyuki Fujiwara, has an extensive history dating all the way back to 1989, being responsible for porting various SSI published games such as Eye of the Beholder to the PC-98, the PC Engine CD port of Shin Megami Tensei, the Super Famicom Kyuuyaku Megami Tensei compilation and the PC-98 conversion of Wizardry 7: Crusaders of the Dark Savant. In 2014, Elminage Gothic would receive a PC port and English translation courtesy of Ghostlight, who is probably best known for distributing various Megami Tensei games in European territories. An updated re-release was released in 2013 with a few extra enemies and various quality of life features that sadly never made it to the PC version. As a minor bit of irrelevant trivia, quite a few of the developers would eventually work on Kingdom Hearts III.
Gothic leans heavily into the western medieval fantasy aesthetic with a minor tinge of eldritch horror, exemplified in both its sound and visuals. Character portraits and monster designs exhibit a painted look resembling illustrations taken straight out of a D&D Player's handbook with a few minor anime aesthetic flourishes. The dungeons look very much like you would expect from a 3D PSP game running at a higher resolution, though the textures do a decent enough job of selling one on the mood of a given area, be it a dark cave, a bloodstained basement, mysterious ethereal ice caverns or the cramped interiors of a giant tree. It's still a series of blocky mazes with a single set of wall and floor textures applied to an entire floor, but it's something you sort of have to accept as normal for a dungeon crawler. That's not to say the game doesn't try to provide some form of visual variety, with the tilesets changing from dungeon to dungeon, sometimes even halfway through a dungeon. Combat presentation can be described as serviceable, featuring static pictures for adversaries, with melee and spell special effects performing most of the animation grunt work. The music, provided by Kenji Yamazaki, consists of moody atmospheric sounds with a melody poking out from time to time, making it suitable for long term dungeon crawling. The songs even evolve as you descend deeper (or higher) into a dungeon, adding additional sounds and instruments onto the existing soundscape. The battle themes range from mostly percussion driven affairs to bombastic orchestral pieces (done via synths, granted), which do their job decently enough.
Special attention should be given to what I believe to be Elminage Gothic's most standout feature, which is its eclectic monster designs. It is possibly the most bonkers I've seen in a fantasy game in quite some time, ranging from cool and creepy to absolutely silly and dumb looking. Aside from your threatening looking dragons and hellhounds, you are just as likely to run into homunculi sitting inside giant beaker bottles, penguins wearing crowns and scepters, camels living inside subterranean caves, a mustachioed fire giant posing like a bodybuilder, a bagpipe player wearing a kilt (made funnier by the fact that the game's translation incorrectly describes his outfit as a kimono), a decapitated doll carrying her head in a basket while riding a rocking horse with blades for legs, kimono wearing musicians with a maneki-neko for a guitar amp, baby dragons still in their eggshells with a pacifier in their mouth, a human leg with eyes, arms and a mouth holding a sword and shield, snail wizards wearing cloaks, insect like creatures with a human head instead of a torso with eyes, noses, ears and mouths where they shouldn't be, sporting an unsettling grin. I could go on, but hopefully I have at least partially conveyed the game's "everything but the kitchen sink" approach to monster designs. Outside of your usual fantasy creatures and obvious mythological references, Gothic may surprise you with an out of left field inclusion, such as a monster based on the Czech/Polish/German mountain spirit Rübezahl (or as Elminage interprets him, green Santa riding a giant turnip). This applies to the general mooks. Most of the story and important side quest related enemies complement the general premise of the plot, ranging from impressive looking godlike beings to Lovecraftian inspired horrors and cultist to demonically possessed children to misshapen corruptions of the human flesh. The sheer variety of creatures should also not go unmentioned, with the bestiary encompassing well over 308 or so monsters.
The general premise involves your party of adventurers answering a local king's request to investigate recent monster sightings and the possibly related disappearances of the townsfolk in the kingdom of Ishmag. This leads into our hapless mercenaries discovering a plot hatched by the seemingly long deceased spirit of the mad priest Uhlm Zakir to resurrect his patron deity Cyclanos, who himself wishes to bring back his fellow dark gods back into the world. Not exactly the most original premise out there, but the game does a decent enough job of selling the player on the cult's destructive influence, with concerned townspeople lamenting the loss of their loved ones to the corrupted priests and brainwashed children singing the praises of their god with an unflinching fervor. Outside of the machinations of the main plot, you do meet your fair share of fellow adventurers more than willing to break the fourth wall to provide you with gameplay tips, as well as an assortment of the usual opportunistic thieves and merchants hoping to profit from the current situation. That is not to say that the game is entirely devoid of levity, as evidenced by some of the creature designs, though the recurring barbarian NPC frequently suffering from motion sickness and a weak stomach is not exactly what one can call a successful attempt. Atypical of this style of dungeon crawler is the inclusion of various side quests providing minor rewards, most of which don't provide that many meaningful benefits. These can range from finding certain items for NPCs, killing a specific boss creature or even something as simple as expending one of your mage's teleportation spells to safely teleport a fellow adventurer to the entrance of the dungeon. Sadly, the setting is held back by a very questionable localization which doesn't provide sufficient clarity to the quest log or NPC conversations, features oddly worded sentences and nonsensical descriptions, such as the aforementioned kilt being referred to as kimono. It's not entirely incomprehensible, though it may take a bit for the meaning of the words to become apparent.
The dungeons one is likely to encounter during the course of the main quest are 3 to 6 floor affairs encompassing a grid board of 20 by 20 squares, with the walls occupying the space between said squares. One thing that may turn off people from the game may be the mapping system. Similar to the Super Famicom port of the first Wizardry trilogy, you are restricted from accessing your automap via your wizard's map spells and one time use magical maps each costing 10 gold. The fee itself isn't that big of a deal, as money is absurdly plentiful in this game, though that does mean that you will be filling up your limited inventory space with stacks upon stacks of Magic Maps while also being frugal with their use in order not to run out during exploration. It can be a tough hurdle to surmount for those lacking in patience, though there is a solution to this (and no, it doesn't involve editing the CSV files or making your own maps). The 1st basement floor of the 3rd dungeon (The Great Tree Yap Gotz) has a room with a fixed encounter with a pack of goblins leading to the Underground Goblin Map, an infinite use Magic Map with a 5% chance of breaking. Broken items can restored easily enough with a single casting of an alchemy spell. The obstacles encountered in your travels is just about every single dungeon crawler trick in the book: spinners that disorient the player, teleporter (both visible and invisible) that transfer you to another spot in the dungeon, pits that deal damage to the entire party unless you have a levitation spell active, chutes that drop you to the floor below unless you have a levitate spell active, friction-less icy surfaces that you can freely ignore with the levitation spell combined with a special key item from the Degus Gila Ice Cave, dark rooms that can only be reliably navigated via the automap, anti-magic fields that erase your buffs and prevent you from casting spells and anti-teleportation fields that prevent you from teleporting to certain squares. The design of the mazes is surprisingly varied. Man made structures have a blocky and symmetrical floor plan, natural caverns confusingly twist and turn in unexpected ways, areas with craters (such as Hastrana) leave the center of the upper floors empty requiring the player to navigate around the edges of the map, some dungeon have a horizontal as opposed to a vertical floor progression (or even a combination both) and The Great Tree Yap Gotz notably has the upper floors utilize a tree ring structure, starting you from the outher ring, gradually spiraling towards the center. This, along with the frequent change in tilesets and music, make the flow and navigation surprisingly varied for a turn based dungeon crawler of its type. The enemy encounter rate is low and you will rarely engage in random battles. Instead, the game relies on fixed encounter spaces placed in narrow hallways and entrances of certain rooms. This isn't new, since quite a few western CRPGs operate like this, but I imagine this method is somewhat unconventional to those used to JRPGs.
Character creation and progression will potentially deter a significant number of players as it remains mostly unchanged from the first five Wizardry games. The character's race determines their staring parameters and special abilities, such as the Dragonewt's AOE breath weapon or the Werebeast's ability to poison targets with their physical attack. They are then assigned a random number of bonus points, which can thankfully be re-rolled with the press of a button (something that the original PC Wizardry games prevent you from doing). You can increase the odds of getting a better roll by increasing the character's age, though I would suggest abstaining from reducing their lifespan too much. Once your points are allotted, you will be able to choose from a selection of character classes. Obviously, advanced casters that can learn multiple schools of magic and fighter/caster hybrids will require a greater number of bonus points. It is generally suggested that you start with the basic classes due to their low requirements and faster rate of learning spells and class change into an advanced class of your choice once you gain enough stat points through leveling up. Levels are gained through resting at the inn once you meet the minimum experience threshold. Upon resting, the game rolls for each stat to determine if it remains unchanged, you gain a single point or lose a point. Said rolls are allegedly influenced by your age, with teens more likely to lose stats and older characters more likely to gain stats. The older your character, the more likely it is for them to gain mental stats like intelligence or piety, rather than physical stats like strength or agility. Hit points are gained in a similar fashion. From what I can tell, each character gets a set of dice depending on their class/race combination and current level. If the combined total of said dice is greater than their current HP, then that roll becomes their new HP total, otherwise, they only gain 1 HP. It's not too out there to see a string of 1 HP gains, only for the next level to give you 50 or so. That may sound nightmarish to a lot of you (and in older Wizardry titles, it is due to their auto save systems), but thankfully the game employs a manual save system that lessens the pain somewhat. Class changing allows a character to specialize into a new class, retaining all the HP they gained thus far, as well as all the spells they have gained. The downside is that if a class does not natively learn a given school of magic, your spell charges per level are reduced. For example, if an Alchemist with 9 charges for all spell levels classes into a Summoner, they will only have 3 charges available for a given Alchemist spell level.
One of the deviations from the Wizardry formula is the inclusion of EX skills, one of which can be selected at character creation or class change, with others being granted once you reach a given character's "High Mastery" level (which can be anywhere from the mid 20s to the mid 30s, depending on the class). They range from as mundane as increased healing spell efficacy to an ability that randomly shuts down the enemy's recovery phase (which is a phase between combat rounds where their regeneration effect kicks in). There are too many to list, but I would specifically recommend Tackle (the aforementioned anti-recovery phase move), Find Treasure (you won't be finding treasure chests without it), Hand of Kindness (can make lower level healing spells viable in the late game), Magic Essence (allows you to bypass spell resistance, which is not elemental damage/status effect resistance but rather what in D&D parlance would be considered a spell saving throw), Mysterious Bag (transfers items to the warehouse in town if your inventory is full) and Brace (you never know when surviving a mortal blow with 1 HP can save your life).
Regardless of your class choices, persevering through the Kingdom of Ishmag without an alchemist is a fool's errand. They primarily serve the role of support casters, buffing the party and inflicting status effects like charm onto enemies. Their only useful offensive spell is Zeo Nadar, whose damage depends on the number of spells cast in battle. It can contribute a decent amount of damage if you're relying on a magic heavy party and if the fight you're in lasts for more than a few rounds. Yuniwa Coat is almost essential for certain fights against bosses capable of shifting around your front and back rows, as it grants the entire party infinite attack range. Portal and High Portal allow you to identify and disarm trapped chests with a 100% success rate, in case you don't trust your thief to do the job. Most importantly, an Alchemist is necessary for interacting with the game's forging system. Throughout your travels, you will gather different types of ore with a randomly determined AP value that you can take to the Alchemy Warehouse to infuse your equipment with. Each ore type has its own selection of potential buffs that cost AP to select. Obviously, the more AP a given ore has, the more buffs you can apply to a piece of equipment, though each equipment can only have one ore infused into it. For the sake of your own survival, it is vital to infuse HP recovery buffs that regenerate a fixed amount of HP during your recovery phase, as it is crucial during the early game. Damage and armor class buffs for weapons and armor can also be useful if you have the AP to afford them.Once the reach High Mastery, their alchemy spells receive a buff depending on their current level and they also gain the ability to disassemble equipment that has been enchanted with an ore, recovering both in the process.
The local shop is somewhat lacking in worthwhile gear, with the best stuff found in treasure chests, so you will have to deal with traps sooner or later. Much like the Wizardry games, you designate a character to identify a trap, they state their prediction and you disarm the chest by selecting which trap it is from a list (though the character still needs to succeed their trap disarm check). Most traps are to be avoided, obviously, unless you're okay with your party getting damaged, paralyzed, petrified or have their lifespan shaved off by a couple of years. The exception to those are Mimic and Kiss of the Goddess. Once your party is strong enough, mimics can be a decent source for farming extra materials and Kiss of the Goddess reduces a character's age by 1, effectively extending their lifespan(in case I haven't made it already clear that the mortality of your party is to be taken seriously). For this reason it is necessary to start with a thief in your party in spite of their deficiencies as a physical combatant. Their High Mastery skills leave a lot to be desired, as the equipment that can stolen from enemies isn't worthwhile. For that reason they can be replaced with a hunter, which is a slightly less competent thief with a greater selection of equipment, greater combat capabilities and the Pursuit EX skill, which deals damage to enemies suffering from a status ailment (only if they're wielding a bow) during their recovery phase. Their High mastery skill grants them a bonus to physical attacks depending on their current level and the Pursuit ability is upgraded to the multi target Pursuit Sweep. Another viable choice for a thief alternative is the ninja, which, much like their Wizardry counterpart, has a percentage chance of instantly decapitating a target, provided the enemy isn't immune to beheadings. Their High mastery skill grants them infinite range with their bare handed attacks.
Cleric spells have always been the lifeblood of a long lasting adventuring party and it's no exception here. Clerics gain the usual affair of healing, armor class boosting, undead dispelling and demon banishing set of abilities. The one lamentable aspect of theirs is that the demon banishing spell in question is only a single target spell, which isn't exactly useful against an enemy type capable of summoning additional combatants into the fray. Their fighter/caster variants, the lord and valkyrie, end up being superior to pure fighters due to their EX skills alone. Valkyries are granted Holy Lance Art upon High Mastery, giving them the ability to dual wield spears alongside an off hand weapon (for other classes, spears count as two handed weapons). Lords get a passive boost to their status effect resistances and Court Sanctuary, which applies said resistances to the entire party, though the game only takes the highest source of resistance into account (as in, it doesn't add up all of your resistances together), so it may take a few levels before Court Sanctuary makes much of a difference.
Mages, being the offense focused casters, have an interesting place withing the game's balance. In the early game, they can be a consistently high damage source, excellent for dealing with large crowds too much for the front line to handle. By the endgame, as the melee classes start gaining better equipment, passive buffs to their attacks and more attacks per round, their damage output can be described as supplementary at best. That being said, they still have their uses. Petrification is shockingly effective against enemies, including bosses. Levitation is vital for dungeon navigation and the ability to teleport to almost any explored square in a dungeon cuts down on backtracking and expedites the exploration process considerably. Their fighter/caster variant, the samurai, is a decent enough attacker whose EX skill allows them to counter enemy physical attacks.
The treasures you find are not fully known, requiring proper appraisal. Yet, it is not financially practical to pay the shopkeeper to identify the items for you. For that reason, you may want to have a Bishop on hand. While the idea of a cleric/mage hybrid might seem like an enticing prospect, their level and spell progression is very slow, slower even than the fighters/casters, though their endgame viability is undeniable. It is suggested to roll up a Bishop as a passive bench warmer whose only purpose is identifying items, at least until your mage or priest learn their entire spell-book (at around level 13 or so) and are eligible for class change.
Summoners can be a boon to the party, though they take a bit of work to get them going due to the luck based nature of forming contracts. For each spell level, they gain a contract, summon and return spell (effectively giving them up to 7 monsters to control). The contract spell can be used on an enemy to form a pact with them, after which they can be summoned or dismissed at any time as long as the summoner has spell charges available. Summoned creatures occupy a 4th front row slot and are controlled entirely by the AI. This doesn't make them entirely reliable, but they can provide a buff if you need, a lucky decapitation against a powerful boss or just to soak up hits to protect the rest of the team. Their High Mastery skill Blood Oath provides a stat buff based on the summoner's level, making even low level creature viable for the endgame, though its effects won't be that noticeable until the post game. Still, it would be nice to give summoners something else to do during combat, so teaching them a few spells from other magic schools is advisable. One of the starting EX skills available to the summoner is Spirit Pact, which converts a summon into a full fledged party member, meaning that you could theoretically play the game as though it were a Megami Tensei game, for what it's worth.
Fighters are relative cheap in terms of requirements and do a decent job of taking and dishing out damage, but as stated before, samurai, valkyries and lords surpass them in pretty much every way. Shamans are ranged attackers that are effective against ghosts, demons and undead, along with the ability to conjure a magic barrier. Personally, I don't see a use for them. Bards are mage/fighter hybrids that can play musical instruments for special effects and can cast random bonuses or penalties by drawing cards from a tarot deck. The deck is far too unpredictable to be useful and the ability to use musical instruments does not justify having what is essentially a worse version of the samurai. Servants are fighters that can mix various herbs together to provide restorative benefits to the party. They have their uses, especially when applying magic herbs to restore the party's spell charges, though since 5 out of 6 of my party members were capable of casting cleric spell, I have yet to find an excuse to use them.
If I were to describe my emotional experience with Gothic, it would certainly be a roller coaster in the most extreme sense. At the start of the game, it's standard dungeon crawler fare. Enemies can easily kill you but, with the proper application of your abilities and a well balanced party, you can gain a foothold in the game's power curve and coast along aside from the occasional decapitation courtesy of a fairly weak enemy ninja. That changes after the first major story boss located in the 4th dungeon. The side dungeons leading up to the next mandatory one are perfectly fine to explore as long as you don't venture too deep (later floors hide stronger monsters, it seems), but the Igdra Underground Church is where the game will start putting the screws to you. Plenty of enemies can simply fire off death magic to instantly kill your party members and petrify you (and by this point you probably won't have the means to cure said petrification). Discounting the optional fight, the Fallen Youth (the next major story boss and literal poster child on the game's cover) will introduce you to the semi common tactic of shifting your party rows at will (again, an alchemy spell granting you infinite attack range is essential) on top of having an absurdly high damage output and recovery time. Having a consistent damage output can help, as does the Tackle skill, though some times, you can count on a lucky decapitation, courtesy of your Whirlwind Efreet summon. Things were relatively peaceful, if a bit ominous, as I explored the 1st and 2nd floors of the estate belonging to the mad priest Uhlm Zakir and engaging in dealing with a clearly Lovecraftian sea creature in an optional dungeon. The basement floors of the priest's estate is where the game can become absolutely maddening, with a floor covered almost entirely in anti magic squares, all the while pitting you against enemies that can break your equipment, decapitate you and level draining vampires. You are granted access to your magic while facing off against the mad priest, though you will need it. It's very likely that you'll attain victory by the skin of your teeth as his HP recovery and damage output is just obscene. Afterwards, while the final dungeon may seem daunting, a side trip to the royal tomb is enough to properly arm yourself for the final confrontation, though by this point, the game is utilizing decapitations and death spells as though they're going out of style.
While the game isn't Wizardry 4 levels of unwarranted cruelty, it certainly likes to resist your efforts to beat it at every possible opportunity, forcing you to utilize every possible exploit available. Proper planing and acquiring important magic items and teleportation spell as fast as possible in order to ease one's exploration efforts can help, but only up to a certain point. Though that doesn't mean the game is entirely devoid of joy. The occasional lucky summoning contract, the inventive and varied enemy designs, the moments when a seemingly impossible adversary ends up being trivial after a mere alteration of your own tactics, they all balance out the negative moments for me. I acknowledge that the maximalist interface that bombards you with pages of information for every player character, item and monster can be difficult to parse for a newcomer and that the game requires the patience of a saint and also that the game be pretty long. Part of the reason it took me literal months to complete the game is because I had to play it in shorter sessions for the sake of my own sanity, only returning once I had both the time and inclination to do so. Sometimes, all you need to do is step away for a while and you'll start to come up with solutions that you would never have considered in the spur of the moment.
The Wizardry IP would be sold to GMO Internet at some point and is currently owned by Drecom, who recently announced Wizardry VA for mobile platforms, as well as a Steam release 2006's Wizardry: The Five Ordeals, the last ASCII developed/published Wizardry title. The current state of Starfish is currently unknown, as their last official news update was posted in 2016 and the last known product they released was the Steam release of Cloud Master in 2018. Sirtech, surprising no one, continues to be dead and buried.
Carolipio, Reggie: Wizardry's Wild Ride from West to East