A Wizard's Lizard

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Lost Decade Games for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2014.
A Wizard’s Lizard begins with a simple introduction… A wizard is standing over a cauldron, working to create a magic potion that will protect its user from death, but just as he completes it, Death himself appears. Since Death cannot actually kill the wizard, he merely takes him away, promising that his punishment will be worse than death. You play the part of the wizard’s lizard, who sets off to rescue his master.

The lizard heads into the town of Amberfall to speak with the townspeople, one of whom offers a bit of gold to help him on his way. The gold may be used to purchase a weapon or armor from the town’s merchant, or left unspent. Either way, the graveyard sits at the edge of town and can be entered at any time, thus formally beginning the adventure.

Level layouts are randomized and are made up of a series of interconnecting rooms with doorways leading up, down, left, or right. A minimap shows the available exits, as well as the outlines of any previously visited areas. The starting dungeon features a confined space with a small number of rooms, but each new area offers larger and larger dungeons. It is up to the player to explore each room and eventually make his way to the area’s boss.

Any time an enemy is present in a room, all of the doors slam shut, requiring the player to defeat all of the monsters before he can move on. Enemy types mostly consist of the expected fantasy-themed beasties, including bats, spiders, werewolves, zombies, slime creatures, demons, and the occasional giant floating eyeball. A handful of enemies can actually disappear and reappear, resulting in doors opening up and closing intermittently.

Understanding enemy behaviors is very much the key to success, as you can’t take a tremendous amount of damage, and there are very few opportunities for health restoration. Some enemies will simply follow a patrol route or will specifically hone in on your position. Zombies in particular tend to appear in large numbers and always head straight toward you, often placing them at the top of your hit list. Werewolves have the ability to perform an Altered Beast-style dash that is fast and therefore tough to avoid. Brown owls will not attack until you attack them, but then they fly at you very quickly, making it tough to take them down before they hit you. Gray owls, on the other hand, will attack you even if you provoke another of the owls, and they take even more hits to destroy, which means you could find yourself quickly swarmed if you aren’t smart about which enemies you attack first.

In addition to enemies, the player must contend with obstacles, each of which presents its own dangers. Spider webs slow the player’s movement, making it more difficult to dodge enemies and projectiles. Spikes cause instant damage when touched, forcing the player to steer clear, which can be difficult in a room full of enemies. Some objects merely act as blockades, such as headstones that block your projectiles and limit your movement, and they block the enemies’ movement as well, but some of their projectiles will still pass through. Conversely, pits of acid and lava block everyone’s movement equally, leaving the player free to pick off foes from a distance.

Exploding barrels are both a benefit and a danger, as a well-placed shot can set off an explosion that kills nearby enemies – even tough ones – but you need to be sure to remain clear of the blast. There are regular barrels as well, which act as blockades, but can also be destroyed for monetary rewards, the occasional health restoration, and the even more occasional enemy or bomb.

The overall combat system and game structure are set up like The Binding of Isaac, with the player moving and shooting independently, exploring a series of interconnected rooms, and slowly unlocking new weapons and items through a roguelike permadeath system. Each time the player is killed, he returns to the beginning, but each of the townsfolk rescued from the dungeons gives him more starting money, and each blueprint purchased within the dungeons allows for new weapons and items to be purchased at the start of the game. This gives the player more opportunities to stock up on buffs before heading back into the fray, and therefore helps him live just a bit longer.

Weapons come in a few basic varieties, all of which are handheld weapons that can be tossed infinitely. Your default weapon is a sword that can be tossed about halfway across the screen for moderate damage. Other weapons include spears that are somewhat weaker but have a much greater range, slow-moving axes that bounce off walls, and double daggers that are a bit weaker but can be tossed in rapid succession. New weapons and items can be found within the dungeons by opening treasure chests or purchasing them from in-dungeon vendors… although you have to be careful, as some chests are actually monsters in disguise.

Unique weapons can be found by exploring the dungeons and opening colored chests, most of which are provided as a reward for defeating bosses. These weapons include the powerful but dangerous exploding spear, a sword that freezes enemies, a golden axe with a faster firing rate and longer range, treasure-grabbing Legend of Zelda-style boomerangs, and even some rapid fire killer bees.

Most items are various pieces of armor that allow the player to take more hits, although a few protect against specific status effects. Grabbing a new item of the same type within a dungeon replaces that item in your inventory and drops the old one, which you can reacquire if you wish. A brief description of each item is shown the first time you pick it up, but never again. Additionally, no information is provided on the status screen to indicate the stats of a given item. Some items have clear status improvements, such as upgrading from a leather helmet to a steel one, but others are less clear, such as rings that protect you against status effects. The only way to view the descriptions of the items is to visit the museum between missions, and here you can also view descriptions of every enemy you have defeated.

What separates A Wizard’s Lizard from other top-down action roguelikes is its life and death mechanic. At the start of the game, the player wanders around a dark world, barely lit by torches, piles of shiny money, and enemies. This dark world only gets darker as torches are destroyed, money is collected, and enemies are destroyed. The player has a health meter in the upper left of the screen in the form of a heart that slowly drains and changes color as the player loses health, as well as a numerical indicator showing the player’s current health value out of a possible 100 units. If the character’s health is drained to zero, he drops to the ground and immediately comes back to life, but things do not remain as they were before…

First off, rather than being surrounded by darkness, the character is surrounded in light. Things that were previously obscured in shadow now become vividly clear. All of the player’s progress remains intact, including treasures collected, purchases made, enemies killed, etc. The player regains another 100-point heart, but draining this one to zero means permanent death, and a return to the start of the game per roguelike conventions. The only way the player can return to the land of darkness is to find a room with a pentagram. Standing within it gives the player a one-time resurrection with 50 units of health, and the pentagram disappears.

There is another major change in the bright white afterlife as well; namely, the appearance of ghosts. When fighting through the dark areas, killed enemies sometimes leave behind white ghosts, but these apparitions pose no threat to the living, passing harmlessly through the player character and other enemies. Upon the player’s death, however, these ghosts become a threat and must be dealt with. In the afterlife, killed enemies sometimes generate ghosts as well, giving you an additional enemy to deal with. Also, the afterlife features piles of bones that act as Gauntlet-style spawners, generating an endless stream of wandering specters. Other spectral forms are present as well, including ghostly flaming skulls that move slowly through the environment and bounce off walls.

Dungeon layouts are random, although there are a limited number of room and enemy layouts, so you will be facing the same scenarios on each attempt, albeit in a different order. Rooms are shuffled in and out of play for each run, although some rooms will always appear, including the starting room, a room with a guarded treasure chest, a resurrection room, a boss room, and the dungeon’s final treasure room and exit. If you are fortunate enough to find one of the game’s hidden doors, you may skip forward by one level without facing off against a boss, or even be transported to a special forest level. Otherwise, you will progress through themed areas in the same order again and again.

This means that you will encounter the end-level bosses in the same order each time as well, and all of the bosses are total bullet sponges, requiring several minutes each to destroy as they soak up your projectiles and drop tiny slivers from their health bars in return.

Playing through identical themes, scenarios, and boss fights on each attempt negates some of the effect of the game’s random elements, giving it more of a feel of playing through the same levels again and again without making significant progress. The danger of roguelike design is that a lack of variety can make the game feel like a series of linear levels made overly difficult to prevent the player from making it to the end of an otherwise short game on his first few attempts.

A number of items may be purchased within the dungeons, many of which become available at the start of the game as well if you have purchased the associated blueprints. These include a map that shows the full dungeon layout, and a compass that indicates the location of shops, the resurrection room, and the final boss room. An abacus oddly displays all of the game’s numeric values onscreen, showing the exact amount of damage you’re dealing to enemies, as well as the value of treasure picked up (although the gold counter at the top of the screen makes this pretty easy to determine on your own). A monster manual shows the life bars of all enemies, whereas only bosses have life bars otherwise.

Shopkeepers sell heath potions as well, offering a 50-point restoration or full restoration, but these can be pretty pricey. Still, with the infrequency of health-restoring drops, this may be your only option. And, if you don’t have enough money, you can always go the Spelunky route and attack the shopkeeper. He puts up a tough fight and deals a lot of damage, but you get instant access to all of the items the moment you attack him, so running in to grab a potion or pricey weapon might be worth the gamble. But, as in Spelunky, killing the shopkeeper angers the rest of the game’s shopkeepers as well, thus peppering the world with a few tough battles that you could have otherwise avoided by spending your gold. This approach does not work on the merchants selling blueprints, unfortunately, as they do not respond to your attacks.

The game has a few secrets for those paying attention during their adventures. For instance, each of the dungeons contains a treasure chest that can only be accessed in a very specific way. Opening these chests, completing the game, and rescuing certain characters is the key to accessing some of the game’s unlockable characters, many of whom have unique abilities.

A Wizard’s Lizard was developed by Lost Decade Games, a California based studio founded in 2010 by web HTML5 developers Geoff Blair and Matt Hackett. Both Geoff and Matt worked on the game’s design and programming, with Matt providing the art, and Joshua Morse composing the music and sound effects. The game, which was originally tiled Crypt Run, was heavily inspired by The Legend of Zelda, Gauntlet, and The Binding of Isaac. The game was funded via Kickstarter in 2013.

The studio previously focused on developing titles for browsers and mobile devices, and their previous credits include Onslaught! Arena, Lunch Bug, and Lava Blade.