Lichdom: Battlemage

Loot-driven role-playing games are often pigeonholed into the Diablo archetype: isometric dungeon crawls controlled mostly by passive-feeling clicks and the occasional hotkey press. That’s far from a bad thing - games like Diablo and Torchlight are nothing short of fantastic, after all - but that fact makes the occasional game to break the mold all the more exciting. Lichdom: Battlemage is the latest in a growing trend of first-person dungeon crawlers, and it’s easily the most frantic and demanding game the genre has seen in a long time.

When the evil Count Shax kills your family and leaves you for dead, you gear up with a powerful suite of magic powers to take revenge. A sorcerer named Roth imbues you with magical abilities, including thunderous lightning bolts and scorching fireballs, and sets you on your way to revenge. Talented voice actors like Troy Baker and Jennifer Hale contribute sparse dialogue to the story, but it remains a generic tale that never really gets fleshed out by the end of the game. You won’t find any of the mystery or intrigue of Skyrim’s better quests here, but, like Diablo before it, Lichdom never presents its story as its main selling point.

Instead, it’s the frenetic first-person combat that’ll keep you coming back. Paced more like an oldschool first-person shooter than a slow-building RPG, Lichdom challenges you right off the bat with massive, intelligent enemies. As powerful as some of your base abilities may seem during the opening minutes of the game, you won’t get far by relying solely on them. Even without the usual Mana bar holding you back from rapid-firing spells, the challenge level is high, and you’ll need to get creative to survive.

This is where the game’s delightfully complex combo and crafting systems come into play, counterbalancing the arcade-like combat with a surprisingly deep well of options. Like in indie hit Magicka, you can combine spells to achieve powerful and sometimes unexpected results. Combine an AoE attack with a fire spell, and you might get a ring of flame. That’s just a rudimentary example, but there are plenty more waiting to be discovered by intrepid players. Crafting new spells is an addictive hook that will have you returning to the game’s wicked challenge rooms to gather the rarest materials. These rooms demand the utmost precision to complete, but even failed attempts aren’t entirely in vain, as you’ll keep your accrued XP and loot even after you respawn.

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This is but one of several clever touches that keeps the experience from getting too frustrating, even as the challenge level continuously climbs. Another is the checkpoint system, which also acts as a sort of combo counter. Each checkpoint you pass through without dying will add a tick to your counter, and the more ticks you have the rarer the loot you’ll collect. It’s a really smart way to reward skillful play, and it ties the collection of rare loot directly to player skill in a way that no other game in this genre has before.

Skillful play requires mastery of both offensive and defensive techniques. You’ll have access to various shields to reduce the brunt of incoming damage for a limited time, and a fast dodge move allows you to skirt around enemy attacks with surprising speed. The real fun begins when you start to equip modifiers to your shield and dodge, though. With these powerful abilities equipped, you can deal splash damage each time you dodge, or teleport around the battlefield. There’s even a counter move that you can deploy when you use your shield at exactly the right time, which will deflect incoming attacks and allow you to set up a devastating retaliatory strike.

Mastery skills add another layer of depth to the game, but they end up making the combat feel a little clunky when they need to be executed. In order to execute a mastery skill, you have to first craft a spell with a mastery ability. Then, you must slot it into your nine-slot spell inventory. When you want to build a multiplier, you have to switch to your mastery skill and then switch back again to deal the heavy damage.

You’ll need to put all of these abilities to use during the game’s massive boss battles, which generally set you up against huge creatures in enclosed arenas. Bosses are absolute tanks, and can often absorb upwards of 30 or more of your most powerful spells. You’ll have to dodge frequently and make judicious use of your mastery skills during these battles, and even then it sometimes won’t be enough. It can be frustrating to dump so much damage into the bosses only to have it all reset when you die, but it’s also satisfying to finally land the killing blow.

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As you progress through the game, enemies and bosses will become tougher and tougher. While it’s fun to blow away enemies with powerful spells early on in the game, the middle and later hours become more of a slog as enemies start taking more and more hits. Bullet sponge enemies are not conducive to the game’s goal of making “the mage a total badass”, and it ends up feeling like more of an artificial challenge.

With the sheer speed of the combat, it can be easy to overlook just how gorgeous Lichdom is. Lighting effects from your spells cast beautiful shadows over the world, and the particle effects that spew forth from your most powerful abilities light up the screen, providing satisfying tactile feedback. Enemies and environments alike are varied and wonderfully rendered. It’s no exaggeration to say that Lichdom is one of the most visually impressive indie games available on Steam, and its $39.99 launching price point makes that all the more impressive.

Lichdom crafts an intoxicating blend of frantic, skill-based combat and deep role-playing mechanics that makes it a solid choice for action fans. The bullet sponge enemies prevent the mage from feeling as powerful as he could, but the sheer variety of spells on display counts for a lot, as does the precision and speed needed to excel in the game’s larger battles. If a fast and brutal magic melee is what you’re after, Lichdom fits the bill nicely.