Have you ever played a game where you hit a mechanic that’s kind of a side part, but you find yourself thinking that “wow, if this game had just focused a little more on this, we’d be having a totally different conversation about how good this game is?”.
Like last year I reviewed a game called The Low Road that starts out with a conversation where you’re navigating a dialog tree with someone, while also going through a file on them, so you can learn about them and essentially socially engineer your way into getting what you need from them. What a way to start that game! I was immediately hooked at the idea of how it was going to evolve this idea – it was like a conversation puzzle! Even for other dialog-heavy games, I’d never really seen anything that worked that way. But then it turned into a pretty slow, by-the-numbers adventure game, and I just found myself pining for a game that focused more on that mechanic and less on the running around and combining items with items.
And that’s how I feel about Mages of Mystralia, a game I feel like has some good ideas in place, but focuses a little too hard on combat aspects instead of the far more interesting puzzle segments to really take off. Mages is a magic-focused action adventure game, with the main thrust being that you find runes you can combine together to create and modify spells. You’re given four simple spells to start with, and then you find other runes to layer on top.
For example, you start out with a spell that puts a little fireball in front of you. That’s nice. It lights torches. But then you can attach a rune that makes it move, make it split into three fireballs, rise into the air and drop down, explode, or even set off another spell on impact. You can stack these all together, too, and sure it takes up a giant bunch of mana, but you can do it all if you’re feeling saucy!
This COULD turn into interesting combat mechanics, such as with the enemies that turn to stone when you look at them, so you have to hurt them by hitting them with a spell when you’re NOT looking at them. Solution? Spell on the fireball that makes it shoot backwards!
….or you could just shoot a fireball and then turn around so it turns back to vulnerable when it hits them.
Which sort of shows the problem is that almost every enemy I fought could be defeated by either a fireball, or a slightly different fireball. Even boss enemies. A couple of them had some puzzle elements to figure out, but even once you did that, it was just back to fireballs.
No, what really shone here were the puzzle rooms, which the game would just dump you in and you had some kind of goal to solve, and you have to figure out how to use the magic you have and the runes attached to them to make your spell behave in just the right way. Every time I found one of these rooms or puzzles or challenges, I was just extremely excited. Those were the most fun, unique parts of the game by far. Like, if you remember Magicka, and how fun it was just messing around with the spells? It’s similar to that feeling but with a little more focus involved to make it feel rewarding.
But then when that’s done, you just go back to exploring a sort of empty world and a lot of combat that’s just attacking mindlessly until everything’s dead. It’s not that I found the combat overwhelmingly tedious, but more that it’s just not really a huge draw. Serviceable! is probably the word I would call it.
But like I said above, you know how some games, as you’re playing them, you’re just thinking if it was just foregrounded one aspect of it a little more, we’d be having a different conversation about it? That’s totally what’s going on here. If Mages of Mystralia had focused so much more on those puzzles, I would have really, really loved it. Imagine how cool it would have been to just go through rooms of figuring out the rune combinations to make it all work together! Or at the very least, if there was more to combat so that you could find real reasons to explore the magic, but since there really isn’t, it did leave me pining for that aspect I much more preferred.
There’s also a story. I dunno. Maybe it’s just me but I didn’t really care much for it. They got Ed Greenwood, the guy who created the Forgotten Realms, to do the story for the game, but as soon as I walked into the first spot that dumped it, I just sighed. “Ah, this is lore,” I thought. “I don’t got time for this.” It was just too much, too fantasy for the moment. It’s really just that I wasn’t quite in the mood for it, and the story did push me along but if there were tie-in books for this, I really wouldn’t be camping at the bit to check them out. A lot of the lore is dumped by looking at detritus in the world, and once I figured that out, I just stopped checking those. It just didn’t really do much for me.
But I’ve really easily played over 15 hours of this game, and that’s worth something! The combat is fine enough, but the puzzles are the things I thought were the best parts of the game and the ones that really stand out as something I’d like to go back to. They were fun and engaging and by far the best part and if there was more focus on them, I’d be singing praises. But uninteresting lore and shrug-worthy combat separated those bits, and just left me longing for a version of this game I could enjoy more.