Over a year into its commercial debut, the Oculus Rift is not exactly swimming in a sea of substantial, well-made RPGs. While the VR headset -- heck, the whole VR world -- is still waiting for that elusive, system-selling game that makes VR a must-buy, The Mage's Tale is a pretty good argument for the unique sense of immersion that virtual reality can create. It's unfortunate that the game insists on some mechanics that remind us that while the genre is evolving, it isn't quite ready to stand on its own just yet.
The Mage's Tale is set in the world of the beloved Bard's Tale games and aspires to the same tone of snarky humor, as your apprentice mage character explores a series of dungeons in an attempt to rescue a beloved master wizard, Alguin. Over the course of ten dungeons and a dozen or so hours of gameplay, the verbally abusive magical ally character trope begins to grate a bit and always seems a bit at odds with the relatively serious tone of the enemy encounters.
What is initially striking about The Mage's Tale remains so throughout, which is the game's impressive, colorful, and detail-rich environments, lighting and overall atmosphere. Whether casting fireballs with hands swirling in flames, exploring dark and dank dungeons, watching cutscenes, or solving the game's many environmental puzzles, The Mage's Tale is a pretty strong argument for the unique ability of VR to create a strong sense of immersion. Unlike so many VR games, the room scale combat in The Mage's Tale feels very fluid and although aiming can be a bit frustrating and imprecise, switching between spells and shields is painless, fast and intuitive. Enemy AI is better than in many non-VR games and there are some legitimately challenging bosses. The game's many puzzles start simply enough before growing ever more complex and their solutions usually feel wedded well to the unique opportunities VR suggests.
It's clear early on, though, that the developers have taken the "Everything must be in VR" mantra a little too far, resulting in nearly every action -- from drinking potions to crafting spells in the workshop to simply manipulating a crystal ball -- being a labor and time intensive process, exacerbated by lengthy and dull title-card loading screens. Dipping your hands in the smoking cauldron is cool the first time, but it's never skippable and the game necessitates frequent and pacing-destroying trips to the workshop. What The Mage's Tale hasn't quite managed is the balance between VR and non-VR game play.
Still, in a world full of VR demos and proof-of-concept "games" that are barely that, The Mage's Tale feels and plays like a real, fully-realized product that is actually worth the $40 price tag. It has a genuine story arc, excellent combat, and visuals and game play that would be far less effective in another medium. The game makes excellent -- if perhaps over-zealous -- use of the Touch controllers and although The Mage's Tale reminds us that the VR genre is still learning to find its way, this game is certainly a milestone product for the Rift.