Mages of Mystralia (Mac, PC [reviewed], PS4, Xbox One)
Developer: Borealys Games
Publisher: Borealys Games
Released: May 18, 2017
Rig: AMD Phenom II X2 555 @ 3.2 GHz, with 4GB of RAM, ATI Radeon HD 5700, Windows 7 64-bit
The protagonist may be Zia, a young girl cast out of her village for demonstrating magical aptitude, but the star of the show is the spellcrafting system. Spells can have one of four elements, each with different properties and interactions with the environment. Fire spells can light torches, ice spells can slow enemies, electric spells can charge switches, and more of that type of stuff.
What makes the spell building unique is everything after that. In addition to the flavors, spells come in one of four delivery methods: a melee attack, a projectile, an area-of-effect, and a self-affecting mode. Each of these can be further modified with additional runes, which alter behavior and generally increase the mana cost to cast.
On its own, the projectile is conjured but just floats in place, waiting for a dumb enemy to walk into it. But by attaching the Move rune to it, you’ve got yourself a proper fireball to hurl at goblins. The self spell defaults to an elemental shield, but attaching the Homing rune to it sucks in nearby items and enemies.
It really starts to get interesting with spells that use more than just the basic behavior runes. If the behavior runes are verbs defining what action a particular spell takes, then the augment runes are adverbs, modifying those actions. With that fireball we built earlier, we can attach the Random rune to reduce its mana cost but make its path unpredictable. Or we can take that item vacuum and use the Inverse augment to design our very own Force Push, repelling enemies rather than attracting them.
But by far, the coolest part comes with the third type of rune, the triggers. These allow spells to combine with one another in a variety of ways. With our randomly moving fireball, we can make it so that when it impacts an enemy, it casts an area-of-effect spell where it hit. Or we can make it so when an enemy projectile hits our shield, it not only blocks the damage but automatically fires our own shot right back.
By the end of the game, with a suite of runes and no shortage of mana to spend, the spells can get pretty ridiculous, with chains including all four elements and all four delivery methods, all from a single cast. Some of the awesome stuff you can do is shown off by the final boss, who uses spell combinations I hadn’t even imagined.
Combat has a fluidity to it where it takes more than just spamming the melee to succeed. The self spell can be made into a dash ability, so a common loop is projectile to hit something far away, melee it when it closes distance, then dash away and repeat. The variety of enemies isn’t enormous, but different monsters do require different approaches. That said, the artificial intelligence isn’t spectacular and most fights can be beaten by keeping distance with the dash and slowly chipping away with other spells.
There is more to do with spells than just combat, and this is where Mages of Mystralia hits a high note. Puzzle rooms pepper the world, usually requiring a set of torches to be lit or a switch to be activated. These rooms almost always require a specially-constructed spell or two to achieve that one purpose before being discarded. Thankfully, the puzzles are up front about whether the player even has the right runes to solve them. (And it’s especially gratifying to find an alternate solution and complete a puzzle the game doesn’t expect you’re able to.)
Finding new runes to use is a highlight, but there can be a lot of backtracking toward that end. Gaining new abilities will unlock previously unreachable areas and allow completion of previously unsolvable puzzles. And those puzzles might hold new runes to start the cycle over again. The map is helpful in picking out which areas still need more exploration, but it could have stood to be more detailed or, even better, it would have been great to be able to write notes on the map to keep better track of when to revisit certain areas.
Narrative-wise, Mages of Mystralia doesn’t do anything outstanding. It’s a serviceable little story about a young hero, with enough foreshadowing to darken the skies before the big reveal. It tries to inject some drama in the way most games know how (spoiler: somebody dies), but so little time is actually spent getting to know the characters that it’s not emotionally affecting.
Toward the beginning the dialogue feels a little stilted and weird, as if it were written by a non-native English speaker, but not too long in it shapes up and isn’t noticeably strange.
Mystralia uses a soft cel-shading for its visuals that gives it a nice look in close shots, but doesn’t really pop from the top-down perspective during most of the gameplay. The artwork is nice but can also feel generic at times.
The heart and soul of Mages of Mystralia is its brilliant spellcrafting system. Imagining, creating, and testing new spells probably added a couple hours of playtime to my playthrough. And the additional runes hidden around the world were an extra incentive to go for completion. Just about everything great here traces back to the ability to create magic from the ground up.
Everything else is just fine. It’s a decent adventure with varied combat, cool boss battles, and semi-interesting locales. I’m going to keep at it until I’ve obtained everything there is to obtain, but even then I know I won’t have seen everything there is to see. Some of the neatest stuff possible isn’t scripted in by the designers, it’s waiting to be imagined and created by an aspiring magician.