Mages of Mystralia Review
Oh, ho, ho, IT'S MAGIC! You know!!!
I’ve always found it odd how bigger publishers and game developers don’t try to one up Nintendo’s classic Legend of Zelda series. We’ve definitely seen other franchises take inspiration from various facets of Nintendo’s collection of games, but I can only really think of Darksiders or Okami when looking triple-A titles that have copied Zelda’s formula.
In the indie space, though, you can find these games all over the place. Since I’m a huge Zelda fan, I can almost immediately tell when a game is following in the wake of Link to the Past and Mages of Mystralia is certainly one of those titles. For better or worse, the focus on dungeons, puzzles and basic combat creates a specific rhythm for Mystralia that is fun, but never feels particularly original.
The game opens with an extremely brief cutscene of your main character, a young girl named Zia, walking away from a burning village. Unbeknownst to herself, Zia was born a mage and has the power to harness and control magic. Through untold circumstances, she ended up burning a small portion of her village and had become banished.
She then stumbles into a man simply called “Mentor.” This man then lays out the history of the mages in the land of Mystralia and tells Zia to follow him to the mage haven. Here, the game gives you a quick tutorial to get acquainted with the controls before you travel over to the mage haven for a small exposition dump.
While the narrative is layered with some lore about the history of this land and how a great “evil” tried to dip into forbidden magic, the story is easily the weakest link in Mages of Mystralia. It serves its purpose and gets you traveling around to different areas, but I’m having a hard time even recounting what truly happened and I just finished the game. It’s mostly a means to an end and that is okay.
That kind of philosophy also follows into the general layout of the game world. While there isn’t any wasted space in terms of geometry, nothing about the overworld you’ll explore really necessitates its segmented design. The opening area, the Mystral Wood, doesn’t feel particularly natural as it mostly works like a corridor to three different areas. Once you reach the end of a specific pathway, the game will load in the next area and that tends to break up the flow of things.
When you make it to a main village, there also isn’t much point in the various houses or NPCs that inhabit this world. There are a total of two different vendors that I found and since money is so prevalent, you can usually blindly buy what you want without even consulting your currency. I actually maxed out the counter a couple of times, so I could have been less frugal with my earnings.
No, all of the expected trappings of an action RPG are not where Mages of Mystralia shines. The biggest spin on typical combat comes in the form of the spellcrafting system. Since you’re a mage, you rightfully utilize various forms of magic to conjure attacks against your foes. These attacks take the form of four basic spells that can then be further augmented with different commands and elements.
For instance, the first thing you learn in the game is a basic melee attack from your wand. Once you acquire the first rune, you can then augment that attack to cast away from you. These runes take the form of basic commands, like Move, Left, Right, Repeat, Inverse, etc. Coupling these with your different spells, you can eventually create an attack that will move in a straight line, bounce off of a wall, curve to the right and then explode on impact with an enemy.
Some of the puzzles in the various dungeons also start to implement these various runes in their challenges, which make for some clever puzzle designs. You’ll need to start thinking about the various elements at your disposal and how something like ice can reflect light or how a ricocheting fireball can light a torch out of your reach. Even with the rest of the game being paint by numbers, the combat is truly inventive and unique.
The enemy AI, though, really isn’t. These are foes that often run straight at you and don’t even attempt any form of self-preservation. It’s nice that there are different types of enemies (melee, magic, ranged), but with how dumb they all act, the plethora of augmentations at your disposal doesn’t really need to exist. It undermines how expansive and expressive the spellcrafting system is when a simple smack will subdue everyone.
The boss battles also don’t really take into account any of your different spells, so you can often stick with one move and just plug away at their health bars until they fall. It is purely functional stuff, if a bit accentuated by some really well done music. The soundtrack is actually really quite commendable, utilizing some soft acoustic guitars to create a moving score.
Oddly, that sound design doesn’t follow into the rest of the production. There is no voice acting, which is fine, but the beginning and ending cutscene are narrated by someone, so it creates a weird discrepancy between the story and the actual game. I almost get the impression that the budget was mostly spent on crafting the combat system instead of trying to concoct better scenarios to utilize that system in.
Even with all of these faults, Mages of Mystralia still ends up being an enjoyable game. I always find it hard to knock the Zelda formula, because I love this style of gameplay. Going out on a journey that takes you to various themed locations is still a sight to behold and the addition of some side content that provides tangible benefits to your main character is a plus. At certain spots, you’ll be able to solve quick puzzles reminiscent of The Witness to unlock a special orb that will upgrade your health or magic meters, which feels better than just having a litany of dots on a map that do nothing.
There are also optional runes you can unlock, which will help further specialize your spells in combat. There are even a couple of NPCs that have fetch quests, though with the world design being so straight forward, it mostly feels like busy work. The game never outstays its welcome, at least. You’re looking at around seven hours for a first playthrough of the title, which then unlocks a harder difficulty that almost demands you get smarter with your spellcrafting to succeed.
So even if I’m not big on Mages of Mystralia, it certainly is worth a look. I’m sure if someone were to get more invested in the spellcrafting or even take a liking to the plotline, this game would feel perfect for them. As for me, I’ve played better riffs on Zelda that do more unique things with the formula than this game offers. At least it isn’t ridiculously expensive.