It’ll put it a spell on you, even if for a brief time.
Over the past few years, indie games have taken a lot of inspiration from the golden age of gaming – pixel art, higher skill levels, color – but one that doesn’t often get aped is whimsy. That is a pretty abstract concept, but what I mean about whimsy is a certain sense of lightheartedness, or even a sense of innocence. Sure, Nintendo still remains a standard bearer of such a thing, but they’re pretty much the only ones; and fans don’t always reward that focus. However, we now have Mages of Mystralia, a game that’s all about whimsy.
One part Zelda and one part Magicka, Mystralia sets players up a Zia, a fledgling mage in a world that now fears magic users, sent to help stop potential calamity. To do so, she is equipped with a spellbook that enables her to take her spells and modify them for different effects and applications. Spells are used in every aspect of the game, both for combat and puzzle solving. If you haven’t gotten all the pieces to make a spell work exactly the way you want, you’re unable to proceed. Those pieces are in the form of runes that modify the details of Zia’s various powers. On occasion Zia will encounter larger scale bosses, but they feel more like puzzles than battles of combat skill. Combat is a bit more simplified when it comes to implementation, but it works decently enough so long as you remember to swap your battle spells back in.
Mages of Mystralia is played in a top down format, but the spell swapping and need to aim in a 360 degree circle makes the game recommend a gamepad, and I took the suggestion to heart. I didn’t have too much of an issue with the controls at all in this state and had no need to do any sort of remapping (I use an Xbox One controller for these situations.) There’s really no camera movement under this design, so on occasion enemies will be able to do damage off screen with little recourse for Zia. The application of spells helps mitigate this for the most part, but it does require again more switching. That spell switching was set to triggers and easy enough, but it can be just as easy to forget after solving a puzzle.
On a mechanical level, that’s pretty much all there is to say, but that’s where whimsy comes in to carry the ship. The story isn’t overly complicated or revolutionary but it is tight and doesn’t drag courtesy of Ed Greenwood; best known for his major contributions to Dungeons & Dragons lore. You’ll likely not be shocked by anything, but it gets the job done admirably. Combined with a orchestrated score composed by Shota Nakama and some incredible levels of color and polish and Mystralia feels like it would fit right in and then stand out from the pantheon of other all-ages games present or past. I’m not exaggerating about that polish. Where larger scale games would have such things as hair occasionally clip through character bodies or other assets, here everything has a certain level of meticulousness not afforded to a larger scale game. I would have no qualms firing up this title, handing it off to a younger family member, and knowing they would be impressed all around.
There’s a level of charm not unlike the bright enjoyment you’d see in a Pixar production. Characters are animated and have exaggerated features, but nothing unrecognizable or out of place of what you might see in modern animation. What’s best is neither the monster enemies, nor the human characters, feel like they are at a clash with the environment. That unified design language is what makes games like this a sugar rush for the eyes-in a good way. Boss creatures are the same way. You may not be too shocked at the direction the bosses go in, but the designs for them make sense within the aesthetic.
Not everything is quite magical, though. Mystralia is smaller in scale, but does cover a decent amount of ground and has some fairly divergent paths. What it doesn’t have is a proper map. I imagine the point was for this to be simplistic, but it is way too much the other extreme. You’ll get a vague sense of a general direction to go by looking at it, but actually navigating the larger world is better done by seeing what barriers you’re able to get past with your spells. Smaller puzzles encountered along the way feel similar as well. You won’t need spellcraft to get through these, they are meant to be more logic puzzles. However, in that quest for simplicity, I felt more like I was stumbling my way through them than making progress towards the solution. Eventually they stop being worth worrying about for the most part.
As a whole, the game falls more on the short side, the average completion time is anticipated to be about 10 hours. That’s not too bad, but it does feel a little skimmed down, especially given the pedigree of the writing. Even more strange is that the mechanics don’t always keep pace with what the story wants to do. Zia is quickly handed what she’ll need to get the first boss, and those spells turn out to be the ones you’ll rely on and should be able to get through most the game with, in spite of the spell modifications. That isn’t helped by a sudden slowdown after the first hour in the pacing that keeps players from gaining any new abilities, even as the story starts to pick up. Then, within only a couple more hours, Zia is sent to the northernmost part of the world and forced to pick up multiple upgrades and abilities in a short time. All of this really puts a wedge between the story and the gameplay that never really gets reconciled.
In between everything is the paste that holds the game together – the spells I keep mentioning. You can rely on just the base four spells to get through most of the game, but the progression of puzzles will stop you from only using them. Here is where the premise really shines as the player will need to find a particular combination of effects to complete; such as adding a curvature to a fireball shot that causes it to go in an arc to light a torch or a directional effect to changing a freezing spell into a bridge builder. It is a pretty clever way to make difficult puzzles without feeling unfair and it really does feel like training in magic mastery. Most of these quirky spells won’t do much after their initial uses, but they are still fun to create. These moments are when Mages of Mystralia reach that peak whimsy, things are allowed to slow down as you figure out how to proceed with pitch perfect music accompaniment.
There is a lot to like about Mages of Mystralia: great music, clever gameplay choices, a beautiful level of design and detail, and a serviceable story. You won’t miss out on any of that even if they are a little mired in less than stellar pacing choices. It might be a bit short, but for this time of the year it may find a nice snug place in your heart in between the next indie darling and big budget wallet drainer. Moreso, it very well can hold the attention and wonder of a younger audience, and not nearly enough games are able to do the all ages balancing act well. That’s a pretty good magic trick to me.
Developer: Borealys Games
Publisher: Borealys Games
Platform: PS4, Xbox One, PC (Reviewed)
Released: May 18th, 2017
Copy provided by publisher