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Written by  :  Nowhere Girl (4370)
Written on  :  Feb 21, 2019
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3.71 Stars3.71 Stars3.71 Stars3.71 Stars3.71 Stars

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Summary

An RPG-adventure more on the adventure side

The Good

The game has some of the most beautiful graphics ever. At least, being a long-time lover of hand-painted pixel graphics and believing that the turn towards 3D in the later half of 1990s was a mistake, I personally find a lot of the visual style which is just perfect for me in this game. There are some inconsistencies and I will say more about it in "The Bad", however the best sceneries are amazing: halls inside the Mages' Tower, the way to the lake (with a probably very recognisable place, since it was one of the screenshots released long before the game was ready), some places in the class-based subquests (perhaps apart from the Air Mage subquest, which I found visually the least appealing), the goblin villages... I mentioned "inconsistencies" and one of them is mixing slightly different styles. There are three areas which are based on variants of a single screen design, have a few places of interest and a lot of screens where random combat is possible: Bloodbark Forest, the palace and the Wastelands. And even this forest - even though the screens are, compared with "ordinary" places, quite empty, with much smaller details - looks beautiful and atmospheric. These screens are peppered with these little details, such as trees in one screen, a mushroom ring in another, platforms for goblin archers yet elsewhere... The Wastelands and the palace are, comparatively, more boring, but still include some nice sceneries.
As I said in the title, this game is more on the "adventure" side compared to other RPG-adventures. I never liked typical RPGs, remember that I hesitated when I first discovered "Quest for Glory", tempted by its beautiful graphics, but unsure whether I'd enjoy the game... and discovered that an RPG-adventure mix is great after all. When "Mage's Initiation" was getting closer to release and it was announced as a game with "no stat grinding", I wondered how it will be possible to implement. And indeed it is possible, due to the simplified system of skills and statistics. Indeed skill-grinding was a pain in other RPG-adventures - I recall trying to get the seed of the Spore-Spitting Spirea in "Quest for Glory 1" or the frost flower in "Heroine's Quest" - for a Sorceress, it requires two spells and it's almost funny how I'm standing there, casting and re-casting the Arctic Wind spell to make it uproot one flower... Indeed, this rather irritating aspect is mostly absent in "Mage's Initiation". It's because the statistics only affect the maximum of your health and mana points, your combat prowess and your preparedness to use some gems (they are inserted into slots in the Conductor, a tool which enables using magic as a weapon, and act as power-ups - however, some of them require meeting some conditions, for example having at least 3 points of intelligence or strength) - but not your ability to perform required puzzles. Which also means that they are understood in a slightly different way - for example, "intelligence" means the ability to use magic in combat in an intelligent way and could be just as well termed "targeting accuracy" - because that's what it really does. In a way, the lack of skill-grinding makes this game relatively inflexible - in other RPG-adventures you could see some of your skills increasing after a combat encounter, a conversation, or just when sneaking through the woods to improve your skill... In "Mage's Initiation" skill advancement is more predetermined - game score and experience points are the same and you advance one level after you gather a certain number of points. A very nice thing is that you are told beforehand at what score will you advance to a new level. A strange thing is that this number is high at first and gets lower later - you advance to "level 2" at 100 points, to "level 3" at 180 points, and afterwards you need 45 points each time. Completely the reverse of, for example, experience level system in the Playrix Entertainment puzzle-simulation games...
A result of this is relatively weak integration of combat sequences with the rest of the game. Unlike in other RPG-adventures, combat has almost no influence on your skills - you get experience points only for non-random "boss battles" and for the first time you kill a certain kind of opponent in a random encounter (for example, for the first goblin, first burrower you beat etc.). However, despite this aspect - "Mage's Initiation" happens to have the best combat sequences in all RPG-adventures from the purely graphical point of view. The designers have really made efforts to make the combat bar look impressive. It has relatively large icons for all combat spells you have already learned, health and mana potion bottles in the middle and even a decorative border. At first I suspected that combat spells will be relatively similar for all classes in order not to disadvantage any of them, but it's only true for the first spell, which is a simple projectile for all classes. And actually, there are some disadvantages - for example, the Earth Mage lacks a universal defensive spell until later in the game. Still, the differences between the classes are interesting to explore. The combat system in "Mage's Initiation" is not necessarily the best overall - I would rather give this title to the one in the VGA remake of "Quest for Glory 2" (which was, by the way, largely made by the same people - Himalaya Studios are the commercial incarnation of AGD Interactive) because the developers have been able to make it wonderfully flexible compared to the much simpler original. However, there is an aspect of the mechanics of combat sequences I greatly admire and support: the simplicity of pausing. A very useful thing, imagine a phone call when you are in the middle of a game combat sequence and can't pause... In "Mage's Initiation" a combat sequence pauses automatically when the cursor is moved to the combat bar area. The words "Combat Paused" obscure a little background, but at least even the font is quite decorative. ;)
A nice and helpful aspect is quick regeneration - at least compared to some other games. Well, health doesn't regenerate on its own, it regenerates a lot if D'arc drinks a health potion and a little if he eats something - however, mana regenerates constantly. And it regenerates fast enough that it seems impossible to completely run out of mana in combat. Even if you use up all of it - just a moment later you will have enough to cast at least the most basic spell and it continues until the end of the sequence. More advanced spells require being more rested before combat or using a mana potion, but you can keep casting the first spell all the time.
At first I had the impression that the game kicks into gear very slowly. I was close to completing the first quest and disappointed that it doesn't seem very long, the game is visually beautiful, but still feels somehow boring... But the story indeed develops later. Successfully finishing the third quest is not yet the end of the game because of the slowly building hints of a political tension. D'arc first learns of it when he hears about missing envoys to the Flyterians, then he visits their area and discovers that one of them has been assaulted, apparently by humans, that thefts have occurred in the village... It seems like someone is trying to break the alliance between the two races and for D'arc the story gets even more complicated when he realises that evidence points towards a Mage being behind these events. It makes the protagonists slowly begin to appear less one-dimensional. I don't want to spoil the plot for people who would like to play it but haven't done it yet, but wait for a choice-based confrontation between D'arc and Fend. Our mage is still almost a child, seems to have received a fair bit of brainwashing during his magical training, but he rises above his age when he says that lashing anger against other people will not undo the pain a person has already suffered.

The Bad

I mentioned "inconsistencies" when writing about graphics... and the cutscenes in the middle of the game are just rubbish. An ugly kind of cartoon, completely inconsistent with the rest... It's strange also because there are two other cutscenes: the intro and the ending. They are done in a yet another style, somewhat strange, but curious: the people and objects shown are motionless, but they shift against the background and it creates a pseudo-three-dimensional effect of a virtual camera moving in front of them. The cutscenes in the middle (broadly speaking, because they happen at different moments - from the ending of the first quest to relatively late in the third quest) - and there are four of them - are completely unlike them and simply ugly. I have nothing against games combining different styles in one game, but these cartoons are so ugly, even have completely different fonts... they look as if they were taken from a completely different game.
In most cases differences between the classes are really small. Well, the biggest difference is that each class gets a sidequest early during the second task, there are also interesting differences in some dialogues with other mages - of course, depending on which class is chosen, a different mage will be D'arc's direct mentor. But in most cases where the solution to a puzzle differs between the classes, the difference is really superficial. The developers have admitted that it's more difficult to create satisfyingly differing solutions for classes which are all mages with different "specialisations" - compared to more obvious differences for the fighter/wizard/thief standard. They are thinking about advancing it by having different classes specialise in some are which would "mimic" the more traditional RPG classes, but we'll have to wait and see how and if it turns out.
The class isn't chosen immediately at the beginning. Some alterations to this traditional design have already been attempted - for example, in "Quest for Infamy" Roehm arrives at Volksville as an anti-hero who can fight, but is not particularly skilled in any specific area and has to find a mentor so that he can learn a "profession" such as thievery or magic. In "Mage's Initiation" the class is determined through a test given to D'arc by the Masters - however, this test could have been designed better. Your answers are meant to show your affinity with an element, but still you can always... simply disagree with the verdict and make the choice yourself. Not necessarily a bad thing because it simplifies replaying the game. But as for the test itself... I wish it didn't have answers which would feel obviously (morally) "right" or "wrong". I dislike giving answers which would condone mocking people in need - even if it's done "just for fun", in a game. And the questions and answers are very much in style of the ones in another game by Himalaya Studios' non-commercial incarnation, AGD Interactive - the remake of "King's Quest 3", more precisely - the scene in Medusa's cave (where more is at stake because they test Alexander's character and let him show that some men are good and righteous). Questions I would enjoy much more would be ones which have nothing to do with "doing right or wrong things", but would instead ask about more mundane stuff and determine affinity with an element through the way they reflect the respondent's associations.
The game is, as already mentioned, a little more on the adventure side in comparison to other RPG-adventures. And at some points it creates the impression that something's missing. Completely in contrast to other games of this combined genre, the plot takes place in one day. So there's no aspect of rest or sleep, even eating isn't necessary - it just replenishes health a bit. (However, it is realistic - while fasting for one day can be uncomfortable - one would definitely feel hungry - it is also harmless, at least for reasonably healthy people.)
While I enjoyed the appearance of combat sequences - it's a pity that their full visual potential - that is, all spells - are only available quite late in the game. At that point it's not possible to revisit the palace (after you have completed the first task and left the lake shore, your raft will be gone), night is falling so other areas where you can find some foes to beat are also getting dark, less detailed and less interesting...
And also I have a more general complaint: I feel that the game's mood is too serious. It's a little annoying to see D'arc embrace the Mages' "ideology" in a completely undisputed way, for example when he rebukes the merchant Si Long for daring to say that the Mages could fade one day. I have noticed no Easter eggs, at least in the narrower meaning of inter-game references - compare this to their abundance in "Heroine's Quest", where Uhura, Cedric or Arne Saknoosen make cameo appearances or "Quest for Infamy", which directly borrows an epitaph from "Quest for Glory 1": "Here lies an atheist - all dressed up and nowhere to go". The final part of the game does call for a serious mood and a feeling of urgency, but the game could feel more varied and more interesting if further spiced up by references to classic games, particularly its direct predecessors in the RPG-adventure genre.

The Bottom Line

"Mage's Initiation" is a beautiful game, particularly for players who prefer a more retro, hand-painted, fairy-tale style, and also an interesting game, though not without its flaws. The whole idea certainly has potential for further development. At the end, after all tasks are finished and before entering the non-interactive ending sequence, it's possible to save character statistics for use in a potential sequel. As I said, let's see how it works out... "Mage's Initiation" was in development for a long time, longer that initially planned, and the developers decided that they just can't wait almost 10 years to finish a game. Which means that sequels will be created if Himalaya Studios manage to find a publisher or sponsor who could give them more financial security and thus let them work full-time on a game and finish it in a much shorter time. It would be really welcome because the game does have its loose ends... for example, while it's not a major part of the plot, this time it is clearly hinted that the game takes place in the future, after the Elements have destroyed our technology and society reverted to a medieval-like state. After D'arc is initiated, he could travel to other places and perhaps - the developers have also expressed interest in including such a motif - finding remains of the "Old World", as our historical period is called in the game. Let's hope that it happens and that by the time he manages to grow in terms of personality - at one point he says simplistically that "[If something was left behind], it would be our duty to destroy it" - but it's not so simple if they don't even know how some devices are made and what they are for. So the game hides a potential for a deeper cultural conflict and let's hope that it actually manages to fulfill its potential.