Even if you're not familiar with the Mage Knight tabletop wargame, you could tell that Mage Knight: Destiny's Soldier is based on such a game. Its complex, strategic battles involve a variety of medieval fighters and creatures, and you'll take turns against a computer opponent rolling dice to see who hits whom in this simulation of a simulation of fantasy warfare. Yet while there's a deep and interesting strategy game at the heart of Mage Knight DS, a Game Boy Advance-grade presentation, a convoluted and often clunky interface, and a lack of gameplay options make the end result feel like it was rushed out the door.
WizKids' Mage Knight tabletop game is like a streamlined, relatively faster-paced version of the better-known Warhammer tabletop game by Games Workshop. The action takes place in a swords-and-sorcery setting simply known as the Land, which is populated by elves, trolls, griffins, and many other fantasy creatures. What distinguishes Mage Knight from a gameplay perspective is that it models how combatants' abilities degrade as they take injury as a battle wages on. In most games, of any type, either your characters are alive and capable of performing all kinds of different moves and abilities, or they're dead. But in Mage Knight, as a warrior takes damage, he'll typically start to slow down and weaken. However, the effects of damage vary by character, as some warriors may fly into a berserker rage when hurt or gain other special abilities. Also, warriors may be ordered to push themselves by taking more actions during their turns at the expense of health points. This, along with the game's dozens of different characters, certainly gives Mage Knight DS considerable depth--though, at times, it seems like a simulation of a bunch of out-of-shape combatants. And just getting a feel for the gameplay can be an unduly difficult process.
The game is mostly controlled using the touch screen, but the interface could have been a whole lot better. There's often a ton of information onscreen, as well as a lot of little hard-to-read icons, and it'll take a long while before you get comfortable with any of this. Despite how many statistics get thrown at you, the interface seems incomplete. When you're assembling an army before a battle, there seems to be no way to sort through your growing list of warriors or to dismiss warriors you no longer need or want (warriors don't permanently die if they're defeated in battle). Basic actions, like creating your formation before a battle and attacking foes, require too much work, tapping tiny icons on the screen and awkwardly dragging and dropping characters around the map. The interface does include a built-in help system that's essential to understanding what some of the onscreen icons mean, but this doesn't address some of the fundamental issues about how sluggishly the game often plays out, relative to many other turn-based games.
What's more, Mage Knight DS is missing a lot of the gameplay options you'd reasonably expect from a game like this. There's a branching, story-driven single-player campaign that spans a long sequence of battles that soon grow very difficult. The back of the box claims there are more than 70 maps in all, though there's often little in the way of variety from one to the next. As for the story, it's mostly delivered in the form of long-winded text and static character portraits. And that's about all you get. There's no multiplayer component, in spite of the head-to-head competitive nature of the gameplay. Even a simple pass-and-play two-player option probably would have helped. You also can't create your own battles against the computer or replay battles you've previously fought and won, so all you have are the campaign missions. You can replay the campaign and choose from a number of different main characters, but the campaign itself will still be the same.
The campaign also substantially ramps up in difficulty, going from easy to hard rather suddenly. It's not that you'll be faced with brilliant battlefield tactics, because the enemy artificial intelligence is nothing special and can be lured into some basic traps. However, you'll often be forced to contend with superior enemy odds, which means you have to make every move that much more carefully. Some missions also force you to run a gauntlet by achieving victories several times in a row with the same set of warriors, without the benefit of being able to recover their strength in between. If you fail such a mission, you have to start the sequence all over.
There's no excuse for some of this game's omissions and other problems, and its presentation quality isn't impressive at all, either. The environments look bland, the sound effects are minimal, and there's not much music. However, there's some personality to the various types of warriors in the game, and some of these 2D animated units, while technically crude, look pretty good. Likewise, the simple sound effects for rolling dice and hitting foes are oddly satisfying.
The game itself can indeed be engaging and challenging if you're willing to spend a couple of hours getting your bearings and can look past some serious problems. Since there's a well-thought-out game design underneath the interface, it's certainly possible to get into Mage Knight DS and spend some good, quality time thinking about the best army to bring into each battle and balancing the various trade-offs and risks of doing battle. But unless you're patient, forgiving, and looking for a complicated strategy game, you'd best stay away from this one.