Mage Knight Apocalypse Updated Q&A - Details on the Characters, Equipment, and Skill Tree

Senior producer David Georgeson fills us in on the characters, skill tree, and equipment that you'll play with in this upcoming action role-playing game.

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Stories in action role-playing games tend to just be a thin pretense to justify the fact that your character gets to run around a fantasy world, slaughtering evil monsters and collecting the loot they leave behind. Mage Knight Apocalypse, though, promises to be an action role-playing game with a fairly involved story. Of course, it helps that the game is based on a popular miniatures game with an established universe and mythology. In our latest Q&A, we caught up with senior producer David Georgeson, and he filled us in on the backgrounds of the five major characters in the game, discussed the equipment and skill system, and more. Mage Knight Apocalypse is scheduled to ship later this year.

You get a nice sense of scale in Mage Knight as you get to take down huge foes.
You get a nice sense of scale in Mage Knight as you get to take down huge foes.

GameSpot: Let's talk about the characters in the game: There are five pre-created characters you can play. Why did the team choose to include a dwarf, elf, vampire, Amazon, and the flying dragon-man sorcerer?

David Georgeson: Basically, we wanted to capture the spirit of as many of the varied races and governments in the Mage Knight universe. Most of them were attractive and we had to pick the ones we liked the best.

The dwarves were only recently freed from slavery to the Atlanteans. They are staunch members of the Black Powder Rebellion that is carving out a chunk of freedom in the northern part of the land. The character Janos Freeborn comes from this group.

The vampiric race created its own home, called the Necropolis. There, they have an entire civilization founded around necromancy and the furthering of the "lives" of the undead. Since the Necropolis had recently undergone a civil war, that left us with plausible reasons why one of the vampires might be freelancing outside their own normal concerns, which is Kithana's background.

The Draconum (the dragon-man you spoke of) are mystics and martial art experts, reveling in combat for combat's sake, but also maintaining an aesthetic discipline at all times. Mages are rare in the ranks of the Draconum, but Sarus is just that rarity, an elemental wizard of the Draconum.

Elves are quite simply one of the most popular races in fantasy, and we wanted to include them for players also. Luckily, the high elves of the land are political, powerful, and occasionally nasty if their interests conflict with yours. That makes them a lot of fun from a fiction perspective, and Tal Windstrider comes from that sort of background.

There are lots of human groups in the land, but when we were choosing which humans we wanted to use in the game, the animal spirit totem aspects of the Amazons, their generally cool visuals, and the potential to use their ziggurats and background for our adventures made the huntress Chela one of our easiest decisions.

Lastly, we use the Solonavi to pull all the fiction together. The Solonavi are a mysterious and powerful race that suddenly appeared in the land only a few hundred years ago. Since then, they have upset the balance of power considerably and generally act as puppeteers, making things happen for their own obscure reasons. The characters are all oath-sworn to the Solonavi for purposes unique to each of them, but the Solonavi have gathered them because they are troubled about the "Landshatter Prophecies." For more on the prophecies, you'll need to play the game.

GS: We understand that no matter which character you choose to play as, the other four characters will be available to join you in the game as party members. How different will the play experience be if players select different characters--will the story play out differently? Will players visit only certain areas and not others?

The dwarf Janos Freeborn specializes in gunpowder and mechanical weapons.
The dwarf Janos Freeborn specializes in gunpowder and mechanical weapons.

DS: Our story brings five diverse characters together into a fairly complex overall epic, taking them all over the land, accomplishing seemingly unrelated adventures before finally seeing it all resolve into the climax of the game where they act to save the entire land in a unique fashion.

This game fits within the action role-playing genre, but its story is much more involved than what you normally see in other games of this type. As such, there are tons of non-player characters with stories and interactions as you move through the game. In order to polish that story and make it as creative as we could, we opted to concentrate on just a single storyline. From a story point of view, there are minor, but not critical, variations depending on which character you take.

Your other party members talk to you a lot and there's lots of chatter as you move through the world. This is useful for the game (we can give you hints along the way as your sidekicks talk about their backgrounds), and it brings the individual characters to life since they have time to actually build a personality.

GS: We know that players can customize their characters' names and hairstyles, but what about equipment? Just how many different weapons and armor sets are in the game? Do players' equipped items change their appearance? How will equipment lead to strategy? That is, how will players be weighing the pros and cons of using different items--will they be carrying around a massive arsenal to make sure they have the right weapons and armor for each mission?

DS: Equipment is gained either as loot from monsters or purchased from one of the many vendors scattered throughout the land. It definitely changes the appearance of the character when it's equipped and the artwork is quite nice. There are literally thousands of different armor pieces and weapons in the game, but if you're asking how many unique-looking pieces, there are about 750 armor pieces and a couple of hundred weapons. Now that doesn't include all the magestone properties you can add to a weapon (some of which create additional unique visual aspects), and it doesn't include all the not-visible variations of a weapon (like quality variations and miscellaneous powers of the weapons).

Inventory is easily managed in this game. It doesn't require encumbrance and there's no Tetris qualities to the inventory management. You have a good number of slots to keep equipment in as you travel, and a huge storehouse in the various towns that you can utilize, as well. So you can head back to town if you think you don't have the right equipment and raid your vault for a swap, but most of the time, you should easily be able to carry what you need.

GS: We understand that each character has a skill tree with three different branches in it, which means that you can specialize in a single branch and unlock all the skills, or spread out and unlock a handful of skills in each branch. Could you give us an example of how this works specifically? Will you need to play each character three times in order to explore all the possibilities, or will there be any way to rearrange your character's skills?

DS: Here's the best news first: Your character is going to grow into a character that you want to play. How is that going to happen? When you first create your character, each character has a base set of skills. Everyone has a basic melee and ranged attack, as well as a small handful of specialty skills.

Sarus is a member of the Draconum, and a pretty good wizard, as well.
Sarus is a member of the Draconum, and a pretty good wizard, as well.

As you move through the world, you are naturally going to decide on a play style for that character that you like best, and the game will record what you do. It keeps note when you use a sword, when you cast a spell, how often you fire a bow, etc. The skills that unlock from your three skill trees will be based entirely on which skills you have decided to use. So the more you use melee skills, the more melee skills will unlock on that tree. If you use necromantic summoning spells a lot, you'll get more necromantic skills. Use a bow a lot? Yup, you get more archery skills.

This ensures that your character becomes unique due to your play style. No two players play exactly the same way during the course of a game, and thus, their characters diverge naturally over time. Also, the skills unlock naturally as you use skills from that area, but those individual skills only show up at rank 1. There are up to five ranks for each skill, but ranks are only acquired if you specifically use that skill. The higher the rank, the more powerful that skill becomes, and its special effects get more impressive also.

Bringing the Heat

DS cont'd: Again, this results in more uniqueness on characters. Let's say two players did manage to play similarly during the course of their game and somehow ended up with the same exact set of skills unlocked. They still would probably be unique from each other because they almost certainly did not use each individual skill the same number of times and thus, they have different rankings in their skills.

The skill tree is designed so that the more you do something, the better you are at doing it.
The skill tree is designed so that the more you do something, the better you are at doing it.

So, yes, there are three skill trees. But that isn't something that usually has to concern you. The only real advantages to focusing on a single skill tree (by using skills from that tree so that more skills from that tree become unlocked) are that some of the skills at the top of a skill tree are pretty cool and useful (although all skills are pretty useful at rank 5, even the skills low on the tree), and if you get all the skills from a tree, you unlock a special "epic" set of armor.

GS:: How are the characters being balanced for players with differing skill levels? Is one of the characters a definite choice for beginners and another best for advanced players...or is the idea to have all characters be equally accessible? Are there any specific groupings that are best optimized for multiplayer?

DS: Mage Knight is designed so that all the players are fun and different in their own ways. No single class is easier or harder than another, and all of them can solo well. Of course, we try to set things up so that most of the characters have the ability to help others in the party to generally keep players interested in the welfare of their fellow adventurers and to make the sidekicks more useful.

We're setting multiplayer up so that it can handle anything from the original plotline of one of each archetype in it, to also handling five of one archetype (five vampires, five dwarves, etc.), so that multiplayer is still fun and challenging.

The entire game uses a dynamic scaling mechanism. You can choose easy, medium, or hard difficulty settings, but the game dynamically scales all its encounters and loot to match your character's power rating within that difficulty parameter. (In multiplayer, there is a power-rating equation that balances the encounters against your existing party, changing on the fly as your party adds/drops members.) This not only changes the health and defenses of the various monsters, but can also affect their attacks and abilities.

This feature makes our cooperative multiplayer gaming a lot more interesting and fun, as well as adding replayability to the single-player story. It also lets you take your single-player character to a multiplayer game, gain a bunch of experience and items there, and then restart your single-player save game. That save game will adapt to your new overall power rating and scale the encounters accordingly so that your old save game is still fun.

GS: Tell us a bit about the game's magic system. How will it work? We understand that there will be a "mana" system (a blue meter) for magic-using classes--will this be universal to all characters and their abilities? Give us some examples of how magic spells affect gameplay--will we see lightning bolts that fry enemies, healing spells, teleportation spells that return characters back to town?

The game scales in difficulty depending on how powerful your group is.
The game scales in difficulty depending on how powerful your group is.

DS: Many of the character archetypes use different recharge mechanisms for their abilities. For instance, the dwarf uses black powder weapons, grenades, and other mechanical abilities. His "mana" bar starts at zero and goes up, indicating "heat" as he uses those weapons. If his heat bar ever gets maxed out, he can't use his abilities until the heat dissipates somewhat.

The elf uses a "faith" meter. His abilities are based on his own personal faith, and thus, his energy bar just goes down and doesn't replenish unless he either spends time praying or he takes a second to absolve the soul of one of the creatures he kills. Either way brings energy back to him that he can use for more magic.

The Amazon's "stance" bar is less of an energy meter than it is a visual timer that delays attacks somewhat and paces her ability to use a storm of skills. She has several animal totem stances she can choose from, and the use of such stances gives her more innate toughness and damage (bear stance), a better chance to do critical damage (eagle stance), or a better defense and some unusual attacks (jaguar stance).

The vampire and Draconum both use what you might consider a "standard" mana bar that diminishes through use of spells and replenishes over time, but the vampire's regeneration rate is fairly slow and she generally replenishes her mana either through using potions or by sucking the life force out of enemies. The Draconum has a more robust mana regeneration rate and can also use potions.

What kinds of spells? Well, as a teaser, the Draconum can eventually turn into a full-blown dragon (actually, each of his elemental magic skill trees has a different dragon that he can change into), the vampire can turn into a bat, and there are massive areas of effect skills and bombs, lots of buffs and debuffs, as well as just generally useful spells (like invisibility and seeing invisibility). Spells (and spell-like abilities) is what you want? We've got lots of them.

GS: Is there a specific focus that the team is trying to bring to designing the game's characters? Is the idea to give them cool abilities that players will want to develop, or to give them tons of personality that make them memorable? Are the characters being designed with certain player types in mind (lone wolves who tend to play alone, social players who prefer to take support roles, and so on)?

DS: Yes, we want to give the characters personality that players will remember, but this is an action role-playing game and we never forget that. There are elements of this genre that must be respected, and one of those is creating characters that have tons of flexibility in advancement, design, and appearance. We think we've delivered that in abundance and we've created memorable characters with personality.

Regarding play styles, we have a lot of experience on this team with multiplayer games and player preferences. The characters are designed to not only work in solo fashion, but also to dovetail nicely with other players during a multiplayer session.

Mage Knight Apocalypse is pretty, and it should be out later this year.
Mage Knight Apocalypse is pretty, and it should be out later this year.

GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about Mage Knight's characters, or about the game's development in general at this point?

DS: We're at the part of the project right now where everything starts to come together. As design, art, and code begin to be finalized, the tuning process really begins and the game comes to life. As we continue to hone the game, we get more and more excited about presenting it to the world. We think you'll find that Mage Knight Apocalypse isn't just the same old action role-playing clickfest. With the additions, refinements, and improvements we've made to the genre, we think you'll find that it's a whole lot more. Enjoy!

GS: Thanks, David.

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