When it comes to the magic and charm of newly minted old-school adventure games, few are able to successfully convey the same style and wonder that the classics of the genre once evoked. In the case of Mages of Mystralia, a modest but energetic adventure, it wears its influences on its sleeve, all while charting its own path in its uniquely whimsical, vibrant world. Of course, whether it manages to succeed in reaching the same heights as games that have stood the test of time is another matter entirely, and this new adventure might have needed some extra time training before starting its grand journey.
In the land of Mystralia, our central protagonist Zia discovers that she possesses the talents to become a mage, long believed to come only from the rarest of bloodlines. After accidentally using her powers and leaving her village in turmoil, she exiles herself and travels to a sanctuary for mages to learn the spellcrafting arts. She's tasked with preventing the war between a massive army of trolls and the Kingdom of Mystralia from tearing apart the land--and all who reside within it--but as she learns more of her destiny as a mage, Zia discovers that something far more sinister might be sowing the seeds of conflict for their own ends.
As expected in a high-fantasy adventure, you'll explore an interconnected land full of monsters and dungeons while collecting resources and new items for your quest to stop the oncoming threat. The plot in Mages of Mystralia is largely in the forefront. Written by Ed Greenwood, creator of Dungeons & Dragons’ Forgotten Realms campaign, the author's pedigree is evident in the world's tantalizing lore depicting the strife of living a mage’s life, and the persecution they face for their gifts. But while Mages of Mystralia keeps its worldbuilding steady, it isn’t able to keep up with the pacing of it all throughout, resulting in an ending that leaves far too much on the table and with little payoff.
With that said, the journey itself is definitely more satisfying than the destination. Befitting the game’s old-school charm, Mages has a colorful, whimsical atmosphere, and the presentation definitely shows a lot of care and creativity. As a mage, Zia is able to bend the elements to her whims, resulting in some exciting showmanship of her craft. When you start out, you'll have access to basic fireball, lightning, and wind spells. But over the course of your travels, you'll acquire special runes that act as modifiers for your basic spells. As you modify and alter various elemental properties, you'll end up creating spells such as a tri-lightning-bolt attack that leaves ice puddles in its wake, resulting in double damage from two different elements.
While many of the runes are clearly designed just for puzzle solving, you can actually take the spellcrafting surprisingly far. There’s an impressive amount of customization and versatility to your spell options, particularly in how you can alter trajectory, homing accuracy, and secondary buffs--which is a testament to just how deep the system is. Powering through several mobs of trolls with your own personal spell concoctions is incredibly satisfying, and it’s easily one of Mages of Mystralia's true strengths.
There's a sense that the game is constantly scratching the surface of something great--but ultimately leaves it unexplored in favor of the mundane.
Unfortunately, the complexities of spellcrafting also highlight the boilerplate nature of exploration and questing. Backtracking is a fairly large part of Mages of Mystralia--understandably, since new spells and runes can open fresh paths in past areas. But aside from dropping in stronger foes, the game doesn't do much to offer more challenges outside of the main quest. For the most part, dungeons and quests revolve around clearing out waves of monsters or solving puzzle rooms to progress, in between fetching items for townsfolk. That's not necessarily bad on its own--one amusing side quest involves helping a farmer find his pitchfork that his cousin “borrowed”--but it’s disappointing there aren't more opportunities to explore the landscape and learn more about the people that inhabit it.
There's a sense that the game is constantly scratching the surface of something great--but ultimately leaves it unexplored in favor of the mundane. Even story moments that should feel important simply fall flat on the follow-through and payoff. During one section, you'll meet a necromancer who forms an alliance with Zia during a fairly important moment in the story. Yet by the end, he's relegated to a one-off side quest and doesn't return in any way to the core plot, despite the other characters making a big deal about how necromancers can't be trusted. These rising expectations and subsequent letdowns happen more often than not, which is frustrating, considering how vibrant and interesting the designs and structure of the world are.
While you'll obviously go through the standard fire temples surrounded by molten lava and the requisite ice temples on steep mountain peaks, the colorful visual style has a quasi-storybook feel, which makes the broad color palette of the many forests and dungeons pop out and feel more defined. Most of the game is presented from a pulled-back isometric angle--that’s for the best, as many of the visuals look a bit rough up close, especially during some of the cutscenes. With that said, there’s this pleasing feeling that comes over you while exploring as the musical score ramps and sets every scene. The orchestral themes, emphasizing the sense of whimsy and wanderlust in Zia’s travels, are equally as charming and exciting as the visual style of the game.
Clocking in at a modest six hours after an average first playthrough, Mages of Mystralia still leaves much to be explored with the plethora of hidden chests, optional puzzles, and a special mage trial combat event to take part in. Though unfortunately it feels more so for the sake of clearing the way to a 100% completion rating, as opposed to needing these items for the quest. With that said, those first six hours of Mages of Mystralia stir up a lot of the same feelings as the old-school games that inspired it, offering a spirited and endearing romp with a charming mage and her impressively complex magical abilities.