Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements review
Adventure Gamers Awards
A commonly overused cliché in the world of entertainment is that something has been “a long time coming.” In the case of Himalaya Studios’ Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements though, such a description is entirely warranted, because this is a game more than a full decade in the making—an adventure/RPG hybrid in the spirit of Quest for Glory that has been in development longer than the entire nine-year lifespan of all five QFG releases combined. Fortunately, five years after its successful Kickstarter, 2019’s first great delight is the release of this nearly forgotten title. It’s a beautiful, substantial, and incredibly polished game that serves as an important reminder: no matter how many years it takes, some things are definitely worth the wait.
Mage’s Initiation is the story of D’Arc, a 16-year-old lad who, having been found to possess the gift of magic (essentially a position of deity in this world, where those without magic are the poor Giftless) at the young age of six, has spent the majority of his life growing up in the Mage’s Tower of Iginor, one of many such towers in the land of Ele’wold, where technology and invention are considered evils. The story begins as D’Arc has finally reached the age to attain his full initiation as a mage. The game’s first hour is a prologue in which D’Arc approaches the four Mage Masters in the Hallowed Hall, and through answering a series of situational questions becomes aligned with one of the four elements (Fire, Earth, Water or Air). These elements determine the array of spells you’ll learn throughout the game as well as some of your passive abilities. For what it’s worth, though I thought I was varying my answers from the earlier preview demo, I still found myself playing as a knowledge-seeking Earth mage—clearly there is no denying my roots.
Once your elemental affinity is established, D’Arc’s initiation requires him to undergo a test quite familiar to adventure fans: the three trials, magical items to be gathered from a castle across a lake, the high mountains of the isolated Flyterian civilization, and deep within the Goblin-infested Bloodbark forest. The trials must be performed in that specific order, and they neatly split the game into three acts. Each act begins with new spells to integrate and an opportunity to train in the Fire Hall before doing some necessary reading in the Earth Hall library and visiting the Air Hall to observe the realm of Iginor. The gameplay has been constructed very intuitively, making it consistently clear what your current task is and sprinkling light clues throughout both conversation and world interaction to make sure you never get off track.
The game controls like a Sierra-style adventure, but one that is very sensitive to the player’s experience. You can play it in the traditional top bar format, with large icons that helpfully include a small white dot to help you know exactly what you’re interacting with (a feature Sierra did not adapt until 1993). But if you prefer, you can opt to change the interface to a right-click compact verb display or a more traditional verb coin. You can also move the hotspot label bar to either the top or bottom of the screen, and even turn off footstep sounds, though I’m unsure why you’d want to decrease the realism. This custom user-friendliness is another area where the game’s lengthy gestation paid off. The one less-than-friendly design element is D’Arc’s movement—the walking pace is very slow, eliciting a longing for the old-school speed slider. Double-clicking allows for running, but that’s even more problematic, as the awkwardly flailing animation is the only thing in the entire game that looks visually subpar—and despite the violent leg movements, D’Arc still doesn’t get across the screen fast enough.
Mage’s Initiation is truly adventure-like in its heavy emphasis on character conversation. There are many non-player characters to interact with, and nearly everyone gets extremely substantial dialogue trees—lots of them have over 20 different topics to cover, and that’s only during your first conversation with them. This may seem overwhelming, but the dialogue is efficiently written in true Golden Age fashion, without a lot of unnecessary back and forth, just snappy doses of necessary background information and onto the next topic. In each of the two succeeding acts, every character in the Mage’s Tower unlocks a whole new series of topics about the trial at hand, and sometimes ancillary subjects related to Tower politics that become significantly more important to the primary story near the end.
The real hook for the game, however, lies beyond its aspirations as a traditional 2D point-and-click adventure and within the realm of RPGs in a genre hybrid model popularized by the excellent Quest for Glory series. This is hardly the stat-fest of Lori and Corey Cole’s creation though, as Mage’s Initiation only allows for four upgradeable stats: Strength and Intelligence have direct effects on the damage and the accuracy/speed of your spells, while Constitution increases your maximum Health, and Magic increases your maximum Mana. You also carry a Conductor, which allows for you to equip two gems (available gems mostly come from enemy loot drops) that have varying stat increase effects.
Unfortunately, the incorporation of role-playing elements is the one area that brings disappointment because the combat is a little undercooked. Once an enemy enters your current screen, the perspective does not change but the game flips into real-time battle mode, overlaying your spell options and shifting your character into full-time running speed. You’re a mage, so there are no weapons and no melee attacks; all your options are long-range magic attacks. However, your enemy—or occasionally enemies—will run around the screen as well, and since you are a distance fighter trying to create space and they move quickly to cut you off, you’ll often struggle to maneuver past them without being hit. Perhaps realizing it was their weakest gameplay element, the developers have telegraphed their decision to de-emphasize the combat, promising that Mage’s Initiation can be played as a pure adventure, though the right approach to that would have been to turn off optional combat entirely rather than just provide the opportunity to constantly run away from it.
The game’s marketing materials seem very proud of the distinct lack of necessary stat grinding, and indeed, you could wander around the forest hunting goblins and skeletal archers for hours and you would not gain a single additional experience point. Instead the game’s points are meted out for solving puzzles and forwarding the story, again in true Sierra fashion, and I did not even advance to a second level (each level provides four points to distribute among the four stats) until almost three hours in. If you were a kid like me who loved every XP-accumulating, grindy minute of hardcore RPGs, you won’t be able to scratch that itch here.
Having said that, the increase in stats feels unnecessary unless you turn the battle difficulty slider up all the way. Otherwise you can almost always ignore your additional spells and just spam your primary projectile (the first spell given to all four classes) and enemies likely won’t get close enough to kill you. This is easy, but also necessary sometimes because all spells other than the basic projectile sap your mana rapidly, and mana only regenerates to a low level and very slowly, while health doesn’t regenerate at all. I basically spent the entire second half of the game with less than 20% health. Mana and health potions are very rare as dropped loot items, and are expensive to buy since gold can’t be farmed through grinding nearly as easily as the QFG games. The game sorely lacks an inn or Erana’s Peace-type location to rest and restore your stats.
If the RPG elements are largely underwhelming and ignorable, there is so much more to admire about Mage’s Initiation that makes it such a spectacular adventure game otherwise. The amount of detail and substance in every aspect of the design is incredible, resulting in an incredibly meaty game. Each of the three acts features lengthy exploration in a unique region, punctuated by a number of fetch quests that are thoughtful but never needlessly difficult (and easier to manage with the learned Ele’Port fast travel spell). The game features a substantial number of inventory puzzles—you’ll accumulate more than 10 items other than potions pretty quickly—but there’s no way to get into an unwinnable state and each relevant hotspot is clearly identifiable in its environment, so most adventurers will be unlikely to find much barrier to their progress. Other than item gathering and usage—which all adheres to playing this as a pure adventure, with no affect from your character’s stats—and the generally obvious times when your passive spells are necessary to advance, the only challenge is paying enough attention to the dialogue and D’Arc’s observations to know what to do next.
In a game full of strengths, its biggest success is one that you don’t have to just take my word for—the background pixel art is simply extraordinary, across the board and in every scene. The intricate design in every single scene is stunning, like the masonry buildings in Iginor that appear to have been built one unique brick at a time. Each Tower and town interior is packed with detail and examinable objects, while the outdoor locations are alive with characters walking around and interacting with merchants. Panoramic vistas of mountains, trees, rivers, and even the desolate wastelands can only be described as uniformly gorgeous. Just one look at the first backdrop behind the Mage's Tower demonstrates how unique each beautiful hand-painted stroke truly is. Part of the reason the quasi-landscape-mazes and the somewhat redundant fetch quests never get irritating is that you’ll never get tired of looking at the scenery, which is a credit to the brilliant John Paul Selwood, lead background artist. It’s not just the backgrounds though; the close-up, perfectly lip-synched character portraits during dialogue are equally impressive.
The music is great accompaniment, never too prominent or epic in scale. No tracks demand a dedicated re-listen, but they’re pleasant and serve as an appropriate complement in times of leisure, while ratcheting up the intensity at key moments of confrontation. The area just outside of town is music-free, allowing for the peaceful sounds of wildlife to come to the forefront. Mage’s Initiation is fully and wonderfully voiced for the most part, an even more impressive feat given that it features multiple races and a mix of very diverse heroic and evil characters. Particularly noteworthy are the deep-voiced statuesque Flyterians and the sneeringly nefarious Goblins. The only voice that misses the mark is the very teenage D’Arc, with his overly sincere tendencies to emphasize multiple words in every sentence. When speaking to others or making gently humorous observations about the world around him, his voice is tolerable, but when given intense lines like “The walls are sick with entropy,” his melodrama is a bit cringe-y, though over the entirety of the game his earnestness ultimately won me over.
After the three trials are complete, a fourth act ties together the story with an exciting and climactic ending that closes a narrative thread slowly developed throughout the game, a genuine reward for those who have paid close attention to the lengthy dialogues. My playthrough took nearly 13 hours, with none of that time feeling bloated, and while I completed my Earth element-specific quest, the achievements (of which I only completed 15 of 44) tell me that I missed an entire side story. Replaying with a different element looks to be a very similar experience apart from some variation in abilities and puzzle solutions, but the fact that each element gets its own half-hour side quest and an entire array of separate spells, both battle and passive, is another demonstration of polish and deliberate design. While it may not lend itself to immediate instant replay, this is an adventure I’m much more likely to return to in future years. In the midst of an era where game prices are in a constant race for the bottom, the very reasonable price point at launch dramatically undersells the depth of the experience, making Mage’s Initiation an incredibly good value.
Rather than a simple throwback to the classic RPG-adventures of old, this game feels more like an evolution of where Sierra might have gone if the Golden Age had continued, a better-looking combination of the best adventure elements of King’s Quest VI and Quest for Glory IV. Games that are significantly delayed too often are born bearing visible scars of their messy production cycle. Instead, Himalaya has delivered a completely professional product by insisting that they take their time to get it right before release. It looks as good as any 640x400 resolution adventure ever has, presents a diverse and fascinating world to explore, and offers an astounding amount of substance and even replayability. It does not commit to its RPG elements as well as fans of that genre will like, and it could use some tweaking of the combat and controls, but the storytelling and obvious attention to detail consistently wash away any such picking of nits. Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements is the game that announces Himalaya, previously known for their excellent free remakes of classic Sierra adventures, as an A-list independent adventure developer. More games in the series are planned, and while I certainly hope it won’t be another decade before a sequel, I’ll be the first to say that if this is the type of quality we can expect from them in future, it’s worth every bit of waiting.
Mage’s Initiation is like a modern-day Sierra On-Line gem, an extraordinarily polished adventure game. If the battle sections were improved and the RPG elements better integrated, this would be a near-perfect experience, but it’s still a game that should cast a spell on any genre fan.