Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements review

The Good:
  • Incredibly beautiful pixel art
  • Well-written dialogue and observations throughout
  • Succeeds in telling a classic fantasy story and creating a genuinely interesting new world
  • Voice acting is generally excellent, especially considering the diversity of characters
The Bad:
  • Battle mechanics are clumsy and simplistic
  • RPG elements are de-emphasized too much
  • Protagonist’s voice is a bit too sincere at times
Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements review
Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements review
The Good:
  • Incredibly beautiful pixel art
  • Well-written dialogue and observations throughout
  • Succeeds in telling a classic fantasy story and creating a genuinely interesting new world
  • Voice acting is generally excellent, especially considering the diversity of characters
The Bad:
  • Battle mechanics are clumsy and simplistic
  • RPG elements are de-emphasized too much
  • Protagonist’s voice is a bit too sincere at times
Our Verdict:

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.

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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.

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