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.