Games seem to follow certain patterns, and after the year of the horse in 2011 (also 2015), the year of the bow in 2013 and the infamous year of Luigi, perhaps we should rename 2017 as the year of the redhead woman. After Horizon Zero Dawn and Mages of Mystralia, a trend for kickass ginger girls may well be forming in video games, and this is no bad thing by any means. Best summarised as a fusion of SNES era action adventures and the complex spellcrafting of more recent games like Lichdom: BattleMage, Mystralia is an original take on an established genre.
The game’s portentous, albeit somewhat overblown, narrator sets out the familiar background to Mystralia. Set in a land with a magic-wielding royal family, but in which magic has become banned due to the actions of a mad king, the setup is far from original. Think the BBC version of Merlin, which was based on Mary Stuart’s great series of books, and you won’t be far off. While there isn’t a direct association made between royal lineage and magic ability, the suggestion is that all those with spellcasting potential are linked in some way.
Enter Zia, your fiery protagonist in more ways than one. Banished from her home, the sleepy hamlet Greyleaf, for accidentally starting a fire during an unwitting surge of magic, Zia begins the game alone and unarmed. It isn’t long, however, before you meet a mysterious figure offers to train you in the way of the mage and sends you to find Haven – the secret hideout of the remaining Mages of Mystralia.
Whilst everything about this narrative – and the world in which the game takes place – is generic, this shouldn’t be seen as a criticism. Not every fantasy text has to redefine the parameters of its genre; sometimes it is enjoyable to inhabit a world that plays by familiar rules. The world of Mystralia is threatened by the presence of a magically lengthened solar eclipse, with magic itself being linked to celestial workings. Understandably, the lore behind all of this is kept relatively simple as this isn’t an Elder Scrolls-esque game full of history books, but what little magical lore is included is successfully handled and helps to illustrate Zia’s growing knowledge and understanding of her magical abilities. Aside from your Mage mentor, much of this lore is introduced through a strange talking spellbook that Zia coincidentally finds upon her journey to Haven. The book develops to be a character in and of itself, reminiscent of Nier, and is not shy of commenting on the plot.
Mages of Mystralia captures a cartoony style that almost feels like a top-down Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Everything is clear and colourful, with the obligatory icy and fiery areas in particular being defined. There is some degree of fast travel available but the world of Mystralia is compact, so even the backtracking that is forced upon you is far from arduous. This backtracking will largely come from seeking out the numerous secrets hidden in each area of the game. These range from standard level-up tokens – they’re purple beads here – to newer wands with specific powers or skills and the runes that you use to craft the spells that are the real core of the game.
Progress through the game rewards you with the spell types that form your magical arsenal, but many of the runes that change and adapt the behaviour of your spells are locked behind puzzles. These take the form of either static and logical tests in which you must orientate runes so that all are connected (thereby teaching you the more complex ways in which spells can be formed) or environmental puzzles that require you to craft specific spells to solve them. These can be as simple as adding a directional modifier to the spell, or as complex as crafting a fire spell that splits into three and then sets off another spell upon impact. It is here that the depth of the crafting system really shines through, though it can be frustrating when you have to backtrack due to not yet having the correct runes. While optional, these sections are the key to grasping the game’s central mechanic and shouldn’t be avoided.
The range of possible spell combinations is impressive, but it is possible to settle on using a single powerful attack halfway through the game and use it through to the end. This shouldn’t stop you from experimenting, however, as there are always more powerful or efficient spells to be crafted. The effectiveness of spells is also determined by enemy resistances, meaning that a hidden wand that ignores these is perhaps the most overpowered item in the game. Every extra ability or behaviour you apply to a spell increases its mana cost, creating a system which requires you to balance attack with efficiency.
In a nice twist, once you have crafted a spell, you can name it. Although not necessary to using the spell, I would highly recommend giving them memorable names to make it easier to switch between them in the more difficult battles. Before doing so, I lost count of the number of times I accidentally dashed off a cliff when looking to cast a shield spell.
The combat is entirely based on the spells you cast, so you are encouraged to tweak spells to ensure that mobs are easily and quickly dispatched. At the end of each area, you face Zelda-esque boss fights that always involve some degree of puzzle solving. As will be familiar to anybody who has played an action adventure game, this puzzling mostly involves exposing the boss’s weak point to inflict massive damage. I found the difficulty of these bosses to be well-judged with none proving to be frustrating obstacles, but each providing a sense of accomplishment when dispatched. I would recommend ensuring that you have a scarab (the game’s second life item) in your inventory for these fights, as it can be annoying to have to repeat the early stages of the battle if you die near the end.
Mages of Mystralia is a cracking game. It successfully captures the feel of 16 bit adventures and combines them with a fantastic spellcrafting system and the sidequests and character development of modern action RPGs. It isn’t the longest game and some may find the price a little steep given how cheap so many PC games are, but it definitely deserves to do well and I would highly recommend picking it up, even if you wait until a sale discount.
Version tested: PC