I adore classic Sierra and Lucasarts adventure games and Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements has given me plenty to think about.
It’s not just the retro 2D pixel art aesthetic that was so commonplace through the early 90s or the promise of a fantasy world fully navigatable through pointing and clicking, but it’s everything else that Himalaya Studios’ have done alongside that which makes Mage’s Initiation stand apart.
The charming writing, quirky characters, promise of multi-story paths and even a combat system that pays homage to Quest for Glory. Mage’s Initiation is a very respectful, encouragingly faithful, but also smartly designed, unique experience that is enjoyable and relevant in 2019. We shouldn’t have expected any less from a team who remade Kings Quest and Quest for Glory.
Mage’s Initiation has been in development for a decade and took to Kickstarter back in 2013 to try and help the team fully realise their vision. It’s been a long, arduous process for them – using the formidable Adventure Game Studio tool to put it all together – but Reign of the Elements will finally release on January 30.
You play as a young teen apprentice called D’arc, who is so close to being a master mage he can taste it. All he has to do is complete three trials – sound familiar Monkey Island fans? – and he’ll be recognized by his scholarly peers. They’re not exactly straightforward, though.
D’arc will have to claim everything from a lock of hair of a powerful enchantress to an unspoiled Griffon’s egg in order to pass his initiation but there’s a lot of talking, puzzle-solving, and fighting to be done before that.
The fighting is the wildcard addition, though. Quest for Glory remains the original and one of a few adventures to implement any sort of combat system. It’s clear that Himalaya Studios have taken some inspiration from that.
You and your opponent will have a health and mana bar which drains once you’re hit or cast a spell respectively. Both combat systems act in a form of real-time, but unlike QFG where you’re stuck at a fixed point, not only can you run around the screen in Mage’s Initiation, you can actually move between several screens. In fact, enemies will sometimes use this to gain a tactical advantage if you’re getting the better of them.
Also unlike QFG, you don’t use swords and shields. All your abilities come from long-range magic, so that’s definitely something to keep in mind as your character is quite vulnerable if a goblin or spider closes in on you. Actions can be performed using the numbers and space bar on the keyboard, or by clicking a mouse on the desired action.
You will also need to replenish your health and mana manually, whether you’ve collected a potion from a vendor or you’ve filled up a bottle of mage’s water. And this is important to remember as your health does not recharge automatically once you finish a fight. If you were on death’s door in the last scrape, you’ll start the next in the same state.
Combat is also surprisingly versatile. Before you set out into the world, you’ll answer a series of questions from the high mages to determine your class. I ended up being a Water Mage, so used a jetstream as well as a sharp, ice-like projectile and protective shield. But you can also play as a Fire, Air, and Earth Mage, each with unique spells of their own.
On top of that, Mage’s Initiation has its own form of ‘socket system’. No, it’s not as involved as a World of Warcraft or Destiny, but it works well within the context of the game.
You have the option of embedding two different magical gemstones into a Conductor to enhance your stats in Constitution, Strength, Magic, and Intelligence. This gives you an added boost on top of the experience you earn from defeating enemies and levelling up.
Gemstones can be purchased from vendors but are also picked up throughout your quest and can even be looted from the dead bodies of your enemies. From what we hear, there are also over 50 different types of gemstone combinations to find so you can have a decent level of customisation over your characters’ build.
It all sounds great in practice, but it does feel a bit roughly, admittedly, and will take some getting used to. The character model constantly needs to be stopped, then started again, which presents a problem when you’re trying to navigate into tactical positions. It’s tricky as the engine isn’t designed for the model flexibility.
Your accuracy is also a bit hit and miss, though this is developed through the game as you build up your stats. It also doesn’t help that enemies can also block your attacks, meaning you’re never guaranteed a sure-fire hit even if it’s on target. As that’s your only way of attacking, this is also quite limiting and a bit unbalanced.
And sometimes the enemy tends to get a bit lost and can be difficult to find again if you’re moving between screens. Or if one randomly spawned just as you were about to walk to another area. This can be a bit of a pain – particularly if the enemy glitched between screens – as you’ll still find yourself in the combat screen and can’t get rid of it no matter how far away you go.
Mage’s Initiation probably won’t persuade critics that a combat system belongs in an adventure game, and for the most part, it can be completely avoided as you can sprint through screens with relative ease. It does add another level of dynamism to Mage’s Initiation, though, something that more modern interpretations of the genre lack.
I always felt that Quest for Glory was a game well ahead of its time. To this day, it has mechanics few other developers have dared to touch or tinker with. But Himalaya Studios have not only been bold enough to try, they may have actually reinvigorated and unlocked newfound potential in the genre.
I’ve only been able to try a third of Mage’s Initiation, so will have a more in-depth analysis later on, but this is a very enjoyable, and potentially exciting turning point for adventure games. Reign of the Elements certainly shouldn’t go unnoticed when it launches later this month.
Mages’ Initiation: Reign of the Elements releases January 30 on PC. Mac, Linux, and mobile ports will follow.
Preview code kindly provided by the publisher