Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements Review: Back in the 90s

Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2019 - 12:00 | By: Ron Welch

In some way, every adventure game tries to do something new. Whether they bring impressive writing and characterization, clever puzzling, new systems, or an excessive amount of minigames, modern point-and-click titles need something to distinguish themselves from the sea of shovelware adventure games left over from the Windows-95 era. Enter Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements, an adventure game/RPG hybrid that wants to emulate the point-and-click games of old, just as a kid steps into his dad’s oversized shoes.

You play D’arc, a teenage mage who wants the become “the Mightiest of Mages.” To be a spellcaster in this world is to be chosen from birth by one of the four elements, water, earth, fire, and air. The time has come for D’arc to dedicate himself to a single element and become a full-fledged mage, but first, he needs to prove himself as a master thief! To this end, you must collect the hair of an immortal priestess, the egg of a griffon, and the horn of a critically endangered animal. Steal those three items within 24 hours, and you’ll prove your worthiness to lay about in a stuffy tower and read books all day!

 
 

mages initiation ritual
Great background and perfectly nostalgic portraits.

Aside from the main heist, each element offers an optional side quest. These are interesting and have unusual solutions. Because element-specific quests aren't tied to the main items, there's freedom to add new mechanics. It’s also nice because these adventures give you a chance to use utility spells that are otherwise useless. Still, it encourages you to replay with each of the four elements and it is an interesting way to fill out the world.

The worldbuilding of Mage’s Initiation has a lot of background fluff that could use more attention. Mages are essentially the ruling class. They look down on non-mages, something reflected in much of D’arc’s dialogue. According to the launch trailer, this world is post-apocalyptic. There’s no indication of that in the game, but whatever. The point is Mages despise technology and will snuff out anyone they find creating or innovating. Think of it as a fantasy version of Ayn Rand’s Anthem, but with more goblins.

Old school adventure gamers will be delighted to find that Mage’s Initiation has three separate control schemes, one for each major era of adventure games. You can either use an action bar at the top of the screen, right-click to cycle through actions, or utilize a convenient action wheel. It’s good to have these options because your intent must be specific. Knowing the difference between when to touch and when to look will save you from a lot of annoying dialogue.

mages initiation demons
You can almost hear D'arc's voice actor flubbing this line.

D’arc’s voice acting is stilted and cringe-inducing. Naturally, his inner thoughts make up most of the spoken dialogue. I can’t sugarcoat it. The cadence is wrong, he emphasizes the wrong words in almost every sentence, and his pauses come off as someone imitating William Shatner. Worse is that D’arc comments on anything you interact with that doesn’t solve a puzzle, but his internal monologue has this distorted echo. It’s just awful. Something as simple as “I’m not dragging that all over Iginor,” becomes an echoing, “I AM NOT… dragging THAT….all over, Ig-in-or?”

Perhaps D’arc’s voice actor was trying to be hammy to imitate classic games like King’s Quest, but the weird thing is that almost every other voice is well done. There are a lot of memorable characters in Mage’s Initiation, from the snooty aloof noble to the strict and protective chief of a rival village, and especially the cast of sympathetic secondary antagonists. While the voice work heightens certain characters, I almost forgot how good they were when clicking on any part of the screen causes D’arc to deliver lines with all the enthusiasm of Microsoft Sam.

Combat is the only time when D’arc has nothing to say. Yes, there is combat in this point-and-click adventure game. Certain dungeon-crawling areas have a chance to spawn enemies. They spawn randomly so if you wait around for a few seconds they’ll show up and mercilessly chase you across the dungeons. This is arguably the weakest link of Mage’s Initiation’s gameplay. You start with two combat spells and two puzzle-solving spells based on your chosen element. You’ll unlock additional spells after collecting each main quest item. For example, my water mage started with an ice shard and a water shield. But an earth mage starts with throwing rocks and an earthquake stun.

 

mages initiation wasteland
You can run, but enemies will follow for several screens.

Because you have unlimited spells, combat comes down to “click on the thing until it’s dead.” Even with advanced spells like slow, heal, and stun, I found myself mindlessly clicking through every fight. Bosses were the worst. Yes, there are bosses. They are unavoidable and are little more than tedious damage sponges.

Along the way, you can spend experience points gained from advancing the story to increase stats. These upgrades impact spell damage, spell duration, mana, and health. Health and mana are especially important because they don’t regenerate. Health never regenerates unless you have a special item and mana only regenerates up to 10 points, even if you have a cap of 80 mana. While there is a heal spell, you can only use it in combat. Unfortunately, you unlock the spell right before the climax, when there aren’t any more random goons to face. All that means you must take advantage of the in-game economy and always keep a few potions handy.

Vendors in the nearby town sell health potions, bandages, and mana potions. You start with 30 gold, but you’ll quickly spend it all on story items. If you want more gold, you have to go to a dungeon, wait for an enemy to appear, and click on them until they drop loot. Some items, like bones, can be turned in for a gold bounty. Other items can be collected, taken back to the mage tower, converted into another item, and then turned in at the village market for a gold bounty.

 

This itches at the festering wound that is Mage’s Initiation’s puzzle philosophy. Each puzzle in an adventure game should, in some way, move the story forward. Some titles excel at this, such as I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and the Deponia series. Mage’s Initiation instead relies on fetch quests within fetch quests within fetch quests paired with endless backtracking. What’s especially annoying is that there is a fast travel system, but it only goes to two useful places, and if you want to fast travel out of the village, which is three screens wide, D’arc will say “I AM NOT… per-mit-ted to use MAG-IC around the TOWNS-PEOPLE.”

mages initiation screaming tree
Bring me a floopdoole and I'll give you a shimsham!

In the first quest of the adventure, I needed three items to open the door to the next area. One of those items is a potion. To get the potion, I first need to discover the use for it, then ask a Mage teacher how I can make the potion. Then go to the magic library and read the book with the recipe for that potion.

The potion needs four ingredients, one of which is magic tree sap. So you go to the forest and talk to a magic tree. The magic tree will not give up his sap unless you retrieve his magic apples. Magic apples are sold in the village square. However, the fruit seller will only trade magic apples for magic oranges, which are only found in “the leftmost part” of the haunted forest. After dungeon-crawling to the magic oranges, backtracking to the village, trading for the magic apple, and then going back to the magic tree, we can finally get the magic tree sap.

You have a flask to store that sap in, right? If not, you'll need to go buy one. If you don't have the gold, you'll need to grind enemies for items, convert those into gold,  buy the flask, then return to the tree. Once you've done all that, there are still three more ingredients in the potion. Once you have the potion, there are still two more subquests needed to pass through this one door.

This sequence describes many of the puzzles in Mage’s Initiation. You get explicit instructions on where to go and what to do. The only challenge is keeping track of all the layers. For that reason, I actually took notes on a sheet of paper to keep track of the chain of deals. If you enjoy fetch quests within fetch quests within fetch quests, I think you’ll like Mage’s Initiation. If multilayered fetch quests are your least favorite part of adventure games, you’ll be quite disappointed.

mages initiation mountain walk Mage’s Initiation
Someone even went through the effort of drawing greaves that we can't even see.

One area that did not disappoint for me was the background art. The lighting, colors, and drawings on each background are excellent, especially in the dungeons. The artists really captured the look and feel of a mid-90s adventure game. The beautifully detailed talking head portraits are also a highlight, even if they're reminiscent of King’s Quest. Unfortunately, that’s all the good I can say for the art style.

Notable oddities with the visuals include what seems like improper scaling. D’arc just doesn’t look right on certain maps, especially as he moves farther from the bottom frame. Likewise, a glitch caused an enemy to stay at a tiny little baby size as he charged in from the corners and never rescaled to full size. Of course, that’s all technical stuff, easy to fix. What’s not easy to fix is the inconsistency.

The final act has a few close-up sequences that follow the art style of the intro cutscene. However, the quality of these scenes is notably weaker. There’s a clear lack of detail and the cartoony style clashes with the other elements. This is especially apparent when the highly-detailed portraits appear during these scenes. That’s not even the worst of it.

A cutscene played after I turned in the first quest. My jaw dropped, and all I could do was watch in utter confusion. Each act transitions with a cartoon cutscene. These sequences are like something out of the infamous Zelda CD-I. Bright, cartoony animation and (for the most part) awkward voice acting make these sequences embarrassing. I could hear my jaw muscles squeaking in agony as the cutscene just got worse and worse.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Yys1pArxC8&feature=youtu.be

Looking at the whole of Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements, it feels like there was a push to make a game that was as close to the spirit of a 90s adventure game as possible. However, they just made a 90s adventure game, in 2019, and added a thinly-spread and underdeveloped combat system. According to the Steam forums, the next patch will make combat optional, except for boss fights. That should bean interesting change because two sections of the world, both almost 70 screens in scope, rely entirely on random combat.

Mage’s Initiation had to decide what it wanted to achieve. The majority of the adventure consists of fetch-quests within fetch-quests initiated by hand-holding dialouge. It has some worldbuilding and character interactions but keeps the focus on the puzzles. It has a little bit of combat, but nothing too deep. It’s sort of like The Thing, a copy of something familiar that tries to earn your trust before unexpectedly springing some horror upon you. While I enjoyed parts of Mage’s Initiation, especially toward the end, the imperfections in this facsimile proved more cringeworthy and tedious than anything else.

Techraptor reviewed Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer.

Review Summary

5.0

Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements acts as a spiritual successor to the adventure games of old, but its tedious puzzle design, underdeveloped combat, inconsistent tone, and awkwardly-voiced protagonist make it unfocused at best and cringeworthy at worst.

Pros

  • Beautiful Background Art
  • Hints of an Interesting World
  • Strong Voice Work From Supporting Cast
  • Fun and Focused Puzzles in the Final Act.

Cons

  • Awful Protagonist Voice Over
  • Inconsistent Tone and Art Style
  • “Chain of Deals” Puzzles
  • Hand-Holding Dialogue
  • Excessive Backtracking
  • Wonky Combat

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I love dissecting game design, seeing what works and what could be improved. While RPGs, shooters, and strategy games are my favorites, I'll tackle just about anything. I also do voice overs, make an award winning wing sauce, and (formerly) write about post-apocalyptic goodness.