Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Game Reviews: Book of Mages

Book of Mages: The Dark Times* (hacked version here for those who are interested, for reasons I'll clarify) is a fun if flawed game with open-ended roleplaying (sorta) and a pretty good turn-based combat system.

I think it's important to state up front: This game's combat system is, for a turn-based RPG-type combat system, much more interesting and nuanced than what most computer RPGs produce. Granted, most of those are designed for larger-scale battles than this game, so it rather needs something better than that, but it's important to establish it right off the bat.

Anyway, the combat system is built around each combatant firing off magic bolts of energy or whatever, in fairly large numbers. Complexity is added by high and low attacks and defensive countermoves plus a few other tricks (my favorite is the rather dramatic "combined" attack, which combines all one's bolts into a single massive projectile); then there are six different schools of magic, each with their own special forms of magic. Of particular note are Poison Water, with a lot of majorly annoying poison-themed abilities (more on that later), and Chaos Desert, with the ability to unleash huge storms of damage, though nearly all the schools have at least one ability that's nifty, overpowered, or just brutal. It's a little involved to explain in detail, and it'd be easier to figure out by just playing it-it has a decent in-game tutorial function.

While I enjoy the combat system, it does have one sizable flaw, and that's the whole reason I linked the hacked version: The process by which one enhances one's abilities is slow and tedious, and it takes some experimentation to figure out just what one should do while building a character's abilities, so it's way too easy to create an awful character and waste one's time. The first time I played the game, I got to the final battle with a character with third-tier combat skills who had sufficient charisma to have been elected leader of the story's "good guys" and thus ended up with a bad ending because he insisted on fighting the enemy in a series of one-on-one fights.

Incidentally, the game expects you to keep leveling up as the game progresses (even when the story is dragging you around and keeping you out of the magic caves that let you build up skill points-admittedly, you do get skill points through story events and such), and helpfully gives you a warning that you need to spend any remaining skill points right before the final battle comes up.

You have to love fourth wall-breaking NPC dialogue.

There's other types the game gives you hints, such as this bit of moral guidance the game gives you:

"Let him live if you're good. Kill him if you're evil."

You might notice that the player character is named "Great Mage" in the above; that's because I was goofing around with stupid player character names that I thought would be funny, and "Great Mage" is a title in the game that the player character is relatively likely to obtain. Hence the following exchange between a pair of drunkards (who are always, whenever you encounter them, talking about you):

"Great Mage is the Great Mage." You don't say.

Anyway, if you couldn't tell, the game's storytelling is pretty silly, partly because of iffy grammar and partly because, well, it's just plain silly, such as this conversation with a graverobber that you can potentially befriend:

Yes, you can make friends with a graverobber.

What's peculiar to me is that there's an alignment/reputation-tracking system in the game, and some things are treated as bad, some are treated as good, and some are treated as entirely neutral. One of the latter is the below:

Yes, cutting off a man's hands is treated as neutral. (The alternatives to cutting his hands off? Killing him or learning torture advice from him. There's another option, avoiding him forever, but it's impractical, and sooner or later you'll forget about it, meet him by accident and kill/dismember him. Incidentally, this is revenge for him trying to assassinate you.)

Anyway, there's a storyline involving the conflict between the "Black Robes," mages who are working for the evil current Great Mage, "White Robes," the rebels against him, and the third party who are neutral in the conflict. You can join any of the three groups, and if you're a good fighter, you can muscle your way to the top. (You don't actually need that much brute force for the White Robe route until the final battle, at which point you'll be in serious trouble if you've been neglecting your training.)

Making certain kinds of achievements, incidentally, gives you new titles, such as...


Oh yes, that final battle thing I keep bringing up? You need to do a lot of fighting during it if you're a member of the White Robes; if you're of a normal strength level, you're in for a bit of a slog at best, but if you're ranked sufficiently high... get to kill people in cutscenes. As this is oddly more fun than it should be, I ended up slaughtering every named Black Robe but the leaders, which earned me a new title:

"Bloodthurst." This didn't affect my reputation in the least either, by the way.

Speaking of reputation:

While it was a bit lower at the precise time of the election, I raised an eyebrow at the "equally good reputation" remark, because my reputation at the time was "Legend/Savior," and it was upgraded to "Legend/Holy Man" by this event. (Also, "Legend" is higher than "Myth," which seems backwards to me.)

Note that here my character was named Ghostdoom** instead of Great Mage; obviously this was a different playthrough. And yes, I won that election pretty handily; I'm not actually sure what you'd have to do to lose it. Be a major jerk, perhaps.

It doesn't stop at "Holy Man," incidentally;

...Yeah. This despite my spending time helping several random thieves and slaughtering quite a few mages in single combat. (It wasn't particularly fair, especially since I was cheating for all these screenshots.)

On the subject of single combat and ability ranking, the title of the game refers to the book in which the top hundred mages are tracked. For some reason, you ask a character called "Mysterious Hermit(s)" about the rankings, and when you're looking for the top ten mages in the book, the Hermit tells you where to go, and eventually tells you that you're the "Number One Mage."

The player character is such a childish jackass.

Anyway, if you keep asking the Hermit about your ranking even after you're Number One, he starts to get peeved at you...

...and eventually announces that he created the Book of Mages and is stronger than anyone ranked in it, and that he's going to kick your rank back down to 99.

He's basically a bonus boss, and pretty much the toughest enemy in the game; through some means, he was actually nasty enough that he posed a serious threat even to my distinctly overpowered cheat character.

As it happens, though, even his unique overpowered abilities and his extremely strong magic school (Chaos Desert) can't save him from smart playing and the cheapest strategy in the game: Poison Water's wavelock combo.

See, there's several kinds of status effects in the game which are represented by "markers" and these markers have variable numbers. Poison Water's, poison (SURPRISE), does damage equal to the number of markers, but that's pretty minor overall. Their better use is setting up for Poison Water's various spells. And Poison Water mages can also use a spell called Poison Wave, which puts ten poison markers on the opponent without any chance to counter (they're the only group to have this capability; everybody else's status effects are exclusively in the form of riders on the projectile attacks, which makes it harder to apply them). The big useful spell among the spells so-enabled is Paralyze, which allows one to remove nine poison counters to cancel an attack. In other words, put ten poison counters on, opponent takes ten poison damage, opponent tries to attack, opponent's attack is cancelled, and one poison counter is left over. There are several ways to remove poison counters (for some reason, if both combatants have poison counters, they cancel each other out until one mage or the other, or both, don't have any, so one of the ways is actually Poison Wave), but that takes up an attack, so the strategy still works. (In fact, it works a little better, because that means the opponent is spending more mana than you are.)

Once you beat the Hermit, he runs off to inform the other hermits who co-created the Book of Mages, and you get another new title.

So this game's pretty entertaining, sometimes in ways that come across as unintentional.

As noted, the game has its flaws-the story can get a little annoying, particularly if you pick a side, the skill-building is tedious if you're playing it the way it's intended to be played, and you hardly see any fights anymore if your ranking gets high enough-but there's also quite a bit of entertainment to wring out of it.

*This is technically the second game in a series, hence the subtitle, but pretend it's the only game. There's no reason to look into the first one. Basically everything about this game is better than the original, and since this game is notably flawed, well...

**This game has some of the best names since Seven Kingdoms II's Fryhtans. I suspect the mages choose their own ridiculous names. The most ridiculous examples are probably Bloodster and Wavepuke. ...The latter is the biggest piece of evidence they don't choose their own names, incidentally.

-Signing off.

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