Review: 7 Mages28 Mar 2016 2
Review: 7 Mages
Released 14 Mar 2016
Even in this Age of Information and social connectedness, it still happens sometimes. With no warning, no hype beforehand, 7 Mages crept onto the digital platforms as quietly as the lighting of a fly in dreaming trees in the hush of evening. On a feather duster. You know what I mean. And based on the description, it seemed to be right up my alley as well: a party-based RPG, with turn-based combat and a heavy focus on exploration and puzzle solving (and more than a few nods to those classic crawlers of yesteryear). Top that off with some handsome graphics and you get a package which almost seems too good to be true.
Created by Napoleon Games, this is their first major effort and apparently inspired by the Kurosawa flick Seven Samurai and its western-themed remake The Magnificent Seven. In these movies, a band of seven (samurai or gunslingers) is assembled to fight off the marauders who are threatening the local village. In a similar fashion, 7 Mages has you team up with six other mages to rid Roven Island of a gang of rogue mages who are raiding the countryside. Its story may have been inspired by these classic films, at the same time it is very much a love letter to the classic first-person dungeon crawlers in the days of yore. The creators themselves mention Dungeon Master as obvious inspiration, but of course the echoes of the Wizardry series, and the Westwood games (Eye of the Beholder and Lands of Lore) loudly reverberate off the dungeon walls with every hollow footstep too.
Although I suspect that for most players the echoes that reverberate most strongly are of a different and more contemporary classic and while it's true the initial starter dungeon certainly reminds us of that classic, Legend of Grimrock, 7 Mages is very much its own beast. You’ll notice this right away when you emerge from the crypt and behold the city of Caredbar in all its faux medieval glory. This place serves as the central hub from where you travel in search of the other mages. You’re pretty much on your own now and apart from a few hints alluding to the possible whereabouts of your future companions, you won’t get much help from the game on what to do next.
And mind you, this game can be hard at times. The lack of direction, the limited gold supply and storage space (pro tip: buy a backpack the minute you get into town) and the heavy focus on puzzles all contribute to this factor. Another factor contributing to its difficulty lies in the fact that sometimes you’ll get into situations where you’ll find yourself with too much on your hands and the only choice you have is to go back into town (if you’re able, that is) and to restock on potions and food. Save often is the motto here, but thankfully, the game allows you to have up to 12 saved games, including an autosave.
On the other hand, if you like that kind of freedom to figure things out for yourself, you’ll be happy to know that, while hard, this game is very doable; even the hardest puzzles are solvable and you’ll never really find yourself completely stuck for extended periods of time. This is partly due to the visual clues you’ll get (you’ll immediately see which tree can be chopped down for example) and partly because of the excellent map the game provides you with. And, as was the case with Grimrock, you’ll need to study the map closely in order to find all the hidden areas. Thankfully, you can make annotations on the map to mark important spots. This is hardly a luxury, for the maps can get quite extensive and it’s not always easy to find that particular tree with holes in it again.
The map has one other feature I should mention. In true Google street view fashion, you can pick up and drag a little dude representing your party and place it on (almost) any square you have previously visited, at least within the same section of the map. This seems like a great idea and makes it very easy to backtrack. However, it also feels like cheating sometimes, especially combined with another gameplay element this game has: a hunger mechanism. Personally, I have never been much of a fan of this mechanism in RPG’s and this is no exception. I mean, how is it possible that when you’re walking around normally you lose health points every couple of steps, while when you’re fast-travelling you can go wherever you want on the map without penalty whatsoever? To me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense and distracts a little from the overall experience. But thankfully, this game doesn’t have many of these distractions. (And to be honest, I have been using this feature quite a lot, so who am I kidding here?)
As I mentioned earlier, the city serves as the main hub from where you’ll visit most other regions. In total, there are 14 different self-contained environments, all with their own distinct look and feel. And they’re definitely not your average dungeon crawler environments either (there’s a Dragon Gut, for instance, and an underwater level.) You can think of these as traditional dungeons, sometimes consisting of multiple levels, each with its own unique puzzles and enemies. You’ll need to traverse these one step at a time, paying close attention to your environment and your map. Some of the puzzles you’ll encounter are of the basic “find-a-lever-to–open-a-gate-somewhere-else” kind, but most require you to think differently. Compared to most other contemporary dungeon crawlers, they’re actually quite original. The environments are very well-designed with a lot of attention to detail and if you take your time and explore every nook and cranny, you’ll usually have an idea of what to do and where to go. Some puzzles require you to split up your party, which is another cool feature of this game.
In the way of character creation and customization, it’s all pretty basic. You have your typical Strength, Speed, Magic and Charisma and that’s about it. You gain levels and become more powerful, but the real meat of the game lies in its exploration and puzzle solving. The UI is functional and does its job, for the most part. I wasn’t much of a fan of the default control scheme (being gesture-based), but the classic arrow layout works well. Sometimes I wish I could see the names of your spells without going into the journal in the middle of combat and to be able to easily exchange items from your inventory between party members would be nice too, but none of these things really hinder the experience.
The game is grid-based and you’ll take one step at a time, but also plays out in real-time. This allows you to sometimes wait until an enemy steps into your line-of-sight and take him out from a safe distance without actually initiating combat. Only when you engage in combat it becomes turn-based, with each of your party members getting to perform one action. Combat itself is an interesting, if somewhat slow affair, especially when dealing with multiple enemies and even more so when they are at a distance. However, once you encounter more allies, it gets more interesting and tactical. To top it off, there are the so-called maneuvers, which are special moves you’ll discover in the course of the game, and which add to the damage.
Naturally, in a game called 7 Mages, magic should play an important part and I’m happy to say it does. There’s combat magic (which will enhance your weapons), musical magic (which requires you to play an instrument and can have all sorts of effects) and your basic elemental magic. There’s a myriad of spells and effects to choose from and each party member has his or her own specialty. And there’s music! I love it when a game includes that. A song can have all kinds of effects and will affect all characters within earshot. You can even have several characters play the same song on different instruments and its effects are multiplied.
This is a premium game, but it’s free to try. You get at least two hours of dungeon crawling before you have to make a purchase to be able to continue. This will give you plenty of time to decide whether you like it or not and it’s a model I’d love to see more often. You can either purchase regions separately for $0.99 each, or unlock the complete game for $6,99, something which I would definitely recommend (as you had probably gathered from this review.) There’s a lot of content here and because the game keeps introducing new elements, it doesn’t get stale. I haven’t finished it yet, but after many hours of playing I’m still excited to go on. I can’t think of a better recommendation for this unexpected gem.