Mage's Initiation: Reign of the Elements is the newest game under development by Himalaya Studios, whose previous release was Al Emmo and the Lost Dutchman's Mine but are far better known for their excellent remakes of Sierra's King's Quest 1-3 and Quest for Glory 2 under the name AGD Interactive. Mage's Initiation is an original IP, but it draws obvious inspiration from the cross-genre gameplay of Quest for Glory, combining both adventure elements and roleplaying, with the ability to create specializations and enhance your character through experience and stat-building. Having just launched a Kickstarter campaign to help finance the game through to completion, Himalaya privately released a short playable demo of the game so far, providing an early first-hand look at what we can expect.
The story begins with the tale of D'arc, a 16-year-old magic initiate who for the last 10 years has spent his life training at the Mages' Tower in an attempt to become a fully adept magician. His time draws near for testing in the medieval kingdom of Iginor, where evil simmers below the surface and lingers on the edges of its towns and villages. It's there that D'arc will need to prove his worth as a mage by taming the land of its many malevolent forces and overcoming three important challenges set before him.
In this early preview of the game, there was only one magic class currently playable, but in the final version there will be four classes offered, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. I specialized in Fire Magic, but there will also be Wind, Water and Earth available. Picking a different class will allow the game to be played in a slightly different manner, but once you select which element you intend to use at the beginning of the game, you will not be able to change from that point on. How much variation each class will encompass remains to be seen at this point, but the developers are promising that each will come with "different spells, personalities, puzzle solutions, and side-quests."
Upon starting the game, you are introduced to your training mage – in this case Varner, master of elemental fire magic. Varner gives you an essential magical device called the 'Conductor', which enhances an initiate's abilities through the use of magical crystals. By using these crystals, you gain additional powers or improved stats for your character. You can use a maximum of two crystals at any given time, but presumably these can be swapped out for others when you acquire more. After first finding and then activating the power in my first crystal though a multi-part inventory puzzle sequence, I was given the opportunity to boost my stats in such areas as strength, intelligence, and constitution.
Experience points needed to build up your character's profile are earned not just from combat, but from your puzzle solving accomplishments as well. Like the old Sierra scoring system, you earn points for each individual accomplishment, such as finding the materials needed to activate the first crystal. Although I only earned enough experience points to level up once in the demo, from what I can tell this means that you won't be forced to constantly look for battles just to improve your stats through grinding.
In his quest, D'arc will eventually need to traverse some of Iginor's more dangerous locations, such as braving a goblin-infested forest, navigating a lake which is home to a foul evil disguised as beauty incarnate, and ascending the peaks of Flyteria to confront an army of winged warriors who where once allies and protectors of their human neighbours. Sadly, the preview offered only a glimpse of the Mages' Tower where D'arc currently resides, along with a brief combat encounter in the goblin's forest. The striking thing about the scenes from the Tower is how elemental each setting is in appearance. The Reading Hall (Study Library) is staged in a forest room that is home to thousands of books amidst structural tree trunks, emphasizing earthiness with a good mix of brown and green tones. Varner's Training Room is tinged with angry hues of red and is full of weapons and armour, as befits a fiery fighting guild, while the underwater chamber of the Fountain Hall is a glass room that looks out onto an endless blue sea filled with coral and fish.
Each location in the tower is visited through magical doors that will transport you to the correct room after inputting the correct special symbolic code combination. The first I learned through a simple riddle, while the second I had to discover through other means. The upside of this arrangement is that you'll never waste time endlessly wandering through corridors; the downside is that if you don't know the combination to the next room, you will find yourself caught in a perpetual loop, or worse – end up in a never-ending room designed for the 'non magical' (but there's always away back!). Once you've initiated the correct combination the first time, however, the game will remember that you been there and allow you to return without need to re-enter the code each time you return.
In-game conversations are the usual adventure game fare and lean toward Sierra-style point-and-click dialogue trees. You'll select from single-word topics that are then colour-coded once exhausted. This makes dialogue fairly straightforward, allowing you to see new topics of conversation which may not have been available to you earlier. One unique aspect of the overall interface is the ability to choose your preferred method. If you're a big fan of icon verb coins (think Curse of Monkey Island), in which a pop-up wheel houses all possible actions, you've got that option. But if you would rather select functions from the top of the screen or use the mouse wheel or right mouse button to scroll through actions, you'll also be well looked after. The fact that you can customize so much of your gaming experience is a real benefit and shows a tremendous attention to detail. Always just a keystroke away are screens that display your character's stats, spells, the conductor, and inventory.
Towards the very end of the demo, D'arc finds himself in an unavoidable combat situation in the Goblin Forest as part of his training exercise. Although there will reportedly be as many as six combat spells per character class, for now I only had access to three. Your health and mana (magic power) can become depleted, but helping you survive are potions to replenish each. You can pick up additional potions occasionally from defeated opponents. Combat occurs in real time and is controlled entirely by mouse, with the left button controlling where you run and the right button handling your spellcasting. As a fire specialist, I had access to the Flame Bolt, Fire Bomb and Circle of Cinders spells, any of which can be selected via the keyboard on on-screen icon. In this particular encounter, you run into several waves of goblins and must decide which magic will best dispatch them. Some spells come at a greater mana cost than others, so picking the correct spells at the right time is critical to success.
My initial impression of the graphics even in this early state are that they are already beautiful! The visuals are crisp, clear, and colourful, capturing much of the VGA-era retro look the artists set out to achieve, showing a great level of detail and clarity even on high definition monitors. What really sets this game apart is its detailed cartoon storybook style, which is reminiscent of King's Quest 5. Each scene is portrayed with a vivid array of colours and textures and appears to be almost hand painted, but with a razor sharp detail across each and every screen. Many of the rooms scroll, so the environments are not limited to just single screen settings. Animation also seems quite good, though at this stage they could perhaps use some minor fine tuning in places. D'arc can either walk or run, but he seems to walk a little too slowly at times, while running leaves him looking rather awkward.
Sound here is quite reminiscent of the developer's Quest for Glory 2 and King's Quest 3 Redux remakes, with big brash numbers in certain rooms, whilst other areas have more mystical and relaxed pieces, all using a variety of instrumental arrangements to produce a selection of harmonious medieval composures. The demo only featured a few sound effects and had no voice acting, but if previous AGDI titles are anything to go by, the final version of the game will not only have an array of excellent audio effects, but a full suite of voice acting to complement the gorgeous close-up speaking portraits.
Although the Mage's Initiation demo consisted of only five rooms, already it shows remarkable promise. Its hybrid gameplay styled after the Quest for Glory series promises to flow easily between adventure game puzzle solving and RPG stat management and combat, and it has an attractive retro look that old school genre fans will be sure to enjoy. I can't speak for the puzzle quality on the whole, but the one puzzle on display here was satisfying to solve and hopefully will set the tone of what's to come. There seems to be a generous number of hotspots to interact with, most of them being optional, and the writing and background detail appear to be substantial and clever, though I really just scratched the surface.
My experiences with Himalaya Studios / AGD Interactive's games have always been excellent and this demo is no exception. As I write this, Mage's Initiation: Reign of the Elements is still available on Kickstarter, asking for $65,000 to help support development. Already it's three-quarters of the way towards achieving its minimum goal, but additional funds above and beyond will help finance additional stretch goals as well. If you're a fan of this developer's games and don't mind a little roleplaying sprinkled in with your adventure, a pledge will support what looks to be an enjoyable game and earn you a discounted pre-order of the game to boot. Miss out and you'll pay the (full) price!