Unlucky Mage - Review  

Lucky Enough, but Still a Few Dimensions Short
by Pascal Tekaia

20-40 Hours
+ Throwback to 16-bit RPGs
+ Music, though limited, is very nice
- Relies heavily on grinding
- Story seems unnecesarily stretched out
Click here for scoring definitions 

   As the console generations come and go and technology continues to evolve towards an ever-increasing standard of realism, it's nice to know that otherwise outdated design philosophies have found a new lease on life on handheld gaming systems. Not that these machines aren't capable of some advanced technological feats in their own right, but where else will those of us who still enjoy a good old-fashioned, turn-based RPG turn to get our 16-bit fix? In many ways, it's like the era of the SNES or Sega Genesis never ended. One such game that squarely attempts to cash in on that sense of nostalgia is the Kemco-published Unlucky Mage, a port of the previously-titled Unlucky Hero for mobiles. Going through a mental checklist of retro gaming goodness, Unlucky Mage ticks all the boxes: sprite-based graphics, random enemy encounters, a turn-based battle system, cities and dungeons connected by a maneuverable overworld. It's clear what the team's inspirations were when developing this game. However, an itemized list does not an engaging gameplay experience make, and Unlucky Mage falls short of the mark in several key areas, from its mediocre story to a battle system that proves much too bland for the amount of time it monopolizes.

   The story revolves around Jasper, an orphaned mage preferring to live in solitude, away from normal humans. In the world of Unlucky Mage, most humans live with an ingrained prejudice against all magic users, stemming from an event in ages past in which a powerful mage wreaked havoc and destruction on the world. Another prominent issue existing in the game's world is the penchant of humans to enslave one another. Jasper's parents, when he was a young child, were part of the underground movement offering asylum to slaves on the run. This eventually led to their demise when they were betrayed, and further set his mind against humans. Having exiled himself, Jasper prefers the company of his books and his studies rather than be part of the world of man. This changes one day when, while on a supply run, he runs afoul of the mage Malachi, who has assembled a formidable military to wage war on humans. Refusing to join forces with the revolutionary, Jasper runs back to his house, Malachi's troops hot on his heels. When they set fire to his house, Jasper flees, eventually crossing over into the neighboring country of Aquaria, where Christel of the ruling Diamont family accepts him into her retinue. Within short order, and despite his best efforts, Jasper makes a name for himself due to his tactical skill on the battlefield, and is named Aquaria's royal military strategist.

Combat offers options, though nothing that hasn't been seen before. Combat offers options, though nothing that hasn't been seen before.

   Where the story goes from there is, sadly, not all too interesting. For much of the game's first half, there doesn't seem to be a particular main conflict. Instead, the player is given to understand how unbeatable of a tactician Jasper is as he leads Aquaria to victory against each of its neighboring countries, who one by one instigate offensives against Aquaria only to be outsmarted and annexed onto its ever-expanding lands. This part of the game is heavy on exposition but light on exploration. The overworld is shockingly small, and one could walk clear across the whole map of the continent Adamantia with only a few enemy encounters, though most regions are artificially closed off until the story calls for them to be accessible. When not advancing through the linear story scenes, players are fighting their way through a number of dungeons, which serve to break up the narrative and all follow the same pattern. Upon first entering a dungeon, enemies are a considerable challenge, and it becomes more prudent to run from them, as healing between battles is costly on mana and items. Just before each dungeon boss, however, a warp tile will connect back to the entrance, making it an ideal spot to grind for a while before taking on the boss and completing the dungeon. During the second half of the game, the linear narrative is broken up a bit more by optional side quests, though the procedure remains constant until the very end.

   With this heavy emphasis placed on grinding, a few noteworthy additions to make the battle system unique and entertaining throughout are sorely needed. To be fair, the developers have implemented two features meant to give the battles some added staying power. First is the "Formation" command, which lets the player shuffle their party into a series of predetermined, well, formations in battle. Essentially, it determines which party members are in the front and back rows, with each formation offering certain stat bonuses and deficits. Formations can be changed at will throughout combat, but can only be selected by Jasper himself. The other three characters — and, yes, the game is comprised of a total of four playable characters — are unable to make use of this command.

   The second option is that of "Tactics," meaning special attacks that combine several party members into one strike. Once again, these can only be initiated by Jasper, and have the added disadvantage that they cause him to skip his next turn. These attacks are also prohibitively expensive to use in terms of MP, so they're best saved for boss battles, or even avoided altogether. Neither of these systems is exactly novel, and won't see much use outside of boss encounters. Each character does still have a basic attack as well as their own unique combat skills, and these are at the true heart of the game's combat system. The game's difficulty is reasonable, barring the intermittent grinding sessions needed to polish off dungeons, though it does offer an alternative ending accessible immediately after clearing the first, featuring a much tougher end-game boss, as well as a New Game Plus mode.

The map screen puts practicality ahead of prettiness. The map screen puts practicality ahead of prettiness.

   Visually, most players' expectations should be suitably tempered with the knowledge of 16-bit graphic fidelity. Even then, Unlucky Mage does not represent the upper crust of that era's visuals. The sprites are colorful and distinct, and most main characters have pleasant close-up portraits for dialog, featuring various emotions. Combat is much the same, though the game does have quite a lot of pallette-swapped enemies; most regions have a version of a bat, for example, as well as an archer, a treant, a soldier, etc. Outside of combat, the bottom screen is used to show maps for the overworld and indoor areas, all uniformly unattractive. The world map is muddy soup of blue, green, and brown, while dungeons and towns are displayed by a plain gray pixellated field, completely devoid of any distinctive markings. It's reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda, though not as pretty. This is where nature of being a mobile port is most apparent. The system's 3D slider can spend the game's entire runtime in the "Off" position, as no 3D effect is ever used. Last but not least, a backhanded compliment appropriately and adroitly sums up the game's music: all five or so tracks that play wall-to-wall over the course of the almost 40-hour campaign are nicely composed and tuneful.

   I'm a big fan of retro gaming sensibilities. I can get behind things that other gamers may find intolerable. Not every game has to push the envelope, and Unlucky Mage certainly doesn't. Yet it could deliver better in terms of story and execution. The fact that it is a mobile port doesn't do anything to lessen this case. "Average" is a word that comes to mind when thinking of Unlucky Mage. It manages to be better than the sum of its parts, but it stretches the boundaries of justifying its lengthy play time, let alone a second playthrough. A few small changes to streamline its narrative and beef up its graphic and sound variety would go a long way with this title. Still, there were times when I honestly looked forward to spending another hour or two with it; though there's little on offer beyond a simple distraction, sometimes there's nothing wrong with that.

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