Monday, March 20, 2006

Magic Stones Review

Magic Stones, developed and published by Winter Wolves.
The Good: Custom druid, spell, and summoned avatar system, some strategy, tournament mode adds variety, AI will exploit your weaknesses
The Not So Good: Extremely difficult, arbitrary attack/defense/hit point relationship, no multiplayer, basic graphics and sound
What say you? A card-based role playing game that’s too hard on new players to be much fun: 4/8

Non-computer based RPGs come in two flavors: the Duneons & Dragons board game style and card-based games like Magic: The Gathering. Both styles are held highly in nerd-lore, competing for the top spot of mockery. Ever since computers came around, people have discovered that we can have the machines do all of the dice rolling and calculations for us, to minimize the need for large amounts of math. Magic Stones is a computer simulation of the card-based RPGs, based off Celtic tradition. Will Magic Stones revive the long tradition of these games and add some new life with new ideas?

The graphics in Magic Stones are diametrically opposed: they have detailed 2-D representations of creatures that look authentic and have a distinctive style, but it just looks like a card game. You’d be able to find the same quality if you purchased a card game, and having a game on computer should result in adding some benefits of the improved medium. There should be some 3-D renditions of the battles that take place in the game, like Final Fantasy or Disciples II. As it stands, the battles are very unexciting: hit points tick off the cards as the battle continues, and that’s pretty much it. The sound effects are along the same lines: a lot more could have been done. There is just the basic arrangement of sounds that accompany each type of attack, and that’s as much variety as you’ll encounter in Magic Stones. There is also not much music in the background that could have played off the action taking place on the screen. Magic Stones essentially did the bare minimum to make the game look like a card game that was taking place on a monitor, rather than making a believable and dynamic environment for the game to take place in.

In Magic Stones, you create a druid (character) and gain experience and objects on your way to becoming really powerful. The first step towards greatness is creating a druid, and this is done through the Druid Creation system (surprise!). Initially, you choose a school of magic (which determines what kinds of creatures you can summon and the spells you can cast), gender (which determines the artifacts you can use; no cross-dressing in Celtic times!), and origin (which eventually influences their stats). Your druid starts at level one, and gains experience points through battles and increases his/her skills in four areas: willpower (mana regeneration during battles), intelligence (speed at learning spells), concentration (less annoying spell failures), and wisdom (increased mana amount). There is an in-game tutorial, but it’s essentially an on-screen manual without any suggestions on overall strategy.

Once you have created your druid, it’s time to fight some bad guys. You can do so through the game’s three game modes: gather artifacts, challenge druids, and quest mode. All of these game modes are single-player only; Magic Stones could be a great multiplayer game, but it doesn’t offer that feature. You’ll want to start out in gather artifacts mode, since the other two are really intended for experienced players. In gather artifacts, you can choose between four different areas, and each of them contains several different battles ranging from lower-level enemies to impressively deadly foes. Magic Stones is not geared towards beginners: even the lowest level enemies will beat you over and over again on the default difficulty (I am assuming, of course, that on the default difficult the game plays “fair” for the player and AI; the game makes no indication of this being true) until you earn some experience points. Considering you only earn one XP in a loss and it takes around 20 to gain a level, you’ll be experiencing a lot of heartbreak starting out in Magic Stones. This is very discouraging, as it seems the game doesn’t play fair and doesn’t ramp up the action appropriately to scale to the experience of the player’s druids. Good RPGs will provide steadily increasing challenges to match your character, but Magic Stones does not. In addition, you don’t earn cool artifacts until you defeat high level enemies, so you’ll be playing a lot of the game using the same skill set, which results in some boring and repetitious gameplay. Once you get a higher level druid, you can enter the linear quest mode and the druid tournament. The tournament is actually pretty neat, an NCAA basketball-style bracket where you face better and better foes over time. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to become competitive until you complete much of the gather artifacts mode. I’d like to see a sort of NIT for lower-level druids so that beginning players and jump right in to the fray.

You’ll be spending most of the game in the battle mode, where you face you enemies in a fight to the death. In the mode, you are given five spots to fill with various creatures you can summon (called avatars) using your mana supply. Only ranged units can use the back two slots, so it’s important to gain enough experience to have a full army (of course, when you start with a new druid, none of your avatars are ranged, so you’re limited to 3 vs. 5 enemies…sigh). Once the battle begins, your avatars are selected and you can choose their target. The action is turn-based, where each side attacks with each of their units, then the other side takes its turn. There are two things available to the player to make the strategy of the battle mode a little better. First, you can use any remaining mana to cast spells (or summon additional avatars to fill vacated spots). Your spells have a probability of being casts successfully that depends on your concentration level; using a new druid, I had to cast a spell five times before it worked, costing precious mana in the process. You can also give your avatars special instructions such as power moves (increased attack at the risk of missing more), defending (regeneration of mana at the cost of not being able to attack), and using their special move, which runs a pretty good range of different abilities depending on what type of creature the avatar is. Successfully winning a battle can depend of using these special functions at the correct time. Being successful in Magic Stones is complicated by the avatar rating system. Each avatar is rated between 1 and 10 on their attack and defense level, but these values have absolutely nothing to do with how many damage they cause. For example, a 7 attack fights a 2 defense and causes 23 hit point damage. Huh? Where did these numbers some from? I’m a stats guy, and Magic Stones hides how the hit point calculations are made and hinders the user in executing a successful strategy. Games such as Galactic Civilizations II clearly state how damage is calculated, but Magic Stones leaves you guessing. How am I supposed to know when to use a special move when I’m not sure if I can wipe out an opponent in just one more turn? There’s nothing I dislike more than arbitrary results, and although I’m sure the calculations in Magic Stones are done in some concrete method, this method is hidden from the user, and this is inexcusable.

It’s clear that Magic Stones has the base for a successfully role playing game; the game just lacks successful execution. Magic Stones has a good druid creation and experience system, but the game is not nice to new players. Almost all of the features (druid tournament, quest mode, most of gathering artifacts) are geared towards experienced druids, but nobody starts as an experienced druid! The way the game is designed, it takes too long to reach a satisfactory level so that you can enjoy all the game’s features, and the path to this level is rife with defeat. On top of this, the game hides how the damage calculations are done, so creating an effective strategy is harder than it should be. Magic Stones just feels like a straight port of a card game (if that could be possible) and doesn’t have any of the flash associated with computer games. This game could have also had some longevity and more enjoyment for beginning players with multiplayer capabilities. Imagine how cool a 16-player online druid tournament would be, seeding the druids according to their experience level. Again, this is another feature that could have been in the game but is not. In the end, Magic Stones is a game with potential that fails to deliver a completely enjoyable product.