Review: The Mage’s Tale (PSVR)

Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR)

Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4
  • Oculus Rift
  • HTC Vive

Platform/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4 Pro
  • 4K HDR

Extras:

  • PlayStation VR Required
  • DualShock 4 None
  • Move Required (2)
  • PS VR Aim Controller None
Title: The Mage’s Tale
Format: PSN (9.62 GB)
Release Date: February 5, 2019
Publisher: inXile Entertainment
Developer: inXile Entertainment
Original MSRP: $29.99 (US), £24.99 (UK)
ESRB Rating: T
PEGI: 12
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Early PlayStation VR games often felt like glorified tech demos. These were games that showed off a fun, albeit simple gameplay hook that relied on the gimmick of VR to be interesting.

The Mage’s Tale is proof that PS VR games have come a long way since then. This is a full-fledged dungeon crawler with RPG elements that lets you step into the robe of a wizard-in-training.

Developer inXile’s Lead Designer, David Rogers, discussed where the idea came from in a February 5, 2019 PlayStation Blog post.

The Mage’s Tale was inspired by the daydreaming we do as kids. We wanted to capture the feeling of going into your backyard and pretending to be a master wizard, summoning lightning bolts, and throwing fireballs at make-believe monsters. All of the game is designed to capture that sense of childlike wonder and power fantasy.”

That sentiment can be felt throughout the entire ten plus hours of gameplay in The Mage’s Tale.

Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR)Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR)

Gameplay:
The Mage’s Tale begins with very little preamble as you quickly witness your wizarding master, Mage Alguin, engaging in a spellcasting duel and eventually being captured by the game’s protagonist, an evil wizard named Gaufroi.

When the dust of the opening battle settles, a floating goblin named Crux appears. Once a loyal assistant to Mage Alguin, this wisecracking sidekick is less-than-thrilled to be accompanying an apprentice mage, as he often lets you know throughout your quest.

The storytelling mechanism of The Mage’s Tale is straightforward and timeless in fantasy: hone your own skills as a wizard trainee as you seek clues, magical artifacts, and helpful characters that will eventually lead you to your master.

Two Move controllers are required to play The Mage’s Tale, with each controlling a hand that’s visible in the game. The default means of movement is point-and-click, and you can hold down the Move button to see a white line previewing where you will go. Fine movements forward and backward, as well as quarter-turns to each side, are controlled with the Cross and Circle buttons on the Move controllers.

At first, pointing and clicking can feel disorienting, especially during frantic battles. A lot of ground can be covered very quickly with a few long movements, and while this is nice as a means of escaping an enemy, it can also make it tough to get your bearings.

By the end of the campaign, though, it feels more natural and can even come in handy when going on the offensive and flanking an enemy. There are also options to use a free movement mode or to keep a reticle up on the screen at all times.

Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR)Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR)

For fans of The Bard’s Tale, there is extra incentive to play this mage class simulator. The Mage’s Tale is set within the same universe as the Bard’s Tale series, and takes place before the events of The Bard’s Tale IV: Barrows Deep.

The pseudo-satirical nature of the series does make its way into The Mage’s Tale, and whether it’s Crux’s lamenting about being stuck with an “idiot apprentice” or the ability to throw a fireball that rains confetti before turning an enemy into a sheep, there are some genuinely funny moments throughout the game.

Overall, The Mage’s Tale nails the feel of being a spell-slinging wizard. There is no HUD, but instead there are clever indicators on each glove-adorned hand displaying health and experience.

Spells are chosen from a radial menu that hovers at the tip of either hand, so that a quick activation of the menu and swipe of the hand switches to a new spell on the go. Either hand can be set as the primary, which becomes the one you use to sling your elementally-based fire, ice, wind, or lightning spell at oncoming orcs, skeletons, ogres, or whatever other enemies a dungeon may have in store.

The off-hand can be used to activate a defensive spell, which acts as a shield and can block incoming blows from undead swordsmen or fill up like a pincushion with arrows from goblin archers.

Initially, spells are very basic versions of fantasy tropes such as a fireball that can be thrown in a straight line or a lightning bolt that can be charged up to chain between groups of nearby enemies.

Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR) Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR)

Throughout your journey you’ll come across various spell modifiers. As you pick up a vial containing a spell modifier, such as “Polymorph” or “Green,” a giant frog named Fergus appears out of a portal next to you, floating on a pillow. If you toss the bottle into the Fergus’s mouth, it will be taken back to your workshop hub area.

Returning to this workshop is not as simple as pausing the game and selecting the fast-travel option. The Mage’s Tale takes the extra step of immersion and allows you to raise both hands and turn your head up to the sky, and as you do, you see your surroundings blur and glow until you are teleported back to your workshop. Then you can make your way to the giant cauldron surrounded by the modifiers you have collected throughout the game.

Ingredients poured or tossed into the cauldron can be literally stirred together to form more advanced spells, such as an orange ice javelin that seeks the enemy you turn your gaze towards and leeches health from them as they are frozen.

There are dozens of different spells that can be concocted at this alchemist’s workbench, and experimenting with them adds a lot of satisfying variety to the game.

While the act of casting spells does have a good feel to it, the fights get repetitive as the game goes on. Character models are often reused several times over with no variation within a given dungeon.

Enemies spawn at a plodding pace, usually one or two at a time, for what sometimes goes on much too long, and their behavior becomes incredibly predictable hours before the game’s end. There are exceptions to this, such as one memorable fight against a wizard who raises two giants to fight as he rains various spells down upon you, but there comes a point in the campaign that leaves you longing for a way to skip some of the more mundane conflicts.

Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR) Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR)

There is a standalone survival mode in The Mage’s Tale, but it actually highlights one of the game’s weak points and even spoils some of the later enemy types if you play it before completing the main campaign.

There are RPG elements of The Mage’s Tale, but they are a lite version of what is typical for the genre. Experience is gained throughout the game by defeating enemies and solving puzzles to unlock chests containing runes.

Once you have leveled up, the glove of your primary hand will glow and emanate a ringing sound. Again, in the immersion of The Mage’s Tale, you hold the pointer finger of your secondary hand above the glowing glove to level up, which causes a small chest to appear and offer up a choice between two buffs such as decreased cooldown time for spells or increased health.

These stat boosts are not tallied within in-depth menus and skill trees, but rather a spellbook kept on your left hip that you can peruse at any time. In a similar fashion, health potions can be collected and kept on your right hip until they are needed.

Instead of simply pressing a button to heal, The Mage’s Tale takes full advantage of the VR medium and requires you to pick up the flask and tip your head back as you pour the red liquid into your virtual mouth. These small details speak directly to inXile’s accomplishment of their original goal to create a fictional world in which you can live out childhood dreams.

The Mage’s Tale is actually more of a puzzle game than an RPG. Throughout the dungeons you’ll encounter a wide variety of puzzles. Sometimes they’re straightforward and require pulling a lever to open a door or dropping objects onto switches until a path is cleared.

Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR) Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR)

More commonly, though, the puzzles creatively make use of various abilities in the game such as using your ice javelin to freeze water pouring out of a pipe or setting a torch on fire with a fireball and then using the torch to set flame to objects blocking your way.

A crystal ball object sometimes appears and can be picked up and held in front of your line of sight to reveal hidden inscriptions on the walls, leading you towards your next objective.

Some rooms throughout the maze-like dungeons are purely optional puzzles, often accompanied by a living statue of a giant mouth moving as it tells you an obscure clue. These are usually more difficult than the required ones and may even cause you harm if you move through them incorrectly.

The difficulty of the puzzles feels challenging but fair. However, there are times when the game does not seem to be responding to movements or hands-on interactions as you would expect, and this can be very frustrating. For instance, rotating blocks with runes on them appear throughout the game as a puzzle mechanism. As you reach a virtual hand out to give them a spin, they do not always rotate like you would expect, and sometimes your floating glove actually hits them in the opposite direction as you pull it back.

Other times, objects needed to solve a puzzle may be dropped in the middle of a movement dash, causing you to have to backtrack and search the ground, hoping that the key or crystal ball has not already disappeared and reset to the location where you found it.

These physical limitations are not too common throughout The Mage’s Tale, but they are jarring and remove you from the fluidity of the game when they do appear.

Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR) Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR)

The overall scope of The Mage’s Tale is perhaps its most impressive feature. There is a cohesive story, one with some charming old-school flair, that manages to take enough unexpected turns to be interesting.

Leveling up to improve your abilities and growing your collection of spells helps keep combat fresh, when it would otherwise quickly become stale on its own merits. The Mage’s Tale does not play like a VR version of a dungeon crawler, but rather as a complete dungeon crawler that happens to use the VR interface to make it more engrossing.

Visuals:
The game makes being a wizard feel great, but not look great. The visual palette has an outdated look to it, with unpolished character models and clunky animations. Distant objects, sometimes even enemies, blur into near obscurity which makes them difficult to look at for an extended period.

If you stop to look at the environment of any given room, you’ll notice that some stationary objects actually appear to shimmer or pulse slightly, cheapening the game’s overall aesthetic.

Like the character models, textures and environmental objects are also reused to a degree that it gives the levels a low-budget feel. The overall dark, blocky look of many of the game’s dungeons are too similar.

It’s unfortunate that the greatest variety in level design comes towards the end of the game, where you enter what appears to be a huge, living creature and traverse through slimy rooms lined with eyeballs featuring giant beating hearts.

Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR) Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR)

The art direction itself is actually very fitting for the game’s fantasy environment and is atmospheric overall. Narrow passageways are dimly lit and often foggy or damp. Skeletons and tombs line the dark limits of the catacombs.

Tight spaces are occasionally broken up by opening into huge rooms containing gigantic statues, which gives an especially impressive sense of scale in VR. The dungeons all feel authentic and well thought out, but the lack of visual fidelity is a constant detractor. Jagged edges and dull models abound.

While there is no HUD overwhelming the player’s view, there are some smart uses of visual cues that are especially well-done in PS VR. If you turn your head to look at an object it will glow faintly if it can be picked up and is within range to do so.

During combat if you look at an enemy, a triangular targeting icon will form around them, indicating that you have locked onto them. Some spells even track the enemy you’re targeting after you have cast it. With a quick turn of your head, your Guided Fireball will abruptly change directions and hurtle towards your next victim.

Your hands also serve as substitute HUB indicators. A quick glance at your secondary hand will show how much health you have. The primary hand shows how much experience is needed to level up.

Additionally, the primary hand serves as a spell cooldown meter. After you throw an ice javelin, for instance, ice will begin to form at the bottom of your hand and when it creeps all the way up your next javelin is ready. These are all subtle, yet incredibly effective methods of foregoing a standard HUD in favor of indicators integrated into the world itself.

Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR) Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR)

Audio:
The audio is layered thick with nostalgia. Sounds like the whooosh…CRACK! of fireballs and lingering buzzzz of lightning bolts all hearken back to RPG titles from the era of the early Bard’s Tale games.

Creaking doors, crumbling passageways, and screeching enemies all ring true as classic fantasy sound effects. The sounds may not be as highly produced or reactive to their surroundings as those in many modern games, but they feel right at home within the timeless fantasy setting of The Mage’s Tale.

The music is sparse and also suffers from repetitiveness. As you load into a dungeon you’ll hear a chanting sort of folk music, seemingly used as a tie-in to the old runic magic featured throughout the game. This same song plays almost every time with the exception of an odd funk song that comically references a specific scene you encounter in the campaign.

Whenever combat begins, a drum-heavy song adds some tension to the action the first two or three times it’s heard but it wears out its welcome late into the game. Music is simply not a strong design feature of The Mage’s Tale.

The voice acting, however, shines. Crux’s sarcastic jabs are delivered sharply and with a believable goblin-esque affectation. His comedic timing is usually spot on, barring a few outlying bugs that made him speak well after when he should have in the context of the game.

The voices of the clue-giving statues range from high and ethereal to deep and rumbling, and their hints are delivered like spoken poetry. The exclamations of the various enemies are less impressive but still do a serviceable job of indicating their position.

Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR) Review: The Mage's Tale (PSVR)

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is one player only with no online component.

Conclusion:
The Mage’s Tale lets you step into the role of a wizard apprentice in a way that could not have been possible before VR. (Editor’s Note: To be fair, Sorcery did a pretty good job on the PS3 with a Move and Nav controller in a similar fantasy setting.)

Spellcasting is responsive and fun while the immersiveness of the game is impactful and is the direct result of several clever design choices. The lack of visual polish and the shortcuts taken in reusing assets hold The Mage’s Tale back from being one of the premier titles on PS VR, but it is one of the most complete and full featured games on the system.

If you’ve ever wanted to travel back to that fantasy world your imagination took you to that was filled with epic spellcasting duels, dungeon exploration, and a sharp-witted goblin sidekick, then The Mage’s Tale can take you there.

Score:
7.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Brock Arnett

Gamer since the NES days, Boilermaker, Colts and Pacers fan. I can’t wait until my two boys are old enough to play games with me.

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