Release Date: April 25, 2006
The more experienced a gamer gets, the harder it becomes to ignore warning signs of bad gaming that can be spotted even before you crack open the packaging. Graphics are often an early benchmark: If the game looks like it came from Lara Croft's water closet, then many gamers will pass on it without even batting an eye, especially in the recent days of higher-resolution gaming that's slowly becoming all but indistinguishable from real life. Those who have been playing since the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System (or earlier!), however, can see far more wrong with a game than just the graphics.
Imagine my hesitation, then, when I took a cursory glance over the case of LostMagic. Generic fantasy setting? Check. Sprites that can’t be discerned without causing eyestrain? Check. Dragon prominent on cover art? Check check. (Dragons, while not entirely bad signs, are much like ninjas and scantily clad anime women in the "We'll toss them on the cover so that people will buy our game" pile.) Screenshots that look like they could have been stolen from another game entirely? Well, judging by the odd magic sigil and stylus squiggle that brings back memories of Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow ... that's one final check. The point I'm trying to make here is that at first glance, LostMagic looked like a cash-in super-generic RPG meant to feed on the lack of quality RPGs on the Nintendo DS.
The lesson to be learned here is that you should never judge a book by its cover.
LostMagic is so very much not an RPG.
It certainly starts out that way, mind you. Everything for the first 20 minutes of gameplay seems like a cookie-cutter fantasy RPG from the Super NES era, flaunting a megalomaniacal sorceress with a god complex, The Diva of Twilight, facing down what may very well be humanity's last, strongest hope. Granted, it's a startling jump into the stylus-based controls – the d-pad only finds use in moving the screen's focus, and the L button is used in a fashion we'll get to later – but before long, whether you like it or not, said "last, strongest hope" is rather ... casually gunned down. So much for humanity, right? Cut to Isaac. Isaac is the son of that wizard (the good one, not the evil one, natch) and happens to be the one who possesses the Wand of Light, the single thing that could lynchpin the Diva's evil plots. Luckily, Isaac is a bit of a prodigal sorcerer, himself.
That's where the magic and the L button come in. The L button calls up a magic seal, whereupon you use your "wand" (read: stylus) to draw out a sigil. The closer to perfect the sigil is, the stronger the spell will be. At first, you have the simplest of spells – a chevron summons up a fireball, a vaguely t-shaped symbol calls up the power to heal, and so on – but as the story progresses, both the spells and the designs needed to cast them get more complicated. To be honest, this is the one part of the control schema that actually works as simply and as well as advertised; the game is strict on what's "perfect," but it’s very lenient on what's "acceptable," unlike most stylus-based drawing in DS games. (Kirby: Canvas Curse? Brain Age? Looking at you.) In addition, later in the game, you get the ability to combine two or even three runes to make drastically different spells, making the amount of variety in Isaac's magic nearly limitless.
The rest of the game's controls become less useful as the game slowly blossoms into its true self, like a caterpillar metamorphosing into a butterfly. See, LostMagic is an RPG only until you learn to cast the magic Trap, which functions like a makeshift Pokéball (you know, from Pokémon). Then, you start capturing monsters, enlisting them to join you ... and the game rather suddenly shifts gears, becoming a real-time strategy game.
You heard right: real-time strategy. It’s like Starcraft or Command and Conquer, but anime-styled and with magic symbols.
There are a handful of differences, of course. Your only dwindling resources to manage are your units themselves and Isaac's MP; enemies don't have "bases" to overtake, aside from the indestructible spawn points and the mana crystals which serve as healing-spots for whichever side possesses them; and treasure chests are strewn about levels for your units to pick up. Oh, and the fact that the AI controlling the monsters on your side of the battle is about as smart as a block of aged cheddar. The ally AI seems to have one goal in life and one goal alone: smash things. This gets rather troublesome, as one tries to place units on crucial spots to block off spawn points, only to have them wander off to smash in another enemy's head. Add in an equally ineffective pathfinding AI – allies, Isaac included, try to go in a straight line to wherever you direct them, getting caught on the tiniest of obstructions – and the fact that you have to reselect units after every command you issue, and you have a recipe for many nights spent yelling in frustration at your DS.
Not everything in LostMagic is abysmal, though. For example, the sound is wholeheartedly average. The music does what it needs to for any given scene, though is utterly forgettable, and the sound effects are notable for being approximately 20 times louder than anything else the DS puts out at an equivalent volume level. The graphics are equally sub-par; sprites that could have been done on a Game Boy Advance, or even a first-generation Sega Genesis, with anime-inspired art in cut scenes that looks quite odd in its almost unattractive simplicity.
Despite all its shortcomings, though, LostMagic is surprisingly addictive. Where the game truly shines, naturally, is in the inclusion of a multiplayer mode. Using the wireless connection of the DS, and even featuring wi-fi support, it's easy to find a rival mage to duel against either solo or with your armies. These battles are truly the shining point of the game, as instead of a perfect enemy AI taking on a flawed ally AI, it's two sides that suffer from the exact same problems and are consequently on equal ground.
As long as you know what you're getting into, LostMagic has little in the way of surprises. The multiplayer modes are a wonderfully nice touch, but the horrible pathfinding and AI get in the way of this being as good of a game as it truly could be. If you're a fan of real-time strategy games, go ahead and pick this up to hold you over until the DS release of Starcraft. In addition, LostMagic proves that a DS rendition of those popular Blizzard RTS games can be done, even if it's a bit of a trial. If you got lured in by the thought of another RPG for the DS, steer clear and rent before you buy. You may like LostMagic, but it's equally as likely that the sudden shift in focus to strategy will leave you simply overwhelmed.
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