Genre: Action RPG
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Bandai Namco
Release Date: September 26, 2006
Table-top miniature gaming, a hobby consigned to basements and backrooms the world over, is nonetheless an activity of intense thought for its players. Some games force you to plan the movements and combat maneuvers of giant robots on hexagonally divided maps. Some pit groups of super-heroes against each other on city streets. All of them require you to build a massive force of tiny fighters and organize them into point-based armies. With its focus on imagination and tactics, it would seem that this brand of gaming would be a depthless font from which to ladle fresh ideas onto the computer gaming industry.
Unfortunately, while table-top games have definitely made the journey over, they are perpetually consigned to RTS games. This ultimately changes the spirit of the turn-based miniature games. Mech-Commander and Warhammer 40k, while both fantastic examples of the RTS genre, nonetheless lost a little something in translation from the previous glory days on the flock-covered tables from which they sprang.
Enter Mage Knight: Apocalypse, the latest attempt to convert miniature and ruler to mouse and keyboard. Perhaps because they noticed the trend of RTS conversions stripping a bit of the je ne sais quois from the original properties, Bandai has decided to go a slightly different route this time. What they've made is undoubtedly Mage Knight at heart. Having eschewed not only the RTS genre, but indeed war gaming as a whole, Bandai has created a third-person action game in the spirit of Diablo.
The gameplay of the preview build is entirely reminiscent of that great classic title, with a strong focus on dungeon crawling and item collection. Indeed, in this early version, so much outstanding gear drops that much of my time was spent juggling it in and out of my extremely limited backpack slots. Also like Diablo,Mage Knight features an item improvement scheme in the vein of the item gems. Each item found in MK has three sockets, in which certain stones can be placed to increase that weapon's stats. These stones interact with each other in peculiar ways; for instance, a Death stone and a Fire stone will not only add Death and Fire damage to a weapon, but they may add a small percentage of a chance to cause fear as well. The best thing about the system is that, at least in the preview version, the stones can be removed from the item should you find a better one later, so that stones can be reused indefinitely.
The single-player campaign eventually introduces the other classes (the ones that the player didn't choose) as party members. This can be very useful at times, with all of the skill sets represented in large combats. Unfortunately, the AI constantly gets stuck on various objects throughout the game, and therefore the player will spend most of his time alone.
Combat is a frantic affair, with standard melee attacks usually attached to the left mouse button, and secondary attacks consigned to the right. The entire thing can quickly devolve into a messy click-fest. Oddly enough, though, these moments of frenetic button pressing are irrationally fun, building at times to a pulse-pounding frenzy during certain boss fights. Like Diablo, each character class (there are five), progresses along three specific skill paths, with increasingly powerful abilities unlocking as the character gains experience. Unlike Diablo, there are no set levels. Skills and attributes grow as they are used, and automatically unlock when the character qualifies for them. Skills are useful and powerful, so the player will never be bereft of a proper method to solve a certain problem. The preview version's skills are, in fact, a good bit too powerful, resulting in a play experience that is much too easy. Bandai is aware of this issue, though, and has promised a few wrench turns in the machinery of balance that will address it.
The graphics are, so far, gorgeous. The character models are intricately detailed, and the colors are vibrant and alluring. While there are certain animations that seem to have missing frames, those are few and far between, and will most certainly be repaired by ship date. The NPC models are also very nicely crafted, and the enemies are just shy of perfect. Interestingly enough, MK:A is one of the very few games so far in which the "glow" effect actually seems to work, largely because of the fantastic nature of the settings. The jungles are lush and flowing, with reflective streams and thick shadows. The desert setting of the Necropolis is dark and tan, lovingly molded and carefully mapped.
Sounds, as of the preview, are the weak spot of the game. While it's highly possible that these sounds are not going to be the final sounds in the title, they do enough damage to the continuity of the preview that one would certainly hope that they are not. It isn't the entire sound's design that is affected, which actually makes these few moments that much more disturbing. In the midst of battle, swords ring loudly against each other, warriors grunt as they are struck, and over in one corner a mage casts a mighty spell that makes a sort of half-hearted crackling sound. There is also an issue with sound volume during cut scenes varying wildly, so that some characters are far too loud while others are inaudible. Bandai is aware of that particular problem, and is addressing it for the final version. The sound design, while not terrible, could certainly use some tightening up before release.
The control scheme of the preview version could also use just a bit of tweaking. Movement is managed by either clicking on a location or by using the WASD keys. If one decides to use the movement keys (the more precise of the two systems), then the camera cannot be assigned to auto-follow, and must constantly be adjusted by the player. While this isn't a terrible inconvenience, it can certainly muck up combat at times. It would also be nice if the final version allowed the player to assign certain skills to hotkeys. Since the skills are operated by the mouse buttons, only two can be active at a time. This means that the player is constantly juggling skills during combat, which could have been made a touch easier by adding those hotkeys.
All told, Mage Knight: Apocalypse is shaping up to become an outstanding game. With Diablo III all but forgotten, Bandai has injected the genre created by that seminal series with new life, and given fans of the genre a new option, all while retaining the essence of the miniature game from which the ideas are taken. If it continues on its current track, MK:A is going to be a paragon of RPG/Action games with relevant and useful skills, tons of potent items and enhancements, and diverse character classes. A multiplayer element is also planned that will allow groups of friends to get together and tackle the game's content together. A few items should be addressed before the game's release, such as the strange sound issues, the weak partner AI, and the overly powerful skills. When these things are fixed, Mage Knight: Apocalypse is a guaranteed win.
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