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The Mage's Tale

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: RPG/Action
Developer: InXile
Release Date: Feb. 5, 2019

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PS4 VR Review - 'The Mage's Tale'

by Andreas Salmen on March 20, 2019 @ 2:00 a.m. PDT

The Mage's Tale is a dungeon crawling action RPG set between the events of The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate and The Bard's Tale IV.

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In the sea of small-scale VR experiences on the market, the occasional story-driven and feature-length adventures are sorely needed. The Mage's Tale is such a game. Developed by a high profile studio, inXile, and built for VR from the ground up, The Mage's Tale offers an impressive amount of content and fantasy-themed dungeon-crawling. Originally released for VR on PC last year, it made the jump to PS4 and PSVR in February. We checked it out on PSVR to see how well it performs on a platform with several technical limitations.

In The Mage's Tale, we take on the role of a mage's apprentice who's learning how to craft spells and the usual magical shenanigans. Our master, the mage Alduin, is abducted by a dark Wizard named Galfroi, leaving us alone with a smurf-colored apprentice named Crux. It's up to us to learn the art of wizardry while trying to find and rescue our master. The story isn't too fleshed out, and dialogue is mostly restricted to the disapproving banter of Crux, who guides us through several underground caves and dungeons as the story progresses. Fans of inXiles The Bard's Tale will find some appreciated references here and there, since The Mage's Tale takes place in the same universe. Apart from that, the setup moves us through narrow stone passages while we explore, fight off enemies, and solve puzzles.

The story doesn't have to excel, since the gameplay is where the title shines. The Mage's Tale is built for VR, so the game can only be played with two Move controllers that represent our hands. While playing seated is possible, the game plays better when you're standing, since some parts of the gameplay require access to your character's hip area, and a seated position can lead to awkward and subpar tracking situations. The game provides ample opportunities to interact with the environment, deepening the immersion; all levers, puzzles, and most objects can be picked up and thrown freely.

The combat is exclusively ranged, so we'll wield magical spells and projectiles quite frequently. We may find a sword lying around, and we can pick it up and use it, but the absence of an inventory means that swords aren't a good choice for battle. Using spells is as simple as holding the trigger of the right controller and physically throwing or releasing when the spell has built up enough.

Spells are highly customizable, so we can modify attacks when we find additional effects or elements to use. We need to return to our base, where we can use potions to craft new spells by adding and mixing them in a cauldron. We can add damage effects to bounces, increase the affected area, make spells that search for targets automatically, or add colors and effects (like confetti). It adds a little bit of freedom and experimentation to the spells, and it encourages exploration in the hopes of finding even more effects and modifiers on our journey.

Using the spells in combat is a satisfying experience, but some minor inconveniences get in the way. It's satisfying to unleash fireballs, frozen javelins and thunderbolts, but the accompanying effects can occasionally feel too muted, which is due to the game's general technical performance, which we'll talk about a little later. The visual effects lack the impact and weight that are expected from the mighty forces that we're unleashing from our fingertips.

Enemies are a bigger issue. Whether we're fighting flying shamans, ranged goblin archers, shield-bearing enemies, or the occasional boss battle, the AI isn't anything to write home about. The game isn't a walk in the park, but that isn't due to the incredibly clever AI. Enemies are relatively simple, and they move around with little concern for their own positioning. Don't expect them to take cover or take part in clever flanking maneuvers. Some may keep their distance, and some may move in close to deal damage. The more challenging battles occur when the game pours countless waves of foes into an enclosed room. Even then, running around as aimlessly as your opponents usually does the trick, and strategically freezing them in place or throwing them off cliffs with wind spells takes care of the rest.

Tied to the combat are some light RPG elements. We earn XP by winning encounters and finding secrets in the environment. With every level, we can choose one of two perks to increase our stats, such as an additional spell slot, more health, or increased recharge rates for our magic. It's good enough to be viable in the game's fantasy setting, but it doesn't have an elaborate loot system, and we don't need to manage any in-depth stats.

The game shines a bit brighter outside of combat, namely in its exploration segments and puzzles. As we make our way through the countless dungeons, we encounter both mandatory and optional puzzles, some of which are hidden away from the main path. This provides us with downtime to wander around the underground structures, avoiding traps, pulling levers, or using pickaxes to tear down crumbling walls in the hopes of finding new collectibles, puzzles, and spell modifiers. Puzzles are clever but not overly difficult. They mostly revolve around pulling levers, arranging symbols, lighting fires, or looking for hidden clues through crystal balls. There are a few tougher nuts to crack in between, but they rarely leave you hanging, since they're accompanied by riddles to help you solve the puzzle. If you weren't convinced the game takes place in The Bard's Tale universe, the occasionally funny rhymes will convince you otherwise. You'll run past some hidden puzzles in the heat of battle, but if you plan on completing the game more than once, there's certainly enough hidden content in The Mage's Tale to warrant at least a second runthrough.

The exploration and combat combine to build a very solid gameplay loop that works incredibly well in VR. Combat is swift and easy to handle, and the exploration in between is fun and filled with interesting puzzles. It's a dungeon-crawler in VR with high production values, and the gameplay lasts between 8-10 hours, depending on how much time you spend on puzzles and exploration. The world and presentation are immersive in their own right, and physically acting out everything you do with the Move controllers takes care of the rest.

Unfortunately, The Mage's Tale has a few technical issues that aren't easy to overlook. The title was first developed and released for the PC, which means that technical limitations weren't necessarily a concern. The port to the PS4 and PS4 Pro, however, sees several concessions, the chief of which is a massive resolution drop. Currently, the game can look incredibly blurry and soft, with low-resolution textures frequently popping up. This isn't limited to the base PS4, as the game hasn't been optimized for the PS4 Pro — something that inXile has announced is coming soon. It doesn't destroy the experience but is one of the more noticeable examples in recent memory, and I could see people being sincerely bothered by it.

Additionally, the game has to fight with some general issues, such as getting stuck in parts of the scenery when using full locomotion. Although full locomotion is an option, the game seems primarily designed for teleportation as a means of moving forward, and that's evident in the simplest design structures becoming an insurmountable hurdle when we try to walk by. Regardless of movement, we'll often get us in walls, which causes the screen to go black. Thankfully, the game has a panic button combination that resets you to the start of the level without losing any progress, but it still results in a subpar experience.

The controls are good. They follow a similar pattern to recent releases, such as Skyrim, with the option to both teleport and using full locomotion by holding the Move button and tilting the Move into either direction. While teleportation is good for getting around in smaller areas where we may get stuck using locomotion (or if you easily get sick when moving in full speed), combat is a different beast to navigate. When in a fight, the locomotion option is preferable, since we can smoothly move in any direction and keep our orientation; teleporting around a bigger enemy count can easily end up blindsiding you. Generally, the game feels difficult with teleportation, given the number of enemies thrown at you. Motion sickness options, such as smooth turning, exist, even if they're not as deep in other titles, like Borderlands 2 VR. They do the trick, and if you pick up the game, you should be able to find a way to play it comfortably.

Apart from that, the controls work as designed and mostly involve hand movements rather than button controls. We can grab a flask from our hip and drink it to heal, we can touch a gem on the back of our right hand to level up, and raising both of our hands over our head teleports us to our base and cauldron. The controls feel smooth and seamlessly integrated, and that greatly enhances the experience.

All in all, The Mage's Tale is a great VR title that showcases how well games in the genre can work if they're built from the ground up for the technology and the developer pays attention to the details. It's funny and immersive, and while it surely isn't a masterpiece due to its technical issues and lackluster enemy AI, it's a good title that anyone who's hungry for more VR will surely appreciate.

Score: 7.7/10

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