/Ceci n’est pas une action RPG: On Mage Gauntlet

The consensus on Mage Gauntlet —  RocketCat’s promotional literature, the TouchArcade review that sold me on the game, various forums is that it’s an action RPG. We have, however, been sold a bill of goods: Mage Gauntlet has more in common with River City Ransom than it does with Secret of Mana.

The problem is that the game’s visual style, theme, and mechanics have all been perceived as belonging to the categorical definition of action RPG: Mage Gauntlet takes place in a fantasy setting, and a couple of the underlying systems are governed by a set of stats affected by equippable items. The SNES-inspired art direction only reinforces the misconception.

So it’s true that Mage Gauntlet plays a bit like Secret of Mana, but the granular experience ultimately presents itself much differently.

The most obvious illustration of this is in Mage Gauntlet‘s “star” system and level design. Instead of a large, open world, Gauntlet is divvied into a few dozen different dungeons, and “exploration” is limited to finding a secret room or two in each.1 After completing a level, the player is rated a number of stars: three for “clearing” — i.e. fully exploring — the dungeon without dying; two for either clearing and dying, or for simply finishing the dungeon without dying; one for dying and also failing to clear the dungeon. Players are given three lives per dungeon.

Even though Gauntlet‘s mechanics remain virtually indistinguishable from those in action RPGs like Secret of Mana — attack, move, spell — this rating system changes the entire tone and function of the game.

Mage Gauntlet is, at its core, about playing each level as efficiently as possible, about killing a bunch of dudes without getting hurt. Success is measured by how effectively the player uses the mechanics available to slash, poison, and burn her enemies, not by exploration or player progression. Mage Gauntlet is a hack-and-slash brawler, not an RPG.

This focus on combat manifests itself in ways that further differentiate Mage Gauntlet from established RPG tropes. Namely, there’s no real sense of improvement or progress though the game. There are numbers under the hood, and they do increase as time goes on, but Gauntlet scales in such a way that the player never really receives that feedback. At the beginning and end of the game, dashing and attacking, not equipment or stat boosts, remain the primary factor that determines success.

Having a sword and sorcery theme doesn’t automatically make Mage Gauntlet an RPG, nor does it not make it a pure action game. And even action RPG is too generous, since the traditional role-playing elements are secondary, not complementary, to the action.

In other words — and I’m not entirely comfortable with this — maybe we shouldn’t categorize games by their mechanics, but by how they define success. Despite mechanics, setting, and visual style that traditionally have suggested otherwise, success is defined in Mage Gauntlet by effective performance — using spells wisely, conserving energy, and beating up dudes — but not by exploration, puzzle-solving, or maximizing a set of statistics.

This isn’t a criticism as much as it’s a description of the game: Viewed on its own terms, Mage Gauntlet is a remarkably competent action game, each design element finely tuned to build up tension as each level goes on. Each dungeon is large and winding, with plenty of hidden passageways and trap doors, well-populated by orcs, skeletons, kobold, zombies, necromancers, and minotaurs. The rating system creates an internal risk-reward dichotomy for each level: I have to find all the secret passages to get a three-star rating, but doing so puts me at risk of running into more enemies; if they kill me, I lose my rating.

Mage Gauntlet‘s hook is that Lexi, our ponytailed protagonist, can only hold four spells at a time, distributed randomly by enemy monsters and chests. Assessing each spell’s most effective uses adds another level of resource management and strategy without overtaking the pure combat.

Unfortunately, the difficulty spikes pretty suddenly in the last third of the game, which knocked me out of that tension-release loop that makes the game so enjoyable. Frustration occurs when the systems in place no longer support the design of the game, and Mage Gauntlet‘s touch controls simply don’t hold up when the screen starts to fill with belligerent sorcerers. I settled for two-stars on the last twenty or so dungeons.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Mage Gauntlet, though, is that RocketCat doesn’t seem to realize just how modern the game is. It’s marketed as a throwback, but this type of genre-blurring is a relatively recent trend, and they’ve done it in such a way that Mage Gauntlet feels totally unique. Trying to describe the game is like going through a dichotomous key: “It’s a brawler, but it’s not top-down, not sidescrolling. There are RPG elements, but they’re minor. There are dungeons, but it’s not a dungeon crawler …1

In any case, there’s nothing wrong with making a pure action game for iOS, especially one as good as Mage Gauntlet. The rub is that Mage Gauntlet is being consumed, critiqued, and sold as a certain type of product that it doesn’t even really attempt or want to replicate; that it leverages our collective nostalgia for games like Secret of Mana — explicitly through its marketing, and implicitly through its art style — without really following through on that promise with its mechanics or design goals.

Nevertheless, Mage Gauntlet is a fine game with a neat spell mechanic and should be checked out if you own an iOS device. Just be careful what you call it.

1 Though Mage Gauntlet is cut into discrete levels, it’s not a so-called dungeon crawler. There’s very little loot, and its effects aren’t as pronounced as skilled use of the dash and attack mechanics. In other words, combat is relatively more important in Gauntlet than the click-click-click of games like Diablo or Torchlight, in which loot and player statistics play a much larger role.

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