It says quite a lot about the quality of the game that A Link to the Past’s contributions to The Legend of Zelda franchise are still, more or less, relevant to this day. While both A Link Between Worlds and Breath of the Wild took steps in pushing the series forward, denying A Link to the Past’s influence on the games that came before would be foolish. This was the entry that gave dungeons proper puzzles, started (but not yet solidified) the trend of dungeon items being used against bosses, and established the “Zelda Formula,” a structure which saw the majority of games being split into two key sections. Along with the many gameplay additions, A Link to the Past brought with it a more focused narrative that worked to expand the lore and mythology of the series.
While both The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link had a clear mythological identity, the first two installments’ faith felt more analogous to Christianity than the wholly unique religion found in the rest of the franchise. The Triforce clearly always played a divine role in the series, in both it how it was utilized in the first two games along with its appearance, but it wouldn’t be until A Link to the Past where the Triforce would be fully fleshed out into more than just a godly symbol. A Link to the Past establishes the Triforce as a tangible object rooted in divinity, coveted by all. It’s through the Triforce’s expanded role that the series gains adequate context for the conflict between Link and Ganon while also making A Link to the Past feel classically epic in nature.
More than anything, it’s A Link to the Past’s narrative structure which allows the game to properly establish a more focused mythos for the franchise. While Link is already on his adventure by the time players take control of him in The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link, A Link to the Past opens with a literal call to adventure, the first step in the Hero’s Journey. In the middle of the night, through telepathy, Princess Zelda calls for Link to come rescue her in Hyrule Castle’s dungeon. Upon being told by their uncle to stay inside, the player is then given control of Link and tasked with disobeying his mentor figure to rescue Zelda. Through spiritual aid, Zelda leads the player to the castle’s secret entrance where Link meets his now dying uncle who bestows upon him his sword.
Although Link’s Uncle is really no more than just a means of giving Link a sword as far as the gameplay is concerned, that doesn’t mean his minimal role isn’t impactful or devoid of thematic relevance. While there’s no emotional attachment in his death for the player, the act of passing his sword onto Link is quite ceremonial given the context. Despite not being in any true danger, Link proves himself by avoiding the guards, braving the storm, and finding a hidden passageway into the castle. The entire opening works in service of Link “earning” his sword. In The Legend of Zelda, he’s simply given it inside a cave while he begins with it in The Adventure of Link. A Link to the Past uses its introduction to establish a scenario where Link proves his worth and takes up his Uncle’s sword as his last will and testament.
From there, Link rescues Princess Zelda, escorts her out of the castle, and leads her to a Sanctuary where she takes refuge for the game’s first act. Now having rescued the Princess and inherited his uncle’s blade, Link is properly set out on his adventure to retrieve the three Pendants of Virtue so that he can wield the Master Sword and defeat Agahnim. It’s in leaving the Sanctuary to go about their quest that the player crosses the first threshold in the Hero’s Journey, properly beginning their adventure.
It should be explicitly stated that this threshold is for the player and not Link since the key difference signifying A Link to the Past opening up is the storm’s clearing. Realistically, Link would be familiar with a clear-skied Hyrule whereas someone playing the game for the first time wouldn’t. Worth noting, however, is that Link is still very much a blank state at this point in the series so, in a way, this first threshold still counts as far as Link’s arc is concerned since he’s less of a character and more of a vessel.
The order in which the three Pendants of Virtue are attained are also worth making note of as they lend themselves to a subtle arc of sorts for Link/the player. The first pendant Link is tasked in finding is that of Courage. Courage is a theme that will go on to play a large role as far as future iterations of Link are concerned so it’s only natural A Link to the Past kick off with Link proving his bravery. Although the Eastern Palace lacks elements that would traditionally test one’s bravery, it housing the Pendant of Courage still works as an extension of the opening.
Link proved his bravery earlier by entering Hyrule Castle swordless and then helping Princess Zelda escape at the expense of being labeled a criminal by Hyrule. Now, in a worse situation than he’s ever been in, he still agrees to help Zelda, braving a dungeon so that he can obtain the Master Sword and defeat a wizard terrorizing an entire country. The narrative doesn’t need to make a note of Link proving his bravery since the context of the adventure up to that point already does so.
Tucked away in the Desert Palace, the Pendant of Power actually does have some synchronicity with the actual gameplay. As the Pendant of Power, it’s natural to associate it with swordplay. Even though the dungeon itself doesn’t emphasize action any more so than usual, it is the third major dungeon in the game, (counting Hyrule Castle,) so players should be expected to have a better grasp of the combat by this point. Whether intentional or not, the Pendant of Power’s placement makes sense within A Link to the Past’s overall structure simply due to the fact that it gives players enough time to adjust to the combat and understand how to properly fend for themselves.
Of all the pendants, the Pendant of Wisdom at the top of the Tower of Hera feels the most appropriately placed in regards to context and dungeon. By this point in the game, players have taken on more than a few puzzles and should have a grasp of what A Link to the Past expects from them. This is reflected in the Tower of Hera’s main puzzle: obtaining the Moon Pearl. It is incredibly easy to miss the Moon Pearl and simply head to the Boss fight, but previous dungeons will have bestowed upon the player the wisdom to know and understand that Boss Keys serve dual functions. Not only do they open the door to the boss, they also open the dungeon’s biggest chest, giving Link access to a new item.
Once Link retrieves all three Pendants of Virtue, and ideally the Moon Pearl, he can then head into the Lost Woods to pull the Master Sword out of its pedestal. Scenery wise, the Master Sword could not be placed in a better location. Traversing a fogged, labyrinthine forest only to be greeted with a serene grove filled with animals is the perfect place for a legendary sword to sleep. It’s mystical in nature, surrounded by nature. The scenario is only made better by Link needing to transcribe the text on the Master Sword’s pedestal with the Book of Mudora before he can actually wield it. As the Japanese script reads:
“When the ‘Great Catastrophe’ befalleth, the ‘Hero’ carrying three crests shall come, and by those hands shall be drive out the sword. That person will be one who doth carry the blood of the Knight Family.”
The inscription itself adds a considerable amount of weight to the story up to that point. The Japanese text implies that the Great Catastrophe has begun in earnest and time has effectively run out, or is running out, to stop Agahnim. Should Link return to the Sanctuary after obtaining the Master Sword, the priest who was taking care of Zelda will reveal that he failed in keeping her safe before dying. As the Sanctuary was also one of Link’s spawn points when booting up the game, along with serving as a quick way to regain health, there is a substantial feeling of loss in the priest’s death, at the very least eliciting some sort of emotional reaction from the player if only one out of convenience.
Link storming Hyrule Castle to rescue Princess Zelda effectively signals the beginning of the end for A Link to the Past. Even with the Master Sword in hand, Link fails in rescuing the Princess, fails in stopping Agahnim, and fails in saving Hyrule. At the end of the boss fight with Agahnim, Link and the player find themselves at the lowest point of the Hero’s Journey. Not only have they failed, but they’ve also been transported to a separate world entirely: the Dark World.
A perversion of the lush and full of life Hyrule, the Dark World is a land rampant with monsters and desolation. It is a completely warped version of the overworld players have gotten used to for hours. In many ways, the Dark World is analogous to a journey through the Underworld for Link, a staple of classic storytelling. To make matters worse, should Link not have the Moon Pearl, he’ll take the form of a defenseless rabbit in the Dark World, preventing him from attacking and requiring him to use the Magic Mirror to go back to the Light World in order to grab the Moon Pearl from Hera’s Tower.
It’s only through that Moon Pearl that Link is able to retain his true form in the Dark World, allowing him to rescue the seven maidens Agahnim kidnapped so that he can finish his quest and save Hyrule. Depending on how the players takes Link’s loss to Agahnim in Hyrule Castle, the Dark World’s narrative can be seen as a prolonged atonement where Link makes up for his failure to prevent Zelda’s capture. As is to be expected from a metaphorical journey through Hell, the Dark World sees a difficulty spike all around. Enemies are more aggressive, puzzles aren’t as clear cut, and dungeons are substantially longer.
As Link rescues the maidens locked away in the Dark World, it’s revealed “the sacred land where the Triforce was placed” before Ganon took hold of the Triforce and corrupted the land into the Dark World. This context gives the Dark World an even more hellish personification since it’s confirmed, in text, to be a literal corruption of a sacred land. With this in mind, Link’s goal becomes more than just saving the maidens and stopping Agahnim. He’s now responsible for bringing balance back to the divine order of the world by stopping Ganon, retrieving the Triforce, and undoing his wish.
After rescuing all the Maidens, the road to the final step in Link’s Hero’s Journey takes him to Ganon’s Tower where he confronts Agahnim one last time only to learn that Agahnim and Ganon were one and the same the entire time. From a narrative perspective, this allows there to be a deeper bond between Link and Ganon before heading into the final fight. Ganon isn’t just a random villain showing up for the finale as he was actively working against Link the entire time, albeit disguised.
The actual final fight with Ganon is very mythological in nature since Link is required to use a mix of the Silver Arrows and the Master Sword to defeat Ganon. While also being a reference to the original Legend of Zelda, the silver arrows simply add another layer to the story’s structure. The Master Sword alone wasn’t enough to fell Ganon in Agahnim’s form so of course Link would require another mystical weapon to help finish the job. Link obtaining the Silver Arrows is even Arthurian in concept, requiring Link to toss his arrows into a Fairy’s pond within the Pyramid of Power.
Upon finally defeating Ganon, Link is welcomed into the Triforce’s chamber where it’s revealed that the Triforce “is the ‘Golden Power’ of the gods.” It can be taken for granted considering later games frequently make mention of the goddesses, but this is the first explicit in-game mention of Hyrule being a polytheistic world outside of A Link to the Path’s Japanese title, Triforce of the Gods. Not only that, it’s confirmation that multiple gods to in fact exist in The Legend of Zelda’s mythos. Fittingly, Link coming in contact with the Triforce fills the criteria for the Gift of the Goddess within the Hero’s Journey where the hero receives a reward for their actions. In this case, Link wishes for the world to return to the way it was before Ganon began terrorizing Hyrule, also fulfilling the criteria for the Hero’s return at the end of their Hero’s Journey.
Before the credits roll, the player is shown the result of Link’s wish. Characters who died come back to life, order is restored to Hyrule, and the Master Sword is returned to its pedestal, never to be touched again. While that last part is certainly debatable considering the chronology of the series and how future games link back to A Link to the Past, it doesn’t change the fact that A Link to the Past is mythological in structure from start to finish and that its structure contributed greatly to how future games would approach the series’ lore and narrative. It is a tale that is epic in its most traditional sense, giving players the chance to live out a Hero’s Journey all while establishing a mythological identity for The Legend of Zelda as a whole.
As Koji Kondo’s score plays over the credits, slowly easing into a rendition of the series’ main theme, it becomes abundantly clear that The Legend of Zelda’s mythos is more than just a few Christian references with mentions of a Triforce here and there. It’s a fleshed out, fully realized world with something meaningful to say. Whether it be about the nature of man or what it means to be a hero, A Link to the Past takes a serious attempt at expanding the Zelda lore and it does so spectacularly. A Link to the Past is a complete redefinition of The Legend of Zelda’s world, elevating the series to a new standard entirely. One rooted in myth.
‘Final Fantasy VIII’: A Beloved Black Sheep
If the the general operative way to make a sequel to a massive success like Final Fantasy VII would be to give people more of the same, only bigger and better, Squaresoft opted for something of a different approach.
When Final Fantasy VII emerged on the scene back in 1997, it changed the way gamers looked at, and experienced, JRPGs. With its flashy cutscenes, cool aesthetic and myriad of anime badasses, Final Fantasy VII pulled off the seemingly impossible task of making RPGs cool. It also gave RPGs a breath of fresh air, exposing them to the mainstream and earning them a much bigger slice of the gaming industry. Then came Final Fantasy VIII.
If the the general operative way to make a sequel to a massive success like Final Fantasy VII would be to give people more of the same, only bigger and better, Squaresoft opted for something of a different approach. In fact, Final Fantasy VIII was so wildly different from its predecessor that it wouldn’t be stretch to call them polar opposites.
Where FFVII took place in a world that was dark, moody and foreboding, FFVIII was bright, colorful and drenched in sunlight. Where VII began in the desolate slums of a fascist, dystopian nightmare, VIII opened in the sort of beautifully-rendered, futuristic facility that would be right at home in paradise. Though Final Fantasy VI and VII were separated by an entire hardware generation, there similar venues of dark steampunk and darker cyberpunk make them far more comparable in terms of their look and feel then VII and VIII.
The characters were just as distinctly different. There were no caped monster men or gun-armed maniacs here, just 6 high school students of relatively similar age, build and disposition. From the magic system to the way experience was garnered, from the way that weapons were upgraded to the method with which players earned money, Final Fantasy VIII re-did literally everything VII had built, right from the ground up.
This comparison goes a long way toward explaining Final Fantasy VIII and its strangely disjointed place in the series. Where VI, VII, IX and X are all fondly and widely remembered, VIII is more stridently beloved by a small group of loyalists. Despite its strong reviews and fantastic sales, Final Fantasy VIII found itself slipping further and further from the series’ limelight as the years passed by.
Now, however, with the release of Final Fantasy VIII Remastered, the black sheep of the mainline Final Fantasy franchise has gained a new lease on life. As one of the last of the golden age titles in the series to finally reach a mass market rerelease, FFVIII finally has a chance to redeem itself from years of teasing and jibes about its confounding junction system and endlessly plot-twisting time compression storyline.
Getting down to brass tacks, there was indeed a LOT to learn from the outset. Critics of the game are absolutely right in one respect: this game is complicated. If that weren’t readily apparent, the seemingly never-ending stream of tutorials that unfold over the course of the games first 10 hours oughta clue you in real quick. How to junction a GF, how to draw magic, how to junction magic, how to switch junctions, etc. You’ll be reading the word junction so much, you’ll think you’re watching an educational special.
With that said, though, once you’d finally mastered the many idiosyncratic elements of the junction system, you’d never felt more powerful in your life. Junctioning Ultima to strength, Full-Life to HP, and casting some Aura magic could make short work of just about any threat the game threw at you, and that’s just one of dozens of strategies that the malleable junction system provided players with. As Quistis points out early on, junctioning a status effect like blind or sleep to your elemental attack attribute could render seemingly insurmountable enemies relatively harmless in one fell stroke.
Of course, the complex nature of such a system could not be overstated. If anyone were to read this who hadn’t played the game, I’m sure it would come across as absolute jibberish. That’s part of the charm of Final Fantasy VIII though: like many a beloved cult classic, this game is as uncompromising and unabashedly against the grain as a sequel we might get from the likes of David Lynch.
The same goes for the magic system. While drawing magic from draw points and enemies is initially confusing, the amount of freedom it gives the player to stock up on spells and utilize them for a myriad of purposes was utterly earth-shattering. The fact that entire GFs (Guardian Forces) could be missed just because the player forgot to check the draw options on a particular boss was the kind of kick in the general genital region that made a game like Final Fantasy VIII worth going back to at least once more after completion.
Upgrading weapons with collected materials was also very different. No more just buying the next awesome sword from a new vendor, the player would instead need to find a Weapons Monthly issue for the information on the upgrade, and then mine the respective materials needed to improve their weapon. Finally, the SeeD salary system ranked and evaluated the player as they made their way through the game. No more earning a shower of gil just for offing a few enemies, if you weren’t representing the SeeDs and Gardens in an optimal fashion, your pay would suffer as a result.
Outside of gameplay, these wild 180 degree turns continued in Final Fantasy VIII‘s plotline. Following the hard science fiction bent of the story of FFVIII could be a task in and of itself. A game that ostensibly begins with high school mercenaries being dispatched to aid rogue organizations around the world eventually evolves into an endless battle across space and time with a sorceress from the future. Meanwhile, some of the most seemingly important plot points in the game, such as Squall’s parentage, or the party’s connection with Laguna and company, are resolved only in the background. Players looking to piece together the many disparate elements of this story will have to put on their Dark Souls helmets and do a bit of individual exploration if they want answers.
The way the game focused on love as an essential motivation is also unique to the series. Though there had been love stories in Final Fantasy games prior to this, they never offered this much depth and emotion. Essentially the central character arc of the game, that of Squall Leonhart, is that of a damaged, emotionally bereft man opening up and learning to love again after suffering loss in the form of childhood traumas. The importance of this focus cannot be overstated. Final Fantasy VIII is a love story first and foremost, and anyone who might doubt that prospect need look no further than the keyart that accompanies the title sequence.
This focus on love, and its healing power, offers Squall perhaps the most fascinating character arc of any in the Final Fantasy franchise. Ostensibly a cold, apathetic loner at the outset, Squall transforms over the course of the story into a man who’s willing to throw caution to the wind if it means saving his friends or his love. Take, for example, the sequence toward the end of the game wherein Squall hurtles himself into the depths of space to save Rinoa, with absolutely no plan on how he might make his return. His love is so important to who he is, and what it has made him, that he would rather die than let it go.
The defining moment for this character, Squall, is unimaginable to players who first meet him sulking and brooding his way through the little monologue snippets that play in his mind. Even in the middle of the story, he opts to send Zell to save Rinoa from a potentially fatal fall, only going himself when there appears to be no other option. This gradual arc from stoic and closed off to open and supportive is still fascinating over 20 years later, and one of the key charms of Final Fantasy VIII.
Back in the fold and better than ever after 2 decades, Final Fantasy VIII Remastered has given the beloved black sheep of the Final Fantasy family a new lease on life, and a second chance to redefine its legacy. Whether it’s your first time venturing into this mad little piece of fiction or you’re coming back for the 10th replay, there’s never been a better, or more convenient, way to experience this one of a kind story.
‘Dragon Quest’: A One of a Kind RPG
Even as time moves further away from May 27, 1986, Dragon Quest doesn’t feel dated. It certainly shows its age, but it has an elegance that only the best of games can boast. Even today, Dragon Quest is one of a kind.
The original Dragon Quest on the NES can be an incredibly difficult game to revisit. As the game that more or less set the foundation for all future JRPGs, Dragon Quest naturally feels primitive in comparison. Grinding is an outright necessity, there are next to no boss fights, and dungeons emphasize maze-like exploration over puzzle solving. The game’s initial Japanese release even used a password system to maintain progress. It wouldn’t be until the game was localized as Dragon Warrior in the west where it would gain a proper save system. In spite of all this, the first Dragon Quest has a certain charm unlike anything else on the NES.
Dragon Quest, plain and simple, isn’t like other RPGs— even of its era. Combat has little depth beyond “attack and sometimes heal;” there’s no party system with the player instead exploring the world entirely on their own; and virtually every single area on the world map is open to the player as soon as they start the game. Dragon Quest doesn’t follow traditional JRPG rules, but there were no set rules on how to make a Famicom RPG in 1986. That Dragon Quest opts for a smaller scoped solo adventure allows players to better immerse themselves into the role of the Hero, if nothing else.
Which is something Dragon Quest pulls off better than both The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. Even though players can name him, Link has a distinct enough design where he truly does feel like his own character. On the flipside, while the Warriors of Light are genuine blank slates, the fact they function as a group of four instead of a single character means that NPCs never directly speak to the player— only the party.
With Dragon Quest, however, the Hero is a blank slate who’s roped into dialogue at virtually every turn. NPCs aren’t monologuing into thin air, they’re talking to the player. The player is railroaded into saving the princess, but they can choose to side with the final boss at the end of the game for no reason other than pure curiosity. The story’s only real main arc revolves around the player proving their lineage as the descendant of a legendary hero. Dragon Quest caters itself towards the player’s experience in every sense.
This is a detail that translates right into the main script and helps give Alefgard a real personality. The King explicitly mentions his disappointment with the Hero when he dies in combat. The same characters who praise the hero for being Erdrick’s descendant lambast him if players dare speak to them without proof. The Hero physically needs to carry the princess back to the castle after rescuing her, but there’s unique dialogue after defeating the final boss while still holding her.
In many ways, these little distinctions are necessary for Dragon Quest to thrive. As an RPG, it’s far too simple for its own good. While Sleep does end up adding a layer of strategy to mid-game combat, the majority of the game will be spent mashing the Attack command at enemies. Not only because spells are best saved for when needed, but because of how important a role grinding plays. At the same time, it’s not as if Dragon Quest’s constant grinding is inherently a bad thing.
While yes, grinding is more often than not a way to pad out a game with filler, there’s a therapeutic quality to grinding in Dragon Quest. It’s low maintenance with just enough thrills where it can be quite a zen experience. It’s certainly time consuming, but it’s time spent grounding the player in Alefgard. Given how small the map is, it’s more than likely for players to gain an intimate understanding of the overworld in a single playthrough. Usually, RPG overworlds are large enough where most won’t even humor learning the overall geography, but Dragon Quest makes it simple.
And almost necessary considering how much backtracking there can be. To its credit, though, it’s the good kind of backtracking dictated more or less by players. Although moving further and further away from the starting castle triggers stronger enemies to appear, the player really can go just about anywhere right at the beginning of the game. Enemies will massacre them with little to no effort, but it’s not difficult to find the three major relics in any order. It’s even possible to hold off saving the princess until the very end of the game.
This is also to say nothing of what Dragon Quest offers from a pure gameplay experience. While battles are incredibly simple, stat numbers are grounded to the point where every little point of damage makes a difference. There’s a thrill to underestimating an Axe Knight, barely surviving, and then landing a critical hit that kills him in one swoop. The occasional Goldman and Metal Slime go a long way in adding a level of excitement to the Dragon Quest grind. If it’s going to be mandatory, why shouldn’t it be potentially interesting?
Battles are made even better by Dragon Quest’s dynamic first person perspective. Upon entering a random battle, a new in-game window pops up depicting an enemy with a lush background behind them. Toriyama’s art design is already a massive boon to the game’s aesthetic, but depicting backgrounds in-battle helps better present Alefgard as an actual, living world— something very few NES RPGs went through the effort of doing.
Even dungeons manage to be compelling in their simplicity. Players need to rely on torches early on to see anything inside of caves. The fact that light slowly dims over time can force players to rush for the exit as darkness creeps in around them. Dragon Quest is a game that’s more than comfortable leaving players to rot in a pitch black dungeon. It’s an RPG that emphasized the importance of preparation without needing to make it a constant game mechanic.
Healing magic ends up replacing herbs, Radiant makes torches useless, and Return ensures that players never need to waste an inventory slot on a Warp Wing. At the same time, healing magic is the most reliable way to heal so players might want to stock up on torches and Warp Wings anyways just to save MP. There isn’t much depth at play, but a fair bit of thought does go into the moment to moment gameplay.
At its core, Dragon Quest is a game that never out-stays its welcome. It’ll be a challenging title for fans of the genre to experience, but it’s one that can take players back to 1986, when Final Fantasy was still an entire year away and the JRPG genre was in its infancy. Dragon Quest doesn’t humor the player, but emotionally involves them in the world of the game. Even as time moves further away May 27, 1986, Dragon Quest doesn’t feel dated. It certainly shows its age, but it has an elegance that only the best of games can boast. Even today, Dragon Quest is one of a kind.
‘Mages of Mystralia’ and the Fear of the Bigger Fish
‘Mages of Mystralia’ challenges notion of the magic user as an Other, tasking players with determining the truth of its world for themselves.
Magic as a misunderstood disaster engine is pretty routine with our fantasy worldbuilding friends. Identifying cosmically gifted individuals as something Other exists within the narratives of the fantastic as everything from plot-relevant physical division (like the Circle in Dragon Age) to garden-variety bigotry (like the witch-boy in Overlord II, for the six people that remember that absolute unit of a tale). Some characters think magic is dangerous, others just think it’s cheating, but almost without exception the magic users of any established world are treated like people who walk into work with blood and gooey bits on their hands; maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable, innocent, non-murder explanation, but the safe bet is to assume they started their day by throwing unsuspecting virgins into equally unsuspecting volcanoes.
Which is fair, since Mages of Mystralia begins with the red-haired Zia yeeting out of the town of Greyleaf after accidentally setting her entire house on fire. Because Zia, obviously, is a mage, and in Mystralia, this is a very big problem.
In the Before Time [crashing thunder], there were Mage Kings, kings that were mages, and kings that had magic (the poison specifically for Kuzco, Kuzco’s poison). Those possessing this gift were whisked away from their tiny, little villages and raised in the castle to be heirs and guardians and suspicious viziers. Then the goblins came and started wrecking shop, and one squirrelly moron named Aetius (first — and probably last — of his name) went looking for the Celestial Magic that you’re uber-super-not supposed to touch. He touched it, kept touching it, went crazy, and set the country on fire, ruining magery for everybody else. A slightly less squirrelly dude called the Marquis (the only one to survive stopping Aetius), then took over and made magery and anybody who practices it illegal. All the existing mages were killed or banished, and new mages, if they were found, were nixed on the spot.
Making unchangeable personal qualities illegal doesn’t solve things, however, because once every decade magic wakes up in somebody anyway — and this time, that person is Zia. So, the magic wakes up, sets her house on fire, and the citizens of Greyleaf take it upon themselves to throw her out since the Marquis is far away and doesn’t care about them anymore.
And so, the adventure begins.
After getting booted, Zia makes her way to the mage village of Haven, and on the way finds this objectively evil book in what looks like an abandoned altar…pillar…gateway…thing. It’s been here for a hot minute before she picks it up; it starts talking to her and teaching spells that her magery mentor (named Mentor) tells her a few minutes later she shouldn’t have yet, but he’s sure it’s fine.
This is objectively evil book — it has a smoky black speech bubble and everything — teaches spells and gives all kinds of historical context for the places Zia goes while looking for ways to keep a solar eclipse from ending the world. In particular, he says something that encapsulates the theme of Mages of Mystralia: the word “spellcraft.” Zia corrects him and says, “You mean magery.” He responds: “Magery is a word used by people who are afraid of the Marquis and his men. Spellcraft better describes what mages do. You should call things by their real name.”
The book isn’t the only one to talk about this. At the very beginning of the game, Mentor is sitting on a log in front of a safe house in the woods, saying that he’s going to start teaching Zia spellcraft — and then immediately corrects himself to “magery,” because Zia hears “spellcraft” and kind of loses her mind. “Fine, magery, then if that word scares you less.”
“Spellcraft” is a heavily stigmatized word in the universe of Mages of Mystralia, and the different ways in which the book and Mentor react to it are important. Mentor resigns himself to Zia’s fear of it, while the objectively evil book is actively combating this attitude. These characters represent the two ways one can approach this kind of total exile. Mentor is from the older generation, the ones who saw the fall of the mage kings and who almost definitely knew mages who died in the initial purge. He is jaded and irritable, and twice in the first twenty minutes says to Zia, “Life is so easy, is it not?” when she gets antsy about using her magic.
The book, however, is older. The book represents a time when having mage-kings and actively roaming mage-guardians worked, letting players know that this system isn’t inherently flawed. Mage-kings used to be the reason people could walk freely in the valley at all; under the Marquis, the goblins run totally wild, and all the roads in and out of everywhere are unsafe. The book is calling things by their “real names,” as he remembers them, and wants to know why the modern language has shellacked all this new jargon over the truth. (Side-note, I have literally no reason to believe this evil book is male, but anyway…)
So, the objectively evil spellbook is thus far the only Socratic character in the story (which is fine, as you don’t need more than one). The purpose of a Socratic character is to be the voice of dissent in a story-world with which an audience is unfamiliar. While the book’s questions are rarely overt, his casual observations and concerns about the state of the world as it is and the world as he once knew it imply a hoard of information players don’t have — like the old quarry having flooded itself out of practical use in “[his] time,” and the seal table thing in the mage town of Haven having once been in the castle — and this inspires the player to ask questions of their own — like whether Celestial magic is truly an evil thing. It’s easy to fall into the bad-fantasy-novel trap of having everything a character tells you about the history of the land be the complete and unadulterated, non-propagandized truth; the book is our anchor against this type of narrative complacency.
The book functions as Zia’s anchor as well; alone, she wouldn’t think to ask these questions. The people she meets who know she’s a mage — and who fear her because of it — believe that magic is dangerous, and to keep themselves safe, the Valley just can’t have any magic in it at all. Zia was raised by these people; she grew up believing the same thing. Now that Zia is in the thick of it, she has to look further into it; but they don’t, because they are satisfied with the answers they already have. Their terror of mages stems from physical insecurity and an unwillingness to trust people with inherently more power over the world than they’ll ever possess, even in theory. The fastest way to solve that problem at the time was to get rid of the offending power. That way, their ‘side’ (non-mages) would be the biggest fish in the ocean. There would be nothing left — in theory — capable of scaring them.
The turning point of Mages of Mystralia happens when the Marquis dies in the most suspicious fire ever. The Chancellor says, “A mage did it” and decides to find all the ones they let go the first time in order to kill them properly now. The first place to be attacked is Zia’s home village, Greyleaf.
This incident is the turning point not because it’s where the status quo gets paved over, but because public opinion begins to turn in Zia’s favor. The Marquis is dead, and the Chancellor — who was the voice of the Marquis and a man in whom the public had great trust — is becoming as dangerous as mages had ever been. Aetius had to be stopped not because of his Celestial magic, but because he was using it to burn villages to the ground; now the Chancellor is doing the exact same thing. The only difference is the Chancellor is using the army instead of magic.
The most eye-opening thing Zia learns, however, is that the fear of mages was not entirely organic, but orchestrated by a single person. The Chancellor, we discover, is a mage. His goal is to exact revenge on the mages of Haven who exiled him for trying to master magic he was not ready for — Celestial magic, just like Aetius. Does this mean, then, that mages are evil? If the last two people to burn down the Valley were mages, surely magic must be the problem. Yet it is not, precisely because Zia also a mage. If both the hero and the villain are mages, the only difference between them is who they are as people.
Mages of Mystralia is Zia’s journey — not only to love her new self, but in learning that, to quote The Blacklist of all things: “the line of good and evil runs through us all,” and the world is never as simple as we think. Mages aren’t inherently evil, and non-mages aren’t inherently good. We are presented with mages who are good and mages who are evil; we are shown people who fear the player, and people who do not. The Chancellor is a mage who hurts people; Zia, Mentor, and everyone in Haven are mages who save them. The world is full of evidence to something, but whatever that might be, Zia and the book have to find out what’s really true for themselves.
“You will not always find the answers you seek,” says the Enchanter in Haven, “but you will always grow stronger, seeking them.”
‘Creature In The Well’ Review: Dungeon Crawling Pinballing
‘Creature in the Well’ is a unique blend of genres, and an absolute must-try for audiences of both the pinball and puzzle games.
A top-down, pinball-inspired, hack-and-slash dungeon crawler? That certainly may be a genre combination never done before. But in reflection to the sciences of chemistry, sometimes grouping elements into a mixture can create something that is definitively unique and distinguishable from its initial ingredients. Creature In The Well is a whole new breed of game design — by blending various genres, developer Flight School has created one of the most distinctive and satisfying puzzle games in recent years. The closest comparison you can probably make is if Hyper Light Drifter collided with a classic pinball cabinet and Breakout.
Acquiring a New Beat
Creature in the Well tasks the final remaining BOT-C unit in a mysterious world to venture into the desert mountain that lies in wait next to the imprisoned city of Mirage, a land captured by a deadly sandstorm. Inside the mountain rests an ancient facility in need of power; but there’s also a fearsome creature who stuck in a state of despair. It is the bot’s job to reboot the machine, stop the monster, and save the city of Mirage from the never-ending storm that shrouds the land.
Although it may sound like a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler, Creature In The Well is not a test of strength against all odds; it’s a quest of knowledge that utilizes timed actions. The BOT-C unit is not on a bloodlust to its goal; it’s in a fight for survival through various puzzles that demonstrate adaptability. The game is a test against the active mind.
After obtaining a sword and learning quicker means of movement through dashing, it would be easy to assume that fighting comes next. However, the reality of the situation is that the BOT-C unit’s sword and secondary weapon are never swung directly at an opponent — not once throughout the entire journey. Instead, weapons are used as flippers in a sort of active pinball game, continuously knocking around orbs of energy at various machines that will grant voltage. This energy must be spent to open hydraulic doors throughout each dungeon that block progress, but it can also be used to upgrade the BOT-C unit’s gear via a blacksmith, or to find upgrades secretly scattered behind different pathways. The more thoroughly a dungeon is explored, the more voltage there is to claim from conquering puzzles of higher difficulty.
The environment then ends up becoming the greatest threat, as there are no true enemies to wield weapons against. A variety of projectiles can cause damage, forcing players to move around. Well-placed shots and timely swings are the keys to progression, and the only way of reaching the endgame. Adapting and using creative ways to solve puzzles is the foundation of Creature In The Well. Mastering Breakout and Pong-like movements for multiple projectiles at the same time is the recipe for success.
Creature In The Well makes magnificent use of the Unreal Engine, showcasing a nightly overcast atmosphere with a bleak, dark color palette, but it also manages to remain bright and colorful thanks to the illuminating projectile lights and flashy animations. This ultimately amounts to a game that is not only satisfying to play, but satisfying to watch. It’s a distinct art style that is welcoming to the eyes rather than a confusingly chaotic bunch of unrecognizable firefights.
Creature in the Well urges players to progressively think smarter as they traverse the eight vastly different dungeons. Each puzzle room slowly improves upon the last, as the game consistently and smartly reuses mechanics while introducing new gimmicks to accommodate the metronome-action movements. These gimmicks can range from the way in which energy orbs damage to adding new obstacles like electrical flooring or spiraling death traps.
Puzzles can progressively become more and more challenging, but most are either not mandatory or don’t need to be completed immediately, as there are branching paths and enough energy to skip some roadblocks. This ultimately comes off as a negative or positive aspect depending on the individual player, as puzzle difficulty drastically changes depending on the order in which dungeons are played. Creature In The Well’s lack of a recommended dungeon order might make you work harder in the early-game, which results in a rather carefree late-game that sees you blasting through puzzles with ease — or vice versa.
On the other hand, this gives the player breathing room, allowing them to experiment with routes and return to previous challenges. Skipping or leaving puzzles unsolved lessens opportunities for rewards, so a handy in-game map system allows players to keep track of exactly where they have not completed rooms on designated paths. An unyielding challenge can become an underwhelming enigma with proper dedication and practice. That said, although the endgame can become less challenging than the beginning, the pinball-inspired mechanics are so entertaining that a decline in difficulty never truly becomes an issue. Creature in the Well is never a slog to play through, even when revisiting old dungeons in the latter half of the game.
All of these dungeons conclude with thrilling matchups with the main power sources, as well as the creature who lives beneath the land. Creature In The Well does not have what many would consider traditional dungeon crawler boss fights, but simply sticks to a its puzzle gameplay and challenges players with a larger and more complex version. These battles involve the creature, who extends its arms from beneath the dark abyss in an attempt to attack you.
Embrace The Storm
Creature In The Well is a captivating case of a fresh experiment gone right. Flight School took risks in attempting to dabble in multiple genres at once that seemingly don’t correlate to each other. Yet, the end result is a fascinating concept built on the gorgeously-used Unreal Engine, with the potential to be further expanded upon. Albeit short, the journey to delve into the deepest parts of the mountain to solve new high-speed kinetic puzzles while avoiding a mysterious, calamitous creature never grows stale over the 5-7 hour journey. It is by far the most distinct ‘break the mold’ type game to be released this year, and an absolute must-try for audiences of both the pinball and puzzle game genres.
‘Daemon X Machina’ Review: Beautifully Bombastic Mech Action
With its customization and accessibility, ‘Daemon X Machina’ is a refined action game that should please mech fans of all types.
There’s something beautiful about Daemon X Machina. More than just its striking visual style, however, the game’s mere existence is special in its own right. It’s been some time since a classic mech-based action game in the vein of mainstays like Armored Core has burst onto the market, and given that much of the original staff of that monumental series have moved on to Daemon X Machina, this has long seemed like a noteworthy release for fans of robotic action.
However, it’s no secret that Daemon X Machina has had a bumpy road to release. Between its sub-par initial demo and its severe lack of pre-release hype, it hasn’t been easy for Marvelous’ Switch exclusive to get the spotlight. Thankfully, the result largely overcomes these roadblocks to create a refreshingly polished and much-needed revival of the genre. Daemon X Machina certainly has its share of issues with story and mission structure, but overall it’s a refined action game that should please both new players and genre veterans alike.
For the most part, Daemon X Machina checks off every box for ideal mech action It wastes no time in putting the player in control of a massive, customizable, explosive robot suit called an “Arsenal,” which allows players to zip recklessly around the post-apocalyptic environments to wreak destruction with wild abandon. There’s a delightful simplicity to this; with its easy-to-grasp controls, there’s no excessive complexity, allowing for the visceral joy of blasting enemies out of the sky with extravagant missile launchers to shine through.
But that is not to say that Daemon X Machina is merely a mindless romp. Instead, the plentiful variety of different mission types ensures that you’ll have to think on your feet with every objective. Some missions will have you simply gunning down every foe you see, while others task you with protecting specific units, and still more pit you against massive bosses — which are easily the game’s most memorable missions. With so many different objectives, each mission becomes an enticing prospect.
Unfortunately, this variety gets a bit strained towards the end of the fifteen-hour campaign. Far too often, late game missions merely stick you in an arena with a few other full mech fighters then make you fight to the death — and considering that these are easily the most tedious fights in the game due to how chaotic and difficult it is to attack fast-moving robotic suits, this gets frustrating fast. Likewise, the enemy variety leaves something to be desired, with the vast majority of foes consisting of mere drones or tanks, with the occasional mech thrown in for interest.
Daemon X Machina easily stands out for its polish, style, and accessibility.
However, these negative factors only partially distract from what makes Daemon X Machina so special: its ludicrous action. There’s also plenty of customization available to wreak havoc, allowing you to tweak your Arsenal to your liking. Want to focus on hand-to-hand combat? Install some new legs optimized for speedy ground maneuvering, and some arms for katana-wielding. Taking to the skies? Lighten your load, increase your memory capacity, and pack on the guns. The game presents the options to fight with your mech the way you see fit, allowing for action-packed scenarios straight out of your mechanized fantasies.
But Daemon X Machina doesn’t entangle itself in unnecessary complexity, unlike so many other mech-based RPGs or action games. None of the customization mentioned previously is strictly required to complete the story; instead, the only thing that matters is your ingenuity. In fact, you can likely make do exclusively with the weapons you pick up on the battlefield, and never have to bother with the game’s weapon shops or factories. Daemon X Machina ensures that the most important thing in each of its battles isn’t the weapon you wield, but rather your ingenuity in using it. If one gun isn’t working in the current mission, just head back to the hangar and try a new loadout.
For instance, one point in my playthrough saw me stuck against one boss with a seemingly endless HP bar that was difficult to whittle down, no matter how many shots were fired. However, after numerous frustrating failed attempts, some new types of weapons made short work of this previously daunting adversary, turning the boss into a shattered wreck. Daemon X Machina might be an action game, but by no means is it mindless. This freedom of strategy, combined with the flexible customization and accessibility, is what makes the gameplay loop so addictive.
Daemon X Machina is a balanced, deep, and approachable experience that should please players new and old.
It’s a shame that this excellent action is obscured by the game’s truly dreadful story. Of course, action games aren’t necessarily known for their poignant narratives, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but in Daemon X Machina’s case, the poor storyline distracts from the action. The story begins with a simple premise: a portion of the moon has exploded, and its remnants have corrupted the world’s robots to rise up against humanity. Beyond that beginning, the story devolves into a complex feud between different corporations and mercenary squads, often acting less like a sci-fi adventure and more like a political drama — and not a particularly good one, either. Worse yet, this story is populated by one-note characters who often spend minutes at a time musing upon the nature of warfare and humanity, using dialogue that would fit right in with any generic fantasy novel. At the very least, the voice actors all do a great job, bringing their cardboard characters to some degree of life.
Thankfully, there is respite from the dismal narrative in the form of side content like the ‘free missions’ and multiplayer mode. By forgoing the confusing and uninteresting story, these features focus solely on the strong gameplay loop. That said, it is nonetheless disappointing that one of the game’s most significant modes is tarnished by such shoddy execution.
However, the visuals don’t suffer in this way. Instead, Daemon X Machina features a breathtaking cel-shaded graphical style with a vivid color palette of stark reds, oranges, and greys that makes much of the game look like it flew straight out of a particularly stylish manga. The Japanese rock soundtrack does provide a fitting backdrop, but the tunes generally don’t manage to be quite as memorable as the graphics.
Daemon X Machina easily stands out for its polish, style, and accessibility, giving players the freedom to choose whether they want to focus on the best customization or craft the most creative strategies of their own. There a few rough edges due to its repetitious missions and uninspired story, but when the core content of the game is so enticing, most players should be able to overlook them. All told, Daemon X Machina is a balanced, deep, and approachable experience that should please players new and old.
Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Indie Game reviewers.
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