The sixteen bit era of gaming was filled with a ridiculous amount of action RPGs. Which of these games of this age is the "best" is a debate that has been raging since before it was even possible to argue about it on the internet, and likely will keep burning on the internet's Matrix-like future successor… Only that argument likely will be a little more interesting as we'll all know Kung Fu, how to fly helicopters, and other things like that. I've always been a Link to the Past man myself, but regardless of what your favorite was, I think we can all agree on one thing: It'd be fantastic to go back and experience those games as they were the first time we played them. Before we knew what was in store for us after exiting the Castle Hyrule sewers, or what was on the other side of the teleporter at the Millennial Fair.
This is where Mage Gauntlet [$1.99] comes in. I think the best way to describe the game is as a dusty old Super Nintendo cartridge you just discovered and didn't even know you had after your parents threatened you into coming back home and cleaning your old video game crap out of the attic before they "clean" it themselves. (And by "clean" of course they mean "throw away.") It's a lot like The Last Rocket [$2.99] in that they take the 16-bit inspiration to such deep levels that it could pass as a SNES game, instead of just utilizing pixel art and chip tunes because it's in style.
Mage Gauntlet focuses on a single-player story mode that puts you in charge of Lexi on a quest to initially prove yourself to a local wizard named Whitebeard. Without spoiling too much of how it all plays out, you're quickly equipped with a magical gauntlet that allows you to command various magical spells. Throughout your adventure you come across a cast of other characters, journals, and notes which progress the story while accomplishing your typical rid-the-world-of-evil quest which manages to strike a great balance between funny, delightfully cliche, and totally classical without ever being overwhelming or trying too hard.
The game is controlled as you'd expect it to be, with a series of buttons as well as an invisible virtual joystick for movement. They work great, and I really like how you can touch basically anywhere on the left side of the screen to move Lexi around. Lexi has a basic melee attack which swings whatever weapon you're equipped with, as well as a dashing attack that's activated by holding the attack button down. You can also momentarily sprint by tapping another button, and while both of these maneuvers feel fairly optional early in the game, as you encounter enemies, you'll need to do much more than mash attack.
The truly unique twist of Mage Gauntlet is the magic system. In the game world you'll come across both magical urns of sorts as well as some enemies which will spew magical energy when destroyed or defeated. You can hold up to four spells at once, and using them is as simple as tapping a button in the top right corner of the screen which pauses the action and brings up a magic sub-menu. You select your spell, target it (if applicable), and the game resumes. The spells you get are random, but can be made less random using equipment (more on that later).
This whole system works fabulously. I love how magic feels rare, which forces you to value having a spell on deck much more than similar games which allow you to just blast away with whatever your favorite or most effective spell is to your heart's content or your mana bar is empty. In addition, since spells are randomized, it's really cool how you're forced to come up with clever solutions to a battle, utilizing a spell that might not be optimal for the situation by any means but still works by mixing up your strategy. One such instance, for example, was when I was getting mobbed by orcs, with a few spell casters. A chain lightning spell would've really helped, but charging through, silencing the casters, and hacking all the orcs down with my sword worked too.
Loot is plentiful in the game, and aside from looking cool also offers various benefits. For example, you can equip trinkets to increase the likelihood of a particular spell (or set of spells) appearing, and if you're really decked out you might even have a complimentary suit of armor that does something like up the critical strike rate of that spell. Swords have all different kinds of effects from doing more damage, to potentially restoring health or even providing a magical spell randomly. Pets provide constant passive bonuses, and of course, it wouldn't be a Rocketcat game without a healthy array of hats to collect.
Taking all this into account, gameplay is what you'd expect out of a typical action RPG with a very basic stat-based level up system, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. A overworld map display serves as a level select screen of sorts, and you make your way through each area until finally fighting the local boss. Each area has several sub-sections that must be progressed through as well. How long it takes you to get through Mage Gauntlet will largely depend on what kind of gamer you are. If you square off against every monster, search for every secret, and leave no area of the map unturned, you can spend a significant amount of time in the game. Alternatively, if you're the kind of person who just powers through things from beginning to end, dashing past monsters, and ignoring secondary pathways, Mage Gauntlet can be completed in only a few hours.
After beating the game, you'll unlock master mode which mixes up the levels, adds some new secret areas, fresh loot, double the enemies, and other variants. Beating the master mode earns you a second ending, and after that you can go back and replay individual levels for a higher rating to unlock in-game pets. An arena mode is planned as well for the game's first update, although details on that are fairly vague currently. Also, since Mage Gauntlet is all pixel art, it scales beautifully on the iPad in 2x mode-- In addition, Rocketcat plans on making the game universal as well.
Rocketcat games has had a fantastic track record for releasing games on the App Store. Their previous three games, Hook Champ [99¢], Super QuickHook [$2.99], and Hook Worlds [99¢] all relied on a very similar hooking and swinging mechanic which made us wonder what else they were capable of. Well, it turns out that they can absolutely nail making an action RPG, and you wouldn't hear me complain at all if they similarly turned Mage Gauntlet into a vaguely derivative trilogy of games.
I feel like people who were around to enjoy the original 16-bit-era action RPGs likely will appreciate Mage Gauntlet the most, but there's plenty here to love even if that doesn't apply to you. Like other Rocketcat titles, Mage Gauntlet is launching at a special price, and early buyers also get a promotional pack of hats (and a pet). If you miss this release window, don't worry, you'll be able to buy those items through in-app purchase. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, there's other IAP items you can buy, but they genuinely feel so optional that there's basically no reason to buy them unless you just want to support Rocketcat further than just buying the game.
So seriously, go download Mage Gauntlet. The time you spent reading this review could've been much better spent playing this incredible game.
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