For the first half of my 20 hours and change with 7 Mages (Free), I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. For whatever reason, the game wasn’t on my radar at all, and when it released seemingly out of nowhere with gorgeous screenshots and some lofty comparisons being thrown around, I was skeptical. Well, the game has its flaws, but nothing like what I was fearing. 7 Mages is a great addition to the iOS’s RPG library, and one that fills a particular niche few other games on the platform do. Its apparent inspirations are numerous, but it’s safe to say that if you’ve got any love for computer RPGs from the late 1980s and early 1990s, you should definitely give 7 Mages a try.
The story of the game is another take-off of Akira Kurosawa’s benchmark film Seven Samurai. Replace the little rice-farming town with an island where magic materials can be harvested, the bandits with prospectors, and the samurai with mages, and you’ve basically got the gist of it. It’s a decent enough framework for an RPG, though 7 Mages doesn’t do as much with its story as I would have liked. You’ll get interesting conversations here and there, but the focus rests squarely on the gameplay. For the most part, 7 Mages resembles a first-person dungeon-crawl RPG, along the lines of things like The Quest ($4.99) and Legend Of Grimrock ($4.99). Its combat is turn-based, and it allows you to split up your party members and control them individually. It’s sort of like playing a turn-based strategy game from a first-person view. The puzzles in the game are more reminiscent of an adventure game, often requiring you to find and use particular items to progress. It’s an odd mix that feels like a Bradley-era Wizardry game in terms of mechanics, with some faint hints of SSI’s Gold Box series in the combat set-up.
While the game has one of its feet planted firmly in the past, it’s not strictly beholden to it. For starters, the visuals are absolutely gorgeous. There’s quite a variety of locales on display here, and they all look outstanding. Monsters and NPCs are well-constructed and nicely animated, and even the still character portraits are drawn well. Sound plays a big part of the game as well. Musical magic is a critical component of the game’s strategy, and the ambient sound effects are excellent. On top of the production values, 7 Mages also shows it’s a modern game by allowing you to easily zip around to any location you’ve visited, at no cost. Simply open up the map and drag the character icon to any square you’ve set foot on, and provided there are no obstacles to block your way, you’ll instantly appear there. This makes backtracking a breeze, and is a very handy feature for a portable RPG.
Don’t think the presence of that feature means the game is a push-over. 7 Mages can be very difficult, particularly if you can’t get on with its puzzles. It’s vital that you pay careful attention to your surroundings and pick up everything that isn’t nailed down. It’s a little hard to catch the logic behind some of the game’s puzzles until you actually figure them out, giving a feeling not unfamiliar to fans of point and click adventures. Once you do, you’ll be smacking yourself in the head for not getting them beforehand, but don’t be surprised if you get totally stuck on certain puzzles in 7 Mages. They’re not the usual sort we see in RPGs these days, particularly from first-person dungeon crawlers like Grimrock. You’ll learn a spell pretty early that helps a little, but you’re going to have to sort out most of the difficult ones on your own.
You should always be prepared for situations where you can’t get back to the town to resupply for a while, too, because there are more than a few points where that “no obstacles" rule on the fast travel is used to its fullest cruelty. With a relatively limited inventory, food items that don’t stack, and an ever-decreasing hunger meter, it’s all too easy to find yourself up the creek without a paddle. Unlike other games, 7 Mages has no mercy to offer you in such a situation, so make sure you’re using multiple save files. As you get farther into the game, you’re able to increase your inventory storage and can learn songs that make your party more self-sufficient, but the early going can be pretty rough.
It takes a little while for the battle system to come into its own, too. At the start of the game, when you only have one character and a small list of commands to choose from, it’s almost painfully slow and dull. As you expand your abilities and add more party members, however, it gets a lot better. Being able to split your party and have each character move and act independently is a refreshing spin on this familiar style of RPG. I wish the enemy selection was a bit more diverse, though. You’ll only ever run into a couple of different types in any given area, and while they’ll happily team up, it’s rare for them to use any particularly clever tactics against you. Surviving battle is more of a case of whacking at what’s in front of you with your best attack and hoping they run out of resources before you do. This might be a nitpick, but when multiple enemies are engaged in a battle, waiting out their turns can be a real drag. Sometimes you can’t even see all of the enemies in front of you, but you still have to wait while they take their turns.
The default controls in 7 Mages use gestures to navigate, and I personally found them a little bit troublesome. You have to swipe up to move forward, something you’ll be doing a lot of, and trying to get your character to look down and pick something up can be a pain. Fortunately, there’s an optional set of controls that uses virtual buttons, and it works a lot better. A bigger problem is that the user interface is poorly explained and somewhat confusing initially. If you’re not carefully paying attention to every message in the tutorial, you might forget how to eat food by the time it becomes important. Once you learn how everything works, it’s fine, but the game does itself few favors by dumping a ton of information up front and then going relatively silent forever after.
7 Mages is free to download, and that gives you the first four areas of the game to explore and enjoy at your leisure. It’s a big enough slice of the game that you should get a feel for whether or not you want more. If you do, you can unlock each area individually as you come to them, or save yourself a couple of bucks and unlock the whole thing upfront for $6.99. It’s a very friendly means of pricing, since you can just buy each of its 10 chapters as you go along if you’re not sure you’ll finish the whole thing. Apart from those unlocks, the game is totally devoid of IAP.
Aside from its slow start and minor UI quibbles, 7 Mages is a very good game. Its approach to puzzle design is probably not going to gel with everyone, but I found it refreshing to have something a little different from the usual types of challenges we see in these kinds of games. I wish it did a slightly better job of delivering on the promise of its combat system, but it’s still pretty fun once you’ve gotten a little ways into the game. The exploration and clever dungeon designs are the stars of the show here, and that it’s all wrapped up in a pretty attractive package certainly doesn’t hurt. I’d strongly recommend giving the free portion a shot, but keep in mind that it takes a while for the game to properly get going. If you’re patient with it, however, you’ll find a game that can safely hang with the best dungeon crawlers on iOS.