Its been a bleak time
of late, what with terrorists, shoe bombs, and the sniffles that inevitably accompany
winter, and Id like to suggest a perfect escape from these pre-spring doldrums--an
elaborate world of monsters, mayhem and magic perhaps. But The Art of Magic from Charybdis
and Bethesda Software isnt such a beast. At best its a distraction. At worst
its a ponderous exercise in repetitive play and shockingly bad voice acting.
Ive become jaded, and maybe I ought not to expect an original setup from all fantasy
games. Part of their allure is the ability to become an all-powerful superbeing and save
the world, but I like an attempt to at least change the details. The Art of Magic keeps it
cliché. Some great wizards of yore created three "magic orbs" which have the
power to save or damn the universe in a non-specific manner. You, a youth named Aurax,
along with your strange, I-might-be-Scottish accent, wake from your coming of age ceremony
to learn that the forces of Chaos have destroyed one of the orbs, upsetting The Balance.
You must then assume your wizardly heritage, secure the remaining two orbs, and return
peace to the land. The game does have a branching story structure, but most of it is a
stage for silly cut-scenes.
A story youve heard before might be okay if the gameplay itself were
interesting. I did not find it to be so. The Art of Magic bills itself as a
role-playing/real-time strategy hybrid. For role-playing, Aurax has three attributes to
which points, gained via experience, can be added: health, control limit, which determines
the number of magically summoned creatures you can handle, and mana, which is your maximum
amount of magic energy. As you need increases in all areas, unable to really sacrifice in
any, and there are few conversation options in dialogue with NPCs, the role-playing
element is minimal
What you find yourself doing is fighting roving battles across different
mission maps. At first, I found The Art of Magics campaigns interesting. Aurax is
able to both cast damaging spells and summon different kinds of magical monsters, giving
you access to armies without having to build towns like other RTS games. Also, each map
contains a number of mana fountains. Whenever you or your creatures stands in one, your
magical energy regenerates at a greater rate. In essence, you have a never-ending
resource. What quickly happens is that each battle is a battle for mana fountains, and
its this, I think, that makes things dull. Because the best way to take out an
opposing mage is to take out his magic, you attack those fountains guarded by his
monsters. To do this, you need to use a fair number of your own. After you skirmish and
win, your opponent simply gathers his remaining monsters and attacks one of your other,
now lightly guarded, fountains--back to parity. I may be a bad player, but the constant
back-and-forth seemed to take more endurance and luck than strategy.
The spell system is interesting in that while you may have a large number of
spells, you can only carry a set number of them into any particular battle. Some spells
speed you up, others summon different sorts of monsters, some heal, some do direct damage,
etc. I like the swip-n-swop feel, but found it didnt mean much in the single-player
game. You always need a balance and never have access to large number as they accumulate,
and rather slowly, across missions.
Another significant problem is the interface. Everything is point-n-click; I
often charged an enemy rather than cast the spell I wanted. Aurax and his creatures have
slow reaction times, which makes battles even more frustrating. In addition, too many
spells dont have hotkeys and the hotkeys you do have cant be reconfigured. The
camera is also unwieldy, zooming into a third-person shooter perspective and zooming out
to a birds eye view with nothing in between. Point-of-view cant be
repositioned independent of the main character. As for sound, bizarre, might-be-Sean
Connery accents are either to your taste or not.
Ive come down hard on The Art of Magic and not everything about it is
terrible. The 3D engine is very pretty and all the textures and maps are impressive. Spell
effects and character animations are also good. Aside from that, this is a combination of
the mediocre elements of many other games: bland fantasy mixed with a dull RTS. That all
adds up to something not so much bad as unmemorable.