Magi-Nation, by Imagination Interactive, was launched both as a Game Boy Color RPG and as a collectible card game. Is this new franchise America's answer to Pokemon? The answer is a resounding "No."
Magi-Nation offers fuel to the fire of two adages held by many RPG fans. One is that pretty graphics cannot make up for a lackluster story and boring gameplay. The other (rather controversial) adage is that American companies cannot create a console RPG on par with the Japanese games. Imagination Interactive is clearly excited about their franchise. The game came with a collectible card, and the manual even has sheet music in it. With such painstaking care put into the package, and production values abound in the game's visuals, I wanted to like as much as the developers did. Unfortunately, I didn't.
The main highlight of Magi-Nation is the pretty graphics. These are some of the best I've seen on a Game Boy Color. The colors of the backdrops are bright and vibrant, and each new locale has its own unique look. I really like that this game has a heterogeneous world with many unique areas, as opposed to a homogeneous world where the areas all look the same. Each area has something cool about it, and they're a joy to look at while being easy on the eyes.
The large character sprites are well done, especially the sprite for the main character. You can see little details on him, such as the chain that hangs from his belt, and the hood of his sweatshirt. What few animations he has are quite smooth and fluid.
The main gripe I have with the graphics is that the character and monster design is a bit uninspired. The developers aped traditional Japanese anime style for the characters, and while they don't look bad, there's nothing special or interesting about them either. The monsters, with a few exceptions, are very bland as well. They are neither cute nor badass. Even the most generic Pokemon look better than Magi-Nation's Dream Creatures.
Another highlight of the game is the sound, particularly the music. All the music is very well composed and is quite nice to listen to. Many of the themes are quite catchy and will get stuck in your head. Each piece of music fits its intended area, story scene, town, etc. very well. Sound effects for the various monster attacks are made as distinct as possible, despite the Game Boy Color's limited sound chip and I was quite impressed with what Imagination Interactive was able to pull from the hardware.
Now while Magi-Nation has the graphics and sound thing down, story and gameplay do not fare so well. Our protagonist is an average blond- haired; blue- eyed American kid who wears baggy pants and a hooded sweatshirt. He is pressured by a bunch of local bullies to enter a spooky cave and get a crystal. Upon finding a crystal, the cave floor rips open and Tony falls into the hole. He finds himself in a colorful fantasy world where he is prophesied to be a legendary hero who must save the world from an ancient evil.
While the writing is decent and oftentimes quite witty, it cannot save this hackneyed story, which we've seen before, countless times. There were also many instances from beginning to end where I encountered the "I'm lost and don't know where to go" syndrome. While some exploration eventually got me on the right track, there were times where I missed story-relevant stuff due to being given poor directions and objectives. This was one RPG I actually wished was MORE linear, so that way I could feel like I was progressing the story in a way that would make sense.
Gameplay is Magi-Nation's other stumbling block. It is an exercise in tedium that will try most gamers' patience. Like the phenomenally successful Pokemon, Magi-Nation's main gameplay gimmick is in collecting and training monsters, called Dream Creatures. This wouldn't be so bad if collecting and training monsters weren't such a chore.
Here's how it's done: after a battle, you obtain animite. Plain animite is used as currency, while infused animite has the essence of the monster you killed. You then take these to a ringsmith and have her create a ring for you to summon monsters with. What makes this so tedious is that you need multiple pieces of infused animite, plus a lot of monetary animite to have rings made, and the enemies in Magi-Nation drop paltry amounts. They're also quite stingy with giving out experience. To compound this, training monsters is a chore too, as their levels start out somewhat low.
The battle system itself is a better sleep aid than Sominex. It's set up like a card battling system and is very time consuming; even basic battles take a while. It doesn't help that you can't shut off the battle animations to help speed things along. By trying to implement a strategic element into Magi-Nation, the developers sucked out the fun. I would have much preferred a traditional turn-based battle system than this card-battle junk.
Another thing I didn't like was that the game kept switching between random battles and see-your-enemy-beforehand battles. In a card battle game such as this with long, drawn-out battles, random encounters are a death knell. Because of the slow battles, the random encounter rate seemed feverishly high when in actuality, it probably wasn't.
With a tedious battle system with minimal reward, too many random battles, and boring drawn out dungeon crawling Magi-Nation truly tried my patience. After many hours of sheer boredom I threw my cartridge against the wall. The gameplay never changed, there were no mini-games to break up the monotony, nothing.
The only thing that ever really changed was the graphics of different locales. New and cool looking locales are not enough incentive to wade through hours upon hours of tedium. It's a shame too, as Magi-Nation did have potential. The graphic artists and music composers showcased their talents quite well. Unfortunately, great graphics and great music alone cannot save an RPG with a throwaway plot and gameplay that isn't fun.
As it stands, Magi-Nation is another American developed console RPG that strengthens the arguments of those who vehemently believe that US developers cannot make a good console RPG to save their lives.