Mage Knight: Apocalypse had the potential to be the casual gamers’ Diablo II. With a popular pre-existing franchise and a basis of making a game anyone could pick up and play, Namco Bandai Games and IS Games could’ve had a juggernaut on their hands. What they ended up with was not another Divine Divinity, but a resource-hogging 3D hack-and-slash that isn’t quite good enough for a casual gamers’ money and isn’t quite complex or interesting enough for the hardcore RPG Fan’s time.
The plot of Mage Knight: Apocalypse focuses on a group of five adventurers known as the Oathsworn, as they journey at the whim of the Solonavi, beings of an unknown ancient power. Sylvathis, the Solonavi whom the Oathsworn bind themselves to, require the five Aspects of Apocalypse, which, when all combined, will thwart the ancient Landshatter Prophecies, foiling Katalkus the magician and a giant Landshatter Dragon. The story is rather rote, and while the five characters, Janos, Sarus, Kithana, Tal, and Chela, all join your party, eventually, and are interesting in their own right, the entire story just sounds like something anyone who has played a fantasy game has heard before. Of course, being an action-oriented RPG, a bad story is certainly forgivable if the gameplay is compelling enough.
The concepts behind Mage Knight: Apocalypse’s skill trees and character customization are easily the best part of the gameplay that ends up beleaguered by problems. IS Games wanted players to be able to jump in and play with any character, and, as such, all statistics and skills are learned by players using abilities they like, and continuing to gain points in those trees. Players who use more fire magic with Sarus will learn more powerful fire spells, as well as increasing the damage of the spells they already know. Each of the five characters’ three trees are varied from other characters’, but also provide different experiences for players who step into the role of the same character. Players are free to create a hybrid character that merges two or three of the characters’ trees, or to develop two or more statistics. Unlike many of its brethren Action RPGs, Mage Knight: Apocalypse does away with experience points completely: the more you use an ability, the more that tree develops, and the more points you gain in its relative statistics. This system is unique and works surprisingly well as a breath of fresh air, but is ultimately dragged down by camera and control issues in the game.
Mage Knight: Apocalypse seeks to draw players from both the ‘click-click-click’ style ARPG and the MMORPG, offering three types of control schemes. None of the control schemes, WASD, Click-and-hold, and click-click-click, work particularly well, as using the mouse alone only allows the use of two abilities unless extra mouse keys are bound by the user, and players find themselves unable to move and attack easily with one hand in the WASD scheme. All-in-all, we found it easiest to use the click-click-click control scheme, but there are points in the game where the more precise movement of WASD was superior. Looting items can be a particular pain; it may be that I’m just far too used to Telo’s QuickLoot Mod from World of Warcraft, but having to move my cursor to loot items from corpses or chests seemed to be a bit of a pain. The entirety of the UI is just as sloppy, and without reading the instruction booklet, I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of the games’ hotkeys.
The core gameplay doesn’t make the game any more appealing than the control. Players cut swaths through groups of enemies, as with every other ARPG, but as the game progresses beyond the first chapter, these encounters change to fit your five-man killing squad. Too bad your killing squad isn’t particularly bright, and will get themselves running into walls, stuck on corners, and any other numerous pathfinding faults. This type of thing causes death commonly enough, but unlike games like Diablo, where characters must retrieve their items from the dungeon, or games like World of Warcraft where players must return to their corpse as a ghost, Mage Knight: Apocalypse drops players right back at the last save point with a fair chunk of health, ready to continue plinking away at enemies. There’s not much of a need to deal with consumables if the only cost of death is being sent to the last save point. It eliminated any shred of difficulty the game would have, even though the system does scale with player skill. This single flaw kills a great deal of Mage Knight: Apocalypse’s fun, because if there’s no challenge to work against, there’s no real type of reward. Players will find themselves in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, killing a few monsters, dying, and returning to finish off the last pack.
Players of Action RPGs know exactly what they’re after in dungeons: treasure. Loot in Mage Knight: Apocalypse is a fairly straightforward affair, as IS Games has tailored loot to each individual character. If you’re playing as Janos, loot that Janos can use at his current statistical level will drop. IS Games clearly wanted players to be able to keep playing through and seeing loot without feeling frustrated, but, much like the death system, it leaves players with no true rewards if they just continually see incremental upgrades to gear they already have. On the other side of the coin, Mage Knight: Apocalypse has a crafting system that involves making potions and forging gear with Mage Stones. There’s a sub par interface behind these systems as well, and with the minimal inventory space allotted players, it’s easier just to ignore the crafting altogether and just let the loot drop as it may.
There is a multiplayer portion of Mage Knight: Apocalypse, but it was fairly broken, even with the final code. We got a multiplayer game to work at one point, and even then it was a bit laggy. Unlike Diablo II, Namco Bandai Games obviously wasn’t counting on online multiplayer to be a large portion of MKA’s gameplay. Players can play through the entire campaign mode with their friends, or pick and choose chapters. The game does allow players of different power levels to play together, but as with the single player, there’s not much of a challenge.
The camera in Mage Knight: Apocalypse isn’t stuck in the 3/4 overhead isometric view seen in games like Divine Divinity, but it can be freely moved. Unfortunately, this causes more harm than help, as it becomes nigh impossible to maneuver in any view but the aforementioned isometric view. Players of MMORPGs will not find solace in the fact that the camera can be moved behind the player, as it becomes incredibly difficult to figure out which way is which from this viewpoint. Even with the camera at its initial viewpoint, it needs to be constantly re-adjusted to keep from being blocked by environments, which, even though they become semi-transparent, are a big obstacle.
The rest of the appearance of Mage Knight: Apocalypse is fairly passable. The characters themselves are fairly detailed, and the player characters are customizable along the same lines of World of Warcraft. The models and environments actually look pretty good, but the game has some incredibly high requirements for an Action RPG. Our 3.4GHz Pentium 4 with Hyperthreading, 1GB of DDR2 RAM, and a 256MB Radeon X700 was able to run the game passably at medium settings, but the back of the box recommends that for maximum settings, a user should have a GeForce 7950 with 1GB of Video RAM. I wasn’t even aware that nVidia offered a card with that much VRAM that wasn’t for animation rendering. There is a bit of glitching in regards to the graphics, most specifically in that characters will often clip through each other or the environment.
Aurally, the game is a mixed bag – the orchestral soundtrack is fairly impressive and does ebb and flow with the gameplay. The sound effects are horrible at best, hearing the characters warble in the same way for upwards of forty hours is a bit of a buzzkill. Additionally, the rest of the voice acting during cutscenes is poor.
Mage Knight: Apocalypse could have been a game that everyone would be talking about at the counter of their local GameStop, but it ends up being uninspired slop. MKA had quite a bit of promise, and we were extremely excited to play the game based on interviews with the staff members, but issues with the control scheme and gameplay functionality killed what we were hoping would come about in Mage Knight: Apocalypse. There was quite a bit of potential in the new features offered beyond the generic hack-and-slash, but the game ultimately ends up being a disappointment.