Deep Dive: Mage Gauntlet
It’s easy to look at Mage Gauntlet and see all manner of 16-bit action-RPGs reflected in its style. The detailed pixel-art looks like it came straight out of the more prominent JRPG publishers of that era, and the melee combat feels quite similar to some of the most celebrated titles from that time. But it’s important to remember that Mage Gauntlet started its life as an arcade action game and ended up backing into its various RPG and adventure elements. Those sub-systems augment the experience, but at its core this is still an action game first and foremost.
You play as Lexi, a young woman with a rather frustrating curse. In a world where magic is as commonplace as electricity is in ours, Lexi is completely unable to interact with it. Magic spells bounce off of her. If she tries to touch magic objects, they explode. After exhausting almost every other option, she decides to appeal to Whitebeard, the heroic wizard who helped save the world by sealing away the evil Hurgoth many years before. He’s intrigued by Lexi and her condition, and agrees to help her… provided she does a favor for him in return.
The seal on Hurgoth is weakening, and Whitebeard needs Lexi to petition the other Guardian Wizards to help put the evil creature away once and for all. To aid her in this task, he equips her with the Mage Gauntlet, a powerful artifact that draws on magic to give its wearer strength and abilities. The Guardian Wizards prove rather difficult to reach by normal means, so Lexi has to travel out to where they are and deliver the message in person. This is no easy task, as the various lands of the world are filled to the brim with dangerous monsters. Using the Mage Gauntlet, Lexi must battle her way through the land and deliver the messages with haste.
The main quest in Mage Gauntlet takes the form of a stage-based top-down action game with some light RPG elements drizzled in. In total, there are more than 50 stages to make your way through, each one filled with enemies and secrets to encounter. Your primary means of defending yourself is a melee weapon that you can swing at your leisure. There’s a small stamina timer attached to it that determines the strength of your swing. So if you swing rapidly, each attack will do less damage than if you wait a few seconds for the meter to charge back up. Holding the attack button for a second or two will charge up a special attack that will rush your character forward and damage everything in front of her.
While melee attacks are your bread and butter, you’ll also need to make use of the game’s magic system if you want to survive the later stages. There are 13 spells in total, and you can stockpile up to four at once. Spells are found in special urns scattered around the levels, and if you already have a full stock of magic those urns will instead give you a temporary shield effect instead. Using magic is as easy as bringing up a menu, choosing the one you want, and if necessary, pointing to a target. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a critical version of the spell, significantly increasing the effects and damage.
Aside from spells, there are a few other items you’ll find laying around. Heart urns will refill your life meter or, if it’s topped up already, give you the same temporary shield effect that magic urns do. Haste urns have a picture of a clock on them and will grant you a temporary haste status, speeding up your character for a little while. There are also journals, notes, and books that will flesh out the story and the world. You’ll want to keep a special eye out for treasure chests, as they contain new pieces of equipment that can give you new effects or simply change the look of your character. Enemies may also drop certain pieces of equipment if you’re lucky. You can break tons of other objects, but there’s very little use in it other than the satisfaction you get from the action itself.
As you defeat enemies, your character will level up. This doesn’t increase your life meter, but it does allow you to put a point into one of three stats. Although each individual point doesn’t make a big difference, over time it adds up to some nice bonuses. Nevertheless, your progress in the game will depend far more on your skill and reflexes than any boosts you get from leveling up or gathering gear. Still, it’s fun to collect the gear if only for the fact that it does change your character’s appearance. There are different colors of clothes to wear, different types of weapons to wield, and a huge amount of hats and masks, and all of those are reflected on your character sprite. Other things like trinkets aren’t visible, but they tend to give the best bonuses so you’ll want to equip them anyway.
One interesting vestige of Mage Gauntlet’s action game roots is the presence of a lives system. You have a limited number of lives with which to get through each stage, and if you run out, you’ll have to start the stage from the beginning. Stages can get rather large, and lives can go quickly if you don’t stay on top of the enemies. Health urns have fixed locations and there aren’t a lot of other ways to recover health, so you really do need to play carefully if you want to avoid getting kicked out of the stage. As challenging as this is, there are greater obstacles ahead.
Master Mode is available after you’ve cleared the game in Normal Mode. In Master Mode, you’re tasked with going through all of the stages again. Except this time, the monsters are more plentiful, the damage you’ll receive is doubled, and you only get one life to clear each stage. It’s a big ask, but you’ll get a special ending if you manage to pull it off. Beyond that, each stage also has a three-star grading system. You get one star for clearing the stage, another for defeating all of the enemies, and one more for doing it without losing a life. This is actually how you unlock many of the pets in the game, which grant you modest stat bonuses and other benefits.
Mage Gauntlet looks like a classic action-RPG game, plays like a tough-as-nails beat-em-up, and controls like a dream. There’s nothing else quite like it on mobile platforms, though its spiritual successor Wayward Souls hits many similar notes. With plenty of content, multiple layers of challenge, and secrets tucked away all over the place, this is one of the finest must-have mobile exclusives.