IGN Review of Mage Knight: Destiny's Soldier
A game of chess only has six kinds of pieces. The same six kinds, in the same starting positions, on the same square-shaped battlefield - every time you play. There's no questioning the formula, as the game of kings has survived for centuries. But modern strategy gamers have sought to build on its foundation, introducing customization and character to expand the classic concept into miniature combat games - games like Mage Knight. First introduced as a physical figurine wargame in 2001, Mage Knight now makes the transition from tabletop to touch control in Mage Knight: Destiny's Soldier - and the conversion is faithful enough to keep franchise fans in check.
If you're familiar with miniatures-based wargaming, you'll have no trouble jumping into Mage Knight and understanding its rules. But here's a crash course for the rest of the class - it all begins with a total. A build total - some multiple of 100 - is specified before each round of play. You have a selection of warriors to choose from in assembling your army, each one with unique abilities and a point value. If you're preparing for a round with a build total of 300, for example, you could field a battalion of 10 different warriors worth 30 points apiece. Or 15 units worth 20 points each. Or even just one huge guy worth 300 all by himself.
The strategy of army construction is one of Mage Knight's primary appeals. Where one player might create a team of nothing but ranged-attacking archers, another could focus on close-combat brutes. The design offers a lot of flexibility, and Destiny's Soldier reflects that strength. The game opens with an offering of five heroes, each of a different race. Using the chosen champion as a starting point, you'll be able to recruit from a pool of available elves, elementals and trolls to round out the ranks. More varied and versatile unit types become available to add to the army as the storyline progresses.
Where Destiny's Soldier begins to disappoint is after recruitment's over and real combat begins. The re-creation of the tabletop game is accurate, but cumbersomely presented with spotty touch control. Battlefields are broken down into hexagonal grids - using the stylus, you'll select a unit, drag it to the honeycomb-shaped space you'd like it to move to, and select its "facing" by spinning it when it gets there (like most other tactics titles, you don't want to leave your warrior's back to the enemy). But the process becomes a chore when, after repeatedly jabbing at the screen, your attempts at unit selection just don't register.
Paired with the poor play control is an equally aggravating interface. Mage Knight is a complex game - the learning curve for newcomers is steep, and the in-game tutorial stops well short of being helpful. Navigating number-packed menus and help screens slows the game's pacing considerably, so you'll need to have patience to make proper progress.
The issues are frustrating, but none are a deal-breaker. The turn-based nature of the game gives you plenty of time for trial and error with the touch screen, and browsing the text-heavy in-game help section makes up for the too-short tutorial. If you're able to push past the presentation, you'll find that Destiny's Soldier is home to some compelling combat ideas rarely seen in video games - like injury and fatigue.
In most video games, a hero functions the same way all the time. Whether Mega Man has a full health bar or just a sliver of energy left, it doesn't matter - he'll still run at the same speed, and jump just as far. Mage Knight challenges this idea by bringing injury into the equation. As your units take damage, they become less effective - a fresh fighter who hasn't been hit will be able to move faster and attack for more damage than a wounded warrior just clinging to life. (Some characters buck the trend of course, actually gaining power the closer they get to death.)
The design also takes fatigue into account. Each unit has a set movement range - a normal distance they can cover in a given turn. But each also has an extra, extended range. If you choose to accept a point of damage as a penalty, the unit can push itself beyond its normal limitations and cover more ground. Fatigue is indicated with action tokens, one of which is assigned to a unit for each movement or attack. Characters with no tokens can take any action freely. Characters with one token already can move or attack too, but they'll suffer that penalty point of damage. And characters with two tokens are frozen, unable to act until the next turn.
Mage Knight: Destiny's Soldier does a fine job of adapting the tabletop gameplay system into digital form, but there's one aspect of the physical game that isn't represented here - community. Destiny's Soldier is strictly single-player, which, for a game whose popularity was built on competition between friends, is a major let-down. Half of the appeal of playing Mage Knight is in your analyzing your adversary's actions - seeing what kind of army he or she will build, trying to counter their strategy with your own. When it's just an endless march of computer-controlled forces, it's not nearly as exciting. Granted, long-session play over Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection could be problematic - but there could have been two-player local wireless support, at the very least.
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