Badly drawn boy.
The DS stylus lends itself to dirty habits. For example, while trying to plan a move in Ubisoft’s new RPG / RTS elixir, Lost Magic, you might stick it in your ear or pick your teeth with it; hopefully not in that order. Unlike most DS games, though, Lost Magic makes more of the stylus than a Q-Tip or a tooth pick, even if some terrible flaws make it about as much fun to play with as earwax.
The plot has something to do with a jaded but strangely sexy sage who has taken it upon herself to obliterate humanity, leaving the world to deal with monsters. She executes her diabolical plan by taking control over Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water, and it's your job to reclaim them as you press onward to save the world from her clutches. Go you.
Through all this pap you play the role of Isaac, whose wise father got mind-controlled by the sinister woman. Before going into battle, though, he left his wand behind, bestowing you with the great responsibility of being the next Sage of the Light. It’s your duty to stop the apocalyptic woman who corrupted your father. Luckily, you’re in the care of a powerful mage who has been teaching you the ways of spell casting. Hocus Oedipus!
Casting spells is the best part of the game. Every so often, you'll learn magical rune shapes. You can use these in battle by pressing the L-trigger, which spreads a translucent canvas over the touch screen. You simply draw the rune shape and then, depending on the spell, either trace a path or pinpoint a target and watch as your magic smites your opponents. Drawing clear, tight runes earns critical hits, so you're rewarded for a steady hand. The power-up system is just as natural; the more you use spells of certain elements, the more powerful they become. It’s a great, intuitive system.
Battles are one trial by fire after the next, since every monster moves and attacks in real time. Keeping track which runes do what while monsters bear down on you can be especially confusing. It’s a little intimidating and gets more complex when spells require multiple drawings to cast. Remembering that super-powerful-everything-spell-X requires a square, triangle and wave while monsters jump down your throat is about as tough as it sounds.
To help you cope, you can collect defeated monsters. You can then bring small squads of them into battles to fight by your side, although “fight” might be a bit of an overstatement since they basically serve as damage sponges. This is supposed to lead to some strategic micromanagement, but your monsters' tendency to clump together coupled with your inability to organize them into subgroups ruins everything. The only instruction that really works is the movement command, and it’s only necessary because Lost Magic’s pathfinding is so bad.
On top of that, choosing units is a chore. You can either draw a circle to grab a big group or tap individuals, but you have no options in between, effectively leaving you with one choice – to walk as one big mob. This is partially due to the crazy battle timer. You usually have five minutes to win a battle, and if time runs out you lose, so you never have time to spare mincing units with Lost Magic
’s awful interface.
Then again, terrible A.I. makes keeping your units together nearly impossible. They always attack enemies that come into range, even for a second, so they’re constantly running off getting killed. And since their pathfinding is so bad, they’ll chase enemies right into lava and burn to death before you can stop them.
Babysitting monsters isn’t nearly as insane as the occasional protect-the-villager missions. If one dies, you start over. Hey! Villager in flammable cloth garments! Run away from the fire monster. No, the other way! Actually, you know what, smoke if you got 'em.
This is but a taste of Lost Magic’s frustrating, trial-and-error play. Whether you run out of time chasing after gung-ho troops, lose because a villager decides to bear hug a bonfire, or just straight up die, you’ll be forced to replay the same episodes, complete with dialog, over and over. Too bad our mage mentor couldn’t conjure up a retry option.
At least the wireless Duels are pretty fun. You and another nerd can either pit your highest level mages and monsters against each other, or duel with the same monsters at the same level, for a good, skill-based fight.
Lost Magic has a childish, Japanese look, not far removed from Pokemon. You’d think such simple graphics would be a breeze for the DS processor, but the visuals bog down badly when too many monsters are on screen, which is to say, all the time. The slowdown is twice as bad when playing wirelessly. Shrill, sparkly sound effects accompany everything you do, while Saturday morning muzak loops incessantly in the background. If you haven’t turned the volume off in five minutes, you’re probably eight.
Lost Magic seemingly has a lot going for it, combining components from strategy games and Pokemon, then stirring the melting pot with unique, gesture-based spell casting. If it weren’t for the terrible plot, awful A.I., frustrating missions, and rampant slowdown, it might boil down to some magic worth finding. In the end, this weird hybrid is a mage of many schools, but a master of none.