'Mage's Tale' VR Dungeon Crawler, Hands On

If you’ve been looking for a properly polished VR game that offers hours of story-driven gameplay, you should put inXile Entertainment’s Mage’s Tale on your shortlist. The developer masterfully merged the best parts of dungeon crawlers into a challenging first-person VR game that transports you into the Bard’s Tale universe.

Virtual reality systems suitable for home use hit the market a little over a year ago, but we’re a long way from mass adoption. The hardware is expensive (although the price is coming down), and that’s a major factor holding many people back from jumping into first-generation VR hardware, but content availability is just as big of a concern. Critics and gamers alike regularly lament the lack of highly polished AAA VR content. Most of the big developers took (some are still taking) a “wait and see” approach to VR, letting the indie crowd figure out the dos and don’ts of building VR games.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Bethesda has welcomed VR with open arms and has three major titles launching later this year, and Insomniac Games has three VR games under its belt, too. inXile Entertainment is another exception to the rule; the RPG developer just launched its first VR title.

inXile is by no means as big as Bethesda, and it doesn’t have the backing of a major company like ZeniMax to help pay the bills for a large development team, but the company is no stranger to developing games. inXile’s first title, The Bard’s Tale, came out in 2004, and the company has churned out a half dozen RGP titles since. It's also currently working on a follow-up to the Bard’s Tale III: Thief of Fate. The events of The Bard’s Tale IV unfold somewhat after the story of The Bard’s Tale III. Mage’s Tale bridges the gap between those two chapters.

There’s Been An Abduction!

In Mage’s Tale, you are the apprentice of Mage Alguin, a powerful master wizard who will teach you the magical ways of the mage. When you start Mage’s Tale for the first time, you’ll be greeted by Alguin and his assistant Crooks. The first thing you’ll notice is Alguin’s towering stature--he must be seven feet tall. One imagines this must be what it feels like to look up at meet Gandolf the Grey. Once you’ve come to terms with your master’s height, you’ll probably notice the level of detail in the character model.

Moments after you meet your master, Wizard Gaufroi appears through a portal and attacks the old mage. Alguin prioritizes saving his young apprentice instead of saving himself. As he puts a shield up to protect you, Gaufroi delivers a powerful blow that knocks Alguin to the ground. The evil wizard quickly grabs the mage and pulls him back through the portal.

Following the attack, Mage Alguin’s trusty assistant Crooks calls out for his master, hoping to find him in the pile of rubble that Gaufroi’s attack left behind. To his dismay, you’re the only one stuck in the debris pile. “You don’t know where Master is. You don’t know anything” chirps Crooks. “I’m stuck here…with you.”

With no way to reach Alguin’s friends and colleagues, you’re the old mage’s best hope for a rescue. It’s too bad that your training had just started when the ambush occurred. You’re just going to have to learn on the job. Crooks is right: At this point, you don’t know anything.

Let The Learning Begin

Crooks is no mage, but he’s an invaluable resource to help you along the way. He doesn’t know many of Mage Alguin’s tricks, but he knows the equipment back to front. He’ll help you navigate through the dungeons of Skara Brea and get you familiar with your skills and abilities. Crooks also teaches you the basics for conjuring potions that grant you magical powers.

As helpful as Crooks is, he’s far from a perfect resource. He can transport the two of you to different locations, but he doesn’t have fine control over the destination. When he transports you somewhere, he always misses the target. (What kind of dungeon crawler game would this be you could teleport directly to your destination, anyway?) Without him, though, you’d be completely lost in your quest to find your master.

Further, although Crooks doesn’t have the same power as a mage, he knows about it and exactly how you should wield it. He teaches you how to use the Arcane Sight aiming system, what to do when you find a magical ingredient, and how to create new abilities with said ingredients.

inXile Entertainment gave the aiming system in Mage’s Tale a fancy name, but don’t let the title fool you; "Arcane Sight" is a pretty basic mechanic. You’ll find a cursor on the screen that is attached to your gaze. To attack an enemy, keep your gaze locked on your intended victim to highlight the target. When the highlight changes from white to blue, launch your spell. You don’t have to wait until the blue highlight appears, but your attack is much more effective once you lock on. Don’t confuse the aiming lock with a homing lock, though; it’s still possible to miss after locking onto an enemy.

Fire, Ice, Electricity, Wind

Before you get yourself into a fight, you’ll need to learn magical abilities with which to defend yourself. You start the game with a fireball ability, which you can access by pressing the B button on the right Touch controller or the Y button on the left controller. The spell menu appears in front of you when you press either button. Reach out and grasp onto the spell of your choice.

To add spells to your inventory of abilities, you must collect special items with magical properties. These magic items are strewn about the dungeons of Skara Brea. Keep your eyes open for holes in the wall with items hidden inside. You’ll also need to keep your wits sharp. Many of the items you’ll need are hidden, and you’ll need to brush up on your puzzle-solving skills to uncover them.

Mage's Tale includes four basic magical abilities: Fire, Ice, Electricity, and Wind. Each one can be modified to change the color of the magic power. Color doesn't appear to affect a spell's strength, but we found a "party" modifier that adds confetti and party horn noises to your attack.

inXile didn’t build an inventory system into Mage’s Tale. Health potions are the only item that you can keep on your person for later. You can put one health potion flask on your belt; everything else gets left behind or picked up by a helper. Instead of carrying the items you find in a bag or a satchel, when you discover a spell ingredient, it immediately goes back to Mage Alguin’s workbench. Alguin has a pet toad named Fergus that appears through a wormhole any time you find something important. Toss your magic component into Fergus’s mouth, and he’ll make sure the item is on the bench when you get there to conjure up your next spell.

Once you have the necessary reagent to concoct your first potion, Crooks will guide you back to the old mage’s lair. You can return to Alguin’s workbench at any time with a simple gesture: Hold both your hands above your head, and you’ll teleport back home. When you’re ready to return to the dungeon to continue your quest, you can step through a special mirror that will bring you back to the same spot you left. The magic mirror also lets you return to old locales in case you missed something on your first pass.

As you progress through the game, you’ll gain Arcane Power that helps you grow stronger. Every time you defeat a wave of Gaufroi’s goblin and troll minions, you’ll find a cluster of Mage Stones. Collect enough Mage Stones to level up, and you’ll get to choose between two different class upgrades each time. When you’ve gained enough Arcane Power to level up, an orb on your right hand will light up. Touch the orb with your other hand, and the skill upgrade will appear in front of you.

Clever Locomotion System

Locomotion in VR games is a difficult problem to solve, and many developers have thrown solutions at the wall to see what sticks. inXile didn’t create a new locomotion system for Mage’s Tale, but the developer combined a couple of different locomotion solutions to create a unique implementation that works surprisingly well.

Mage’s Tale features a Blink-like locomotion system that lets you teleport from spot to spot to traverse long distances quickly. The thumbstick on the right-hand touch controller initiates Blink to teleport forward. It also lets you snap-turn left and right. The game also features a form of smooth locomotion that we had not encountered before.

The left-hand thumbstick allows you to move forward and back, and strafe left and right. The developer used a clever locomotion system that we would call “step locomotion.” It works the same way as smooth locomotion; hold the left joystick in the direction you want to move, and you’ll move through the world at a constant pace. However, step locomotion avoids triggering motion sickness by pausing briefly at every “step.” The pause motion combined with the sound of a footstep works surprisingly well, and if you need a break from it, the Blink option is always available in your right hand. You can switch between the two locomotion systems at will without having to change a setting.

Riddles, Puzzles, And Booby Traps

Every class of game includes specific features that define its genre. Adventure games offer interesting to worlds to explore; simulator games try to replicate something from the real world; and role-playing games let you build your characters stats over time, level up, and collect new gear to make you more powerful. Dungeon crawler games are best known for their secrets and booby traps that you uncover while exploring dark and scary dungeons filled with monsters and creatures that go bump in the night.

inXile Entertainment didn’t just add secret rooms and hidden item caches to the map, although, you will find those spaces here and there. The developer masterfully injected riddles into the game that help you solve problems and find the secrets. Pay attention to the riddles that you discover and read between the lines. When a rock wall tells you “Break the ice. Raise the bar. These old tropes will get you far,” know that it’s telling you how to solve a problem that you’ll soon encounter.  

10 Dungeons: 10 Hours

Mage’s Tale features 10 dungeons for you to explore on your quest to find Mage Alguin. So far, we’ve explored only one, and it's taken us about two hours. inXile Entertainment said that it should take you approximately 10 hours to complete the game, but we suspect you could prolong the story by a few hours, especially if you’re a completionist.

Mage’s Tale is an Oculus Touch exclusive, and it’s available today. You can pick up a copy on the Oculus Store for $39.

 Kevin Carbotte is a contributing writer for Tom's Hardware who primarily covers VR and AR hardware. He has been writing for us for more than four years. 

  • mrtouchngo
    Oculus exclusive. Ugh.
  • shrapnel_indie
    Most of the big developers took (some are still taking) a “wait and see” approach to VR, letting the indie crowd figure out the dos and don’ts of building VR games.

    Yup, why risk anything if the indie developers are willing to go first. Fits the philosophy of money above risking losses with innovation that they hold. Many a new game gets ignored if they don't think return on investment will be good... while franchises like CoD, even as old and tired as it is, with all the issues it has had with cheats and hacks, are made instead of something new and different.

    Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. Bethesda has welcomed VR with open arms and has three major titles launching later this year,

    Zenimax, through Bethesda, may be doing this to try to say they had an interest in VR all along, despite shelving VR before Carmack left. It may be a "rub it in your face" thing with Oculus.

    NOTE: All this is speculation, I have neither evidence to support nor evidence to disprove any of this.
  • SockPuppet
    "Oculus exclusive"

    Well, it looked promising up until that little snippet. No, thanks.
  • Sakkura
    19841197 said:
    Oculus exclusive. Ugh.

    Store exclusive. Lots of publishers have store exclusivity nowadays. Also I believe it's only timed exclusivity.

    Anyway, it's an excellent game.
  • Xenophage
    Hopefully it releases for Vive.