The Magic Obelisk Review
Posted by Sean Aaron
Running in the shadows
Whilst most of us would imagine that plants like being in sunlight so they can thrive, the tree spirit Lukus in The Magic Obelisk needs to stay in shadows. That's because he's on a big journey trying to find the right spot to lay down roots. Helping him stay in the shadows until he finds that special place is Popo, the light spirit; it's a nice fairy-tale set-up for one of the more original puzzle games to appear in the Wii Shop.
The entire presentation seems to be taken from a children's story book: from the artwork to the depiction of levels popping up out of a book to the inclusion of story segments focusing on the inhabitants of the game world with a gentle "new age" soundtrack accompanying it all. As a light spirit Popo is able to create shadows, but only by activating the titular "magic obelisks" you'll find littering the landscape. In each "chapter" the primary goal is to guide Lukus from his starting point to an end goal whilst keeping him in shadow (hence the Japanese title Shadow Walker which you can still see written in the artwork between chapters). There are shadow-casting objects like pillars, blocks of ice, trees and animals, but using the power of the obelisks is required to bridge these safe zones.
Popo is controlled using the with the Remote held sideways. Pressing will cause a circle of energy to flash around Popo and if he's next to an obelisk (indicated by gently pulsing symbols around their sides) when this happens it will cast a shadow. The direction of the shadow can be controlled by moving Popo around the obelisk and then fixed in place by pressing again or cancelled by pressing .
In addition to acting as bridges between shadowy areas the different varieties of obelisk (indicated by symbol colour) cast shadows that have varying effects on gameplay. Heat obelisks are the most common and in snowy levels they will melt blocks of ice, but they also cause roving robots to charge straight ahead in a mental fashion which is sometimes required to progress through part of a chapter. Cold obelisks have slippy shadows, so care is required in placing them lest Lukus go sliding into the sunlight; they can also freeze the robots or other moving objects to create temporary patches of shadow. Wind obelisks cast shadows that lift Lukus up and slow his progress or help him to cross ravines. There may be other effects of casting shadows on objects (often indicated by "?!" appearing over them whilst moving an obelisk shadow before fixing it in place), so it pays to play about with the obelisks in case you make a discovery that will be needed to finish a future chapter.
As you might have guessed by now the player has no direct control over Lukus, the tree spirit you're trying to guide. He will automatically exclaim and then walk through a shadow path created by an obelisk or the goal if he's close enough, but sometimes he needs a little guidance. Calling Lukus to a location you want him to walk to is as easy as moving Popo there and pressing - assuming he can reach it without crossing into sunlight which he won't do on purpose. Lukus also has an annoying tendency to wander about so the ability to manually cancel shadows you've fixed by moving Popo near the obelisks and pressing can come in handy - especially since they only last a few seconds otherwise. If Lukus does get exposed to sunlight he'll lose a "spirit point" - a spiral in a gauge in the top-left corner of the screen - and return to the last checkpoint crossed in the chapter. If all five spirit points are lost the game is over and Lukus takes root, at which point you can restart the chapter or quit to the main menu.
In addition to patches of sunlight the other major hazard Lukus will face is ghosts who will try to shove him out of the shadows. They're not necessarily "evil," but they are a hazard and must be avoided, unlike the aforementioned robots and animals Lukus encounters and has little chats with. There are different side goals in some of the levels, including helping a bear cub find a gift for his mother or getting a giraffe a drink of water, which you'll need to complete in order to finish the chapter and add some storytelling to the puzzling.
Once you've completed a chapter you can play it again in the "Free Play" section. Playing a chapter in Free Play mode records the best completion time (but no initials) and you'll see icons to the right of the best time which will indicate whether you've completed the chapter within the goal time and whether you've finished it without getting Lukus a tan. If you get enough of these there's the promise of further secret levels to unlock outside of those you'll play through in the course of the game, though the operations manual doesn't give away what this threshold is.
The play mechanics are certainly solid, but the control is not without glitches. Lukus can get hung up on shadow "corners" of only a couple of pixels, sometimes requiring players to manoeuvre Popo around pressing to get Lukus where you want him. Moving Popo around obelisks can also be rather annoying when obelisks are up against structures that he cannot fly over or move through. More irritating still is the game's camera which has a fixed angle and automatically zooms in and out depending on how far Popo is from Lukas and whether or not he's near an obelisk. It's normally not a big deal, but it can get pretty frustrating in more challenging chapters when you're trying to quickly manoeuvre Lukus from obelisk shadow to obelisk shadow and cannot see a larger view of the surroundings.
The linear nature of the game might be a problem for some because you need to beat each chapter in order to unlock the next and they get pretty tough later on in the game. If you get stuck you can always try to get the best completion time for the chapters you've already completed in the Free Play section; otherwise you simply need to keep puzzling it out or just walk away. There's no further play modes and no additional difficulty settings - or indeed adjustable settings of any kind. The difficulty curve increases sharply at Chapter 12, with the game up this point serving as a tutorial: despite the cutesy appearance, it's certainly not a game for small children or players with high blood pressure!
The Magic Obelisk is certainly a pleasant surprise: a budget title that looks good and has a solid concept. The controls can be a little wonky and it's devoid of features or customisation, but for 500 Points you're getting an interesting and full puzzle experience (over 30 chapters all told) that's worth checking out.