A young woman looks to the stars one night and finds herself imbued with their celestial power – so much so, in fact, that she accidentally burns her house down and must flee town as an outcast. The use of magic is banned in the land of Mystralia, after all, leaving our hero Zia to seek her fate by herself. Once she encounters other exiled mages, however, she discovers her destiny may be bigger than she ever imagined.

That’s where the story begins in Mages of Mystralia, a single-player isometric action-adventure game. Protagonist Zia is a spell-slinging mage through and through, a specialization that shines in every minute of gameplay. This is an experience that lives and dies on its spell-casting core.

From the tutorial section onward, the player has access to four types of spells: “Immedi” with the Y button, that function as melee-like strikes; “Actus” with the X button, which are projectiles; “Creo” with the B button, which perform environmental effects; and “Ego” with ZR, which will affect Zia herself, like using a shield or performing a dash movement.

That is the basis of Zia’s moveset altogether. There is no basic melee strike that is not a spell, so anything Zia does to inflict damage, navigate the world besides basic walking movement, or even solve puzzles will require mana depletion. In exchange for total reliance, the spells add a layer of complexity with elemental states as well. For example, your basic Immedi attack begins as an electrical strike, but later might be icy instead. Early in the game you can throw fireball, but eventually, this can be ball lightning instead, if you’d prefer.

However, Mages of Mystralia goes one step further in its spellcrafting complexity through the use of Runes. You can map runes per each spell type in order to add effects to the spell. For example, if you have a fireball (adding a Move rune to your fire-type Actus spell), you can add the Homing and Duplicate runes to make it a triple fireball that automatically rights its path toward enemies.

This arsenal of spells that gradually increases in complexity (you can name them, and file multiple spells per button-type) is the primary draw for Mages of Mystralia. Considering you can add the Impact rune to spells in order to cast another additional spell on the first one’s impact (which could itself potentially trigger another, and then another, and so on), there is plenty of depth of customization to be found. If you want to launch a triple fireball that explodes on impact into an area-of-effect electrical storm that bursts into ice blocks that freeze enemies and then pushes them away from you – hey, you can do that.

But to what end? If the gameplay hook is “you can customize your spells a lot,” what does this hook support? It turns out that when you focus on the spellcrafting, it shows in deficiencies elsewhere.

The game’s official marketing touts a story written by Ed Greenwood, who has written for properties like Dungeons & Dragons, Baldur’s Gate, and Neverwinter Nights. But if he wrote an epic tale for Mages of Mystralia, it is lost in some clumsy handling. Extensive dialogue can potentially be a drag in games, but here instead plot is handled in rapid exchanges and brief cutscenes that lend little gravity to events. Secondary characters are introduced, only to never be expanded upon besides their pivotal moment. The NPCs are never really memorable, beyond perhaps a single sidequest and a few lines of text to deliver.

The story itself isn’t terrible necessarily, with some fantastical worldbuilding intrigue (spells fueled by the stars above! A power-hungry figure fomenting anti-mage public sentiment through despicable means!) and an emotive twist near the endgame. Mystralia has an odd pacing, though, which waters down the dramatic impact. The first couple of dungeons feel more difficult than the last couple, trending toward a final showdown that feels a bit anticlimactic.

It doesn’t help that Zia will spend a lot of her time just walking around the world between objectives. There are fast-travel options, but they are tied to teleportation points on the map, just one per area. Also, although the game does not require a ton of backtracking in order to complete it, you will need to retread the landscape repeatedly if you want to find all the runes. Once you’re able to hit certain wind-activated switches or detonate specific barriers, you can unlock new paths in old environments. As hinted earlier, there are sidequests to come back to as well, even if the game unfortunately lacks a way to track them.

At least Zia’s journey is not a complete chore, thanks to the pretty setting she inhabits. Mages of Mystralia is not afraid to use vibrant colours and a full palette. The ice realm is imbued with a range of blues and violet hues that make it seem less stark and sterile than other games’ 'Ice-World' locales. The lava land may feel cliché, but there are other spots like the Tomb of the Mage-Kings and a strangely dizzying Sunken Quarry that pose more originality.

Yet, fans of cityscapes and townspeople may be disappointed here. Rather than introduce new towns one after another, Mystralia relies on repeat visits to Haven, the secret gathering place of the exiled mages; and Greyleaf, the only real town to speak of (besides a few pockets here and there).

In fact, the enemy variety does not bode well under close examination, either. There are a few basic units, and they are represented across different elemental varieties. Then the dungeons may each have a couple new twists on the formula, but the main highlights are the boss battles. Big, colourful and challenging, these bouts can’t be won by mindless button-mashing.

The combat could have used some tightening as well. There is not much feedback on collisions, and the game seems entirely allergic to numeric indicators: You will never have a mathematical representation of enemy health, nor your spell damage, only trial-and-error experience. The A.I. is never very complex, and since you have access to long-range strikes right away, encounter difficulty is handled by turning some enemy types into bullet sponges (well, fireball sponges) and using frustrating effects like freezing you for a couple of seconds, or just summoning a few new sponges for you to deal with.

If you really want to nitpick, you could write a whole separate article on how the spellcrafting, while varied and full of possibilities, is not as deep as it may seem. The runes must be placed as “nodes” which appear to have to face certain directions, but is there any discernible difference in the effect of a Mastery rune connected to a Duplicate rune, as opposed to successfully placing a Mastery rune with both a Duplicate and Homing rune? If there is not, why make the player have to place the runes in such exacting fashion like a jigsaw puzzle? And if there is, why not offer the player some kind of statistical readout or other quantifiable verification?

Still, in the end, Mystralia is original enough to get pretty far on its heartfelt charm. Although some of its aspects are not up to the highest calibre, it shines in enough smaller areas (lush loading-screen art, inventive puzzling) and never truly fails in any other that it will likely be an enjoyable, if not perfect, playthrough for those who enjoy spell-slinging action titles.

Conclusion

Mages of Mystralia's spellcrafting system is a distinctive, signature mechanic. The appeal of the game lies in keeping things just interesting enough to compel the player forward in a colourful setting – finding new runes to unlock new spell possibilities, dropping new story beats to bread-crumb the fantasy plot along. Rewarding puzzles and memorable bosses round out an enjoyable adventure that, even at a leisurely pace, can be explored in under 10 hours, but Mages of Mystralia really could have used some tweaking in its travel and combat, and ends up feeling merely good, rather than great.