I feel like mash-ups have become the next big thing in indie games. Take two (or more) genres of games that seem to be popular and smoosh them together. Sometimes, it works, but more often, it’s kind of a disaster, where none of the elements are particularly compelling on their own, but they also don’t fit together well enough to become something new and fresh.
I’m pleased to report that, at least for me, The Magister is a pretty successful mash-up. It takes one genre that’s already a bit of a mash-up – the card battling roguelite RPG – and adds a detective spin. I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up anytime soon, but it showed up in Fanatical’s Deckbuilder Bundle, which is still available as of the time of this post for a little more than another week.
Do not expect to win on your first play through. Not because of the difficulty; The Magister starts you off pretty easy as far as combat is concerned. Rather, it takes a little bit to figure out exactly how you go about solving the mystery. Sure, you absolutely can lose by failing in combat repeatedly, but you’re far more likely to miss things (or put them off too long) because you have to juggle a lot of different plot lines in order to discover everything you need to make a definitive accusation.
You play as one of three randomly generated Magisters, each which will have a different focus (Physique, Intelligence, and Guile) and a different flaw. I’m only two play throughs in, and I feel like the flaws are definitely under-balanced – some feel like they’re far bigger obstacles than others. As you progress through your two week investigation period, you will have the opportunity to pick up additional skills, and you aren’t restricted to the skill tree you start with, but you won’t get a lot of them, so you are never going to be able to get all the skills you want in a single playthrough. Some skills are pretty straight up buffs, others will change the way you approach battles or investigative sections of the game.
Battles are turn-based, but they move faster than I expected. You will have opportunities to recruit allies, but the only character you will have direct control of at any point is your magister. Some battles are unavoidable, but you may be given an opportunity to sneak past an encounter, or to talk your way out of it using Tactical Diplomacy (which is a different card game, only this time you have a limited number of turns to convince the other party).
In combat, you not only need to make sure the enemies die and you don’t, but you need to be aware of the time cost of cards. Each card you play that has a time cost will delay your next action by that amount of time. If it seems like a lot of things are happening in between your turns, it’s probably because you’re using a lot of time-cost cards each turn. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; after all, if you pull all your heavy hitting cards in a single hand, you don’t want to send them to the discard pile! Still, it’s a quirky kind of system, and I think I actually prefer it over a more traditional resource management structure.
In between battles, you are going to be looking for clues, doing favors for the townsfolk so that they will confide in your, and managing your finances. Run out of money, and you might be sleeping in the stables! Each area in the world that you interact with will advance the time of day, whether that be by talking to people, buying and selling items, completing a quest, or doing an optional objective. You only have two weeks to solve the case, and if you haven’t picked up enough evidence, even accusing the right person isn’t going to give you a win.
Successful runs will unlock higher difficulty levels, and although I’ve really enjoyed my first couple of play throughs, I don’t know how much of a rush I’m in to make the game harder than it is on the starter difficulty. I plan to spend a little more time learning the ins and outs of the different skill trees & flaws, but I did manage to succeed in my second play through (although not with 100% conviction). The story isn’t particularly compelling – in a lot of ways, it reminds me of the game Clue, due to the procedural generation. Still, it’s an enjoyable couple hours of mystery solving, and I’ve probably already gotten my money’s worth out of it.