Revisiting Battle Mages
A strange 2003 game that attempts to blend the strategy and role-playing genres
While the concept is fairly ambitious and promising, Buka Entertainment’s experiment doesn’t really pay off. Battle Mages ends up as a bizarre mix of strategy and role-playing, lacking the depth of either genre or a strong story to boot. Its 20-hour campaign is forgettable, replete with fantasy races and well-trodden tropes. Especially for the paltry price it goes for these days (less than 30 cents during sales).
You start off as a graduate from the Imperial Battle Mage School (not the most creative name out there), tasked with a quest to uncover a dastardly plot. The worldbuilding isn’t unique by any means, there’s a crystal that gives life to the world and keeps the evil out, but one day it fails. This leads some nefarious individuals to devise ploys to destroy it for reasons unknown, possibly because there is no backstory in the first place. You’ll lead a battalion of troops from level to level, facing fanatic adversaries across thriving and desolate environments.
Let your pixelated adventure unfold.
Sword and sorcery
You start off by picking from one of four mage archetypes. While this decides what spells you can work with at the start, all that stands between you and the other spell trees is an experience grind. The spell trees in Battle Mages are perhaps the best component of the game. While they unlock over time as you gain experience, their novelty doesn’t die out over the span of the game. And yes, your main character gains experience from battles just like your troops. Good things both your army and your progress are carried forth from mission to mission. While I’d have liked a living flesh-and-blood protagonist on the field, Battle Mages lets you roam the battlefield as a floating spectre that’s tied to the camera.
It gives you a bird’s eye view of the battlefield and lets you cast spells at will, provided you have the mana for it. The silent ghost is devoid of personality or dialogue, something that holds back the vision that Battle Mages had in the first place. Role-playing a ghost isn’t very interesting, truth be told. One neat touch is that mana depletes when you look at an area that isn’t in close proximity to your army, constraining your field of view. I’d have complained about the stingy mana, but the game solved that problem for me.
Good thing there’s a bug that lets you use spells with zero mana.
Battle Mages doesn’t really flip the two genres on their heads when it comes to the shallow campaign. While Buka Entertainment promised missions that change based on choices, things I did rarely made a difference. You get to lead your troops through the game’s straightforward missions at a soul-crushingly slow pace, stopping for the occasional ambush or treasure chest guarded by enemies. It takes about five minutes for your troops to traverse the map in some missions, and that isn’t taking into account the pitiful caravan you will be expected to escort in a couple of stages. But the game does have the occasional surprise, like recruiting a demon. I found the difficulty punishing at the start, but it got easier as I accumulated a powerful and well-trained army over consecutive failures. Keep game saves handy, for enemy troops who were just passing by could whittle down your forces in an instant.
The game soon becomes a drag, redeemed only by its battle system.
Even the dead have yet to see the end of war
The game promises tactical engagements and strategic encounters, but I found Battle Mages’ battles to be a game of numbers. Bigger sticks and bigger armies win at the end of the day. The occasional healing spell or lightning storm helps. You can speed or slow down the game on the fly, letting you micromanage your troops and spells if needed, making combat satisfying. The rock-papers-scissors tussle between forces is a joy to watch. Until it becomes a chore. Troops in Battle Mages consist of squads of a fixed number of units, not unlike Praetorians. Each squad has an inventory system, letting them carry weapons and artifacts of power.
Speaking of which, your troops level up as they face foes that range from humans to trolls and skeletal hordes. Some missions are merciless with the quantity of decaying and devious enemies they throw at your men, be it in ambushes, enemy camps, or head-on assaults. Monster dens litter the vibrant yet desolate landscapes of Battle Mages’ scenarios. Clearing them is key to filling your coffers and training your troops.
There’s no resource-gathering at play here, the gold you pillage from enemy camps and footsoldiers will suffice.
Your troops can then be upgraded at the towns that are scattered across most missions. That’s where you’ll be filling missing members in existing squads and recruiting new squads of all kinds. You can turn petty swordsmen into killer paladins, for instance. Troops range from run-of-the-mill swordsmen and archers to battle mages who are effectively frail but potent artillery units. But be warned, their populations recover at an injured snail’s pace.
It’s a pit stop that is necessary but frustrating.
Let’s talk about the visuals. True, few games that are over a decade old have aged well in terms of their graphical prowess but Battle Mages’ pixelated units are a nightmare in 2020. Even by 2003 standards, most animations and special effects are lacking. The landscapes on the other hand are diverse and lend the game a sense of place, from snowy peaks to dark woods and undead cemeteries. While troops and locations look decent from afar, the camera lets you zoom in to see the pixelated chinks in their armor.
A couple of bugs here and there can cause a hitch, but none of the glitches impede the flow of the game. The audio is nothing to write home about, with forgettable orchestral scores that would have fit in any fantasy game. The cutscenes are also poorly done, with mediocre performances and finicky camera angles. But the ones that pop up between missions are solid in comparison, with crisp black-and-white images and top-notch voice acting. The narrative is bog-standard for the setting, you’re better off ignoring the random names that pop up between missions.
I’d recommend this game only to die-hard fans of unpolished RTS games that place a heavy emphasis on grinding and leveling up. If you have the patience to handle the nonexistent plot and the slow pace, Battle Mages just might lead you towards old-school battles and satisfying troop evolutions. It might be cheap, but a better question is whether it’s worth your time. Nostalgia or lack thereof might seal the deal for you.
It’s a neat idea, but it is one that could have been executed much better.