Virtual reality is in a bit of a tough spot. While the medium has enjoyed a lot of mainstream visibility of late, few VR games have actually found broad success. The Mage’s Tale is meant to be Oculus’ new tentpole–a robust virtual-reality adventure that will sell us all on the magic of the technology and the ever-elusive sense of “presence.” Unfortunately, The Mage’s Tale is a fractured adventure packed with minor technical oddities, poor voice work, and shallow dungeon crawling.
The tale opens with the kidnapping of your master at the hands of an evil sorcerer, and you, the lowly apprentice, must embark on a rescue mission. It’s every bit as hackneyed as it sounds. Making the opening even less appealing, the mage’s familiar–an obnoxious magical creature that’s along for the ride–immediately berates you for your incompetence. Unfortunately, he’s your teacher, carrying you down the path of learning the skills and spells you’ll need to exact vengeance.
That’s the core appeal here, too: crafting spells and using them within a virtual space. That portion, at least, works well. The Oculus Touch controllers temporarily create the sensation that you’re in control of magic, momentarily fulfilling dream of being whisked away to star in your own mythical adventure. Thanks to solid motion controls in VR, actions are intuitive: you grab potions and knock away obstacles with your hands, you look around as you would in the real world, and there’s even a nifty menu system based on the positions of your hands that sells the illusion that you’re a real wizarding student.
As you explore dungeons, you find various items to boost or augment your spells (one mod causes your fireballs to bounce around the room) to add some variety. It’s meant to create the sense that you’re learning magic and genuinely exploring and crafting new ideas or techniques on your own instead of simply following the rote, by-the-book rules you’ve learned up to that point. Some mods, like one that lets you guide spells remotely, change some functionality. But even then, their application doesn’t meaningfully alter gameplay. A fireball is a fireball, essentially. It doesn’t help that many are cosmetic too, adding little more than confetti and flair to your casting. By the end of an 11-hour run, the rudimentary spell variety more than takes its toll.
Even worse, movement during combat is a drag. Dodging is one-note–you’ll be bouncing between two or three positions as you evade incoming spells and arrows from fantastical goblins and the like–and each time you do, you suddenly appear in a new spot. Immediately. This avoids the common VR problem with motion sickness–due to artificial locomotion via a joystick–but only for a time. Whenever combat really gets going (which, in this case, could be two or three enemies in the room all attacking at once), you’re like a walking glitch, stuttering through the world. It trades the immediate discomfort of gradual movement for the more disorientating and equally unsettling feeling of constantly appearing in and out of existence in different places.
The actual dungeons don’t fare much better. There are ten different environments, yet they never feel distinct despite unique layouts and enemy types. Puzzles are remarkably similar, for example. Often you’ll enter a room, and you’ll need to kill some enemies and find a switch. Flip the switch, and the door opens. That’s not all of it, certainly; one puzzle tasks you to align symbols around the room to match those found on a wall that revealed with a magical MacGuffin, but that’s also not too far removed from Skyrim’s “rotate these columns to match the door, then pull the lever”–just in virtual reality. That novelty works a few times, but it wears painfully thin by the end.
If there’s one element of The Mage’s Tale that shines, it’s (occasionally) the dialogue. But even that comes with qualifications. You’ll bump into some silly situations that play with the absurdity of the world from time to time. Talking walls are a staple, and they usually have weird problems. One wall seemed perplexed by the very existence of humans, and was annoyed by my zipping about (walls don’t tend to move much, after all). Another was drowning due to a flood, and tried to drink enough water to save himself, but ultimately needed my magic to drain the water. They (alongside your master’s familiar) form the bulk of the characters you’ll meet.
The walls are delightful and cute, serving as a solid underpinning for the game’s absurdist humor. The familiar, however, isn’t–and, unfortunately, he’s far more omnipresent. He follows you and complains about absolutely everything. And not just in the normal plucky sidekick way–his vitriol is crafted to get under your skin and goes well beyond excessive. He ruins almost every puzzle by explaining it and then calling you an idiot for not understanding. It is the worst kind of artificial humor: a dry cynicism that masquerades as cleverness and wit.
Neither a groundbreaking VR experience nor a strong dungeon crawler, The Mage’s Tale ultimately squanders its potential. It offers a couple of high points–some jokes do hit their marks from time to time–but there are so many problems, and there’s so little of substance to drive the experience forward, that The Mage’s Tale feels more like a shallow experiment than a reason to get excited about VR.