Never run, always fight: One developer is trying to redeem gaming's mage

Mages are limited, narrow characters in most video games.

They can’t go head-to-head with fighters, and you give up the ability to soak damage in order to get the use of all those nifty spells. This has always bugged Michael McMain, the CEO, founder, and creative director of Xaviant, the developer behind the first-person mage simulator Lichdom: Battlemage.

"Whenever I play RPGs I become the mage. There’s something about magic, I really like it," he told Polygon. "I thought about what happens when I play mages in games, and I play a lot of games. As much as I like them I always find myself frustrated that the mage is brought down a few notches to be equal to a guy with a sword and a shield or a bow."

So they set out to make a game where the mage is, to use their words "a total badass." Lichdom changes everything about how we're used to interacting with characters who specialize in magic, and ironically that became one of the major problems of the game: It takes time to break down how we’ve been programmed to think of magic users.

"It’s like a bear, when you take him out of the cage, he still pads around the dimensions of the cell," Josh Van Veld, the game’s producer said. "They don’t realize that they’re free."

Fleeing towards the enemy

"You don’t have to run away, you can stand toe to toe, even with bosses, and you can destroy them," McMain explained. That takes training, as we’re used to games where magic is used to keep distance between the mage and those you’re trying to destroy.

"The hardest challenge we have is to get players to stop thinking about mages that they’ve played in other games," he continued. "Everybody wants to run away. The minute a sword comes up, everyone turns around and runs. It’s ingrained."

Lichdom fights this by giving every defensive move an offensive component. You have your ballistic spells that shoot fireballs and ice at enemies, but you also have the ability to propel yourself in any direction, a sort of quick teleport move. You explode wherever you land, shooting out elemental power in every direction. If you dodge away from the enemy, that attack is wasted. If you land inside a group of skeletons, on the other hand, they could all be set ablaze. The best retreat is a dash towards danger.

You can block attacks to soak 50 percent of the damage, but if you tap the right mouse button at the right time you also counter-attack with elemental force. Even blocking, once you become skilled, becomes a means of aggression. It took around 20 minutes to break myself of the compulsion to move away from the enemy during a tough fight, and another 10 minutes to become good enough to make my defensive moves hurt those around me.

Things get interesting once you understand the game's system. Your attacks, and your defense, begin to feel punitive. Everything you do has the possibility of hurting everything around you. You’re not just a badass, you’re an engine of pain of destruction. As power fantasies go, this isn't bad.

Focus on magic

The game is designed to make you feel like a magic user. There is a robust crafting system where you can create custom spells and level up your elemental attacks. There is no aiming reticle. Instead spells have a slight homing ability, but aim is still important.

"I didn’t want the game to feel like a gun, like the mage is aiming their finger to get a headshot," McMain said. "It’s about establishing intent and the will of the player."

There are no manna bars, and the idea that mages are only powerful for a short period of time has been thrown out. Your character isn’t the "glass cannon" we’re used to in this sort of game.

The trick is to create an avatar that makes the player feel powerful, and then offer a world that’s just as lethal. "Michael’s a big fan of Dark Souls," Van Veld said after I failed to kill a boss on the third attempt. "We want you to feel empowered, but not walk through the game. It needs to feel like a challenge."

It takes a bit of time, but once you feel how the game’s systems lock together you learn how to survive almost overwhelming battles. You can freeze an enemy and then blink into them with your fire attack to do more damage. You can stack magical effects to dial up your offensive ability.

For instance, you can fire off a fireball and then teleport into a group of enemies ahead of your projectile and set them on fire, allowing your initial attack to do more damage when it lands behind you. Fire off an ice attack to freeze another enemy at range, giving yourself the time to lay down an area of attack spell to keep the damage coming.

The battles are a challenge of managing damage while keeping track of your targets, and I died mulitple times. It's a tough game, and you need to think about what you're doing as you do it. Deliberate, thoughtful attacks while relentlessly pressing forward will take you far.

That is, until the boss battle. I died multiple times, and it was due to my lack of chaining attacks and inability to reliably block. I also couldn't get past the compulsion to dodge backwards instead of into the enemy. "When people get scared of the boss, they start making mistakes," Van Veld said, by way of a pep talk. "When people make mistakes, they die."

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