With the rise of indie developers we are all used to a release that thrives on nostalgia, but the 90s was a different matter. If a game took inspiration from an old classic, it was often seen as derivative. Case in point: Mageslayer. This top-down action-fest from Raven Software was an obvious retro throwback to the likes of Gauntlet but reviews at the time tended to see this as the game's biggest flaw. Would we be kinder to it in 2017 than we were in 1997?
First of all, let's see what the consensus among reviewers was at the time. Mageslayer was often looked down upon for being too simplistic and lacking variety. The frenetic action grew tiresome fairly quickly with the traps, key hunting and switches doing little to break it up. I can see their point but in all honesty, I could use the same points when discussing first-person-shooters of the time. This was the era when Quake and its sequel ruled the PC gaming roost after all.
Comparisons to Quake were also seen as a negative. The visuals shared the same grey and brown hues with an emphasis on blood and gore. The gothic horror theming that borrowed heavily from medieval fantasy also drew comparisons to id's juggernaut. Why have this game when a fully 3D FPS was sitting on the same shelf? It was like reviewers looked at it and saw what it wasn't instead of what it was.
That's not to say that there weren't good reviews. It even sold a respectable number of copies before dropping off into relative obscurity. GameSpot gave it an average score of 7.2 and my old magazine of choice, PC Gamer gave it 79%. Both still managed to lament the old-style gameplay, directly referencing Gauntlet as a comparison. Computer Gaming World, on the other hand, awarded it 1.5 out of 5 giving it the subtitle 'Wizards of Blah'.
In many ways, Mageslayer is Gauntlet's spiritual successor. The top-down viewpoint allows you to see a large part of the environment and the copious amount of enemies that swarm around you. There are even monster-spawning hubs that can be destroyed lest you become overwhelmed by a hoard. It's a gameplay style that isn't considered stale in today's market but charmingly retro. Just look at the many copycats that make up much of Steam's library like Hammerwatch or Magicka. I find the changes in attitude towards gameplay styles to be fascinating.
Much like Gauntlet, Mageslayer has you choosing one of four protagonists; a Warlock, a Dwarf, an Inquisitor and an Arch Demon. Each has three attacks out of the gate which covers close combat, long range and a screen-clearing special move. The last two cost mana to perform, so remember to collect the blue moon and star stones to replenish it. The long-range magic attack will be your main choice of aggression so you'll need to keep an eye on the gauge. I found the close-range punch to be almost useless. It's good to push some enemies away from you but will not be enough to vanquish anything other than the small vermin like rats or frogs that scuttle along the ground.
After each of the five multi-tiered levels, you'll be granted additional spells and upgrades for your magic attack which will be assigned to the number keys. These are a must for the later levels as anything but the highest form of attack makes you so weak to be almost useless. I found there to be no room for any tactical approach making each encounter about brute force and stamina. At first glance, difficulty appears to be in direct correlation to how many enemies attack you at once. The underlying AI is a bit more complex than that, but the end result is ultimately the same. For example, some magic-using enemies can revive the dead or transform a rat into a hulking beast. It's rare you'll see this as it'll more than likely happen off-screen. Whatever happens, the end result is still a mass-load of animated sprites crowding around you like ants to a sugar cube.
So going by what I've just said, the negatives espoused upon it at launch do have some merit, but strangely enough, it didn't bother me. That's because Mageslayer does just as much right as it does wrong. I found the level designs to be labyrinthine, but not so much as to leave you feeling lost. The traps and minor puzzles do work for me, as well as the joy of finding secrets. The hidden areas are not all small rooms with health powerups, but many are levels in their own right. Health and mana are not the only pick-ups you come across but there are also items that can affect how you approach combat. Dynamite will give you access to little explosions while mines can be useful in narrow corridors. Shields are great for defence while invisibility cloaks are excellent at letting you walk through enemy infested areas undetected. These can be activated at any time too, and not only when collected.
The graphics are crisp, with little details here and there that add to the experience. The character sprites are also well realised and animated too, even if they share a lot of the same move sets. Pressing 'Z' to get closer to the action will show just how much talent went into them. There's nary a slowdown either which is surprising considering I play it through DOSBox emulation and there can be a huge amount of sprites at once. I have heard that playing it without 3D acceleration looks ugly and pixelated, but there's no need to criticise it for that now.
I have fond memories of Mageslayer. It wasn't going for complex mechanics or deep and immersive gameplay. It was going for a fun pick-up-and-play game which entertains for 5 minutes as much as it does 5 hours. Like Gauntlet before it, it still does what it set out to do and does it well.
To download the game, follow the link below. This exclusive installer uses the DOSBox Daum build of DOSBox 0.74 running Windows '95. Manual included. Tested on Windows 10.
IMPORTANT - Remember to shut down the emulated version of Windows before exiting DOSBox. This could potentially result in errors, lost saves and corrupt data. Press Ctrl-F9 when it is safe to do so.
File Size: 283 Mb. Install Size: 588 Mb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
Mageslayer is © Raven Software
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me