Word Mage is a linear retro RPG in which the battles closely resemble rounds of Boggle. If you're a lazy reader, you can look down at the score now and then leave without missing anything important. The rest of this review is just a footnote.
The game works like this: you start at the base of a vertically scrolling map that looks very much like a backdrop from an 8-bit Zelda game, accompanied by some authentic SNES-era music. On this map is a tile with a skull on it. And that's where you begin.
The rounds involve defeating a series of fantasy monsters by picking out words on a 4x4 grid of letters. To select a word, you trace your finger in a line that can twist and turn in any direction as long as the letters you pick are diagonally, vertically, or horizontally connected. A timer bar is constantly shrinking above the grid. If it drains completely, you die.
Finding words keeps the bar replenished and inflicts damage on your opponent. Each downed enemy leaves an item behind. And at the end the level - or after you die - you get to see what you've picked up.
You can then combine these items to craft spells, boosts, and stat effects in the Powers screen. These include single-use time-slowing or word-highlighting abilities and permanent augmentations like Overcharge mode (wherein every time you get a word longer than five letters, time stops and you deal extra damage).
Finishing a level opens up the next one - or sometimes the next two in cases where the path ahead of you branches - allowing you to take on increasingly tough fantasy monsters or boss stages, which yield more valuable items.Grind - rind - grid - rid - rig - din - grin - in - id - ding
The Boggle gameplay itself is augmented by a number of twists and tweaks. Sometimes, you'll have to play a round under the Intellect spell, which means only words of four letters or more will cause any damage. Or you might have to play under Immaterial, which only lets you score one point per word.
These conditions get gradually more devilish, forcing you to spell backwards or making the time run out even when you find words. To counter this increasing difficulty, you accumulate a larger variety of single-use spells and incrementally level-up the hit power of particular letters.
It's all very RPG, and the levelling-up and crafting mechanics do a fairly good job of spurring you on.
After a relatively short time, however, you'll find yourself having to revisit levels to try and collect the randomly dropped (and, in some cases, frustratingly rare) ingredients that you need. Plus, you only have so many item slots, so it's necessary to sell off items frequently.
Given how long it can take you to find a particular object to complete a particular recipe, it's galling to discard items knowing that you'll probably have to grind for an unspecified amount of time later on to recover them for a future recipe. Exacerbating this is the fact that the relatively high-yield boss stages become unavailable for a period after you finish them.
Ameliorating the shortage of slots, on the other hand, is the fact that if you're short of ingredients, you can just make up the difference with gold when you come to mix them in your cauldron. Honestly, it's simpler just to do this.
You can also increase your carrying capacity by buying extra slots, either with in-game currency or with actual money from your life.Search - reach - sea - rac... HEY!
Word Mage is a good RPG, then, if not a great one. And the same more or less applies to its other identity as a Boggle clone. The letter-matching works perfectly well, and the various conditions add something to the formula, but the fitful tempo may frustrate you.
The joy of Boggle, after all, is that it's three minutes of unadulterated word hunting - an amount of time that generally lets you feel as though you've scoured the board for as many of its secrets as you're capable of finding. Word Mage, on the other hand, is perpetually interrupting you while it gets rid of monster corpses and lines up new assailants. Which is fine - it's just not Boggle.
The tight time limits are presumably intended to make the action more frantic and exciting, but the game never lets you spend long enough among the letters to build much tension. This is the first game that I've ever actually wished had an endless mode.
Word Mage is a likeable, imaginative, and mostly well-executed mash-up, presented in an authentic retro way, even if neither of its two primary components works perfectly - the RPG campaign is a bit too short and a bit too grindy, and the word-hunting component would benefit from some more languid sections to balance out the shallow and spasmodic monster battles.
But don't be put off. If the first sentence of this review piqued your interest in the slightest, then you should download this game right now.