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‘Mages of Mystralia’ and the Fear of the Bigger Fish

‘Mages of Mystralia’ challenges notion of the magic user as an Other, tasking players with determining the truth of its world for themselves.

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Magic as a misunderstood disaster engine is pretty routine with our fantasy worldbuilding friends. Identifying cosmically gifted individuals as something Other exists within the narratives of the fantastic as everything from plot-relevant physical division (like the Circle in Dragon Age) to garden-variety bigotry (like the witch-boy in Overlord II, for the six people that remember that absolute unit of a tale). Some characters think magic is dangerous, others just think it’s cheating, but almost without exception the magic users of any established world are treated like people who walk into work with blood and gooey bits on their hands; maybe there’s a perfectly reasonable, innocent, non-murder explanation, but the safe bet is to assume they started their day by throwing unsuspecting virgins into equally unsuspecting volcanoes.

Which is fair, since Mages of Mystralia begins with the red-haired Zia yeeting out of the town of Greyleaf after accidentally setting her entire house on fire. Because Zia, obviously, is a mage, and in Mystralia, this is a very big problem.

Mages of Mystralia house

In the Before Time [crashing thunder], there were Mage Kings, kings that were mages, and kings that had magic (the poison specifically for Kuzco, Kuzco’s poison). Those possessing this gift were whisked away from their tiny, little villages and raised in the castle to be heirs and guardians and suspicious viziers. Then the goblins came and started wrecking shop, and one squirrelly moron named Aetius (first — and probably last — of his name) went looking for the Celestial Magic that you’re uber-super-not supposed to touch. He touched it, kept touching it, went crazy, and set the country on fire, ruining magery for everybody else. A slightly less squirrelly dude called the Marquis (the only one to survive stopping Aetius), then took over and made magery and anybody who practices it illegal. All the existing mages were killed or banished, and new mages, if they were found, were nixed on the spot.

Making unchangeable personal qualities illegal doesn’t solve things, however, because once every decade magic wakes up in somebody anyway — and this time, that person is Zia. So, the magic wakes up, sets her house on fire, and the citizens of Greyleaf take it upon themselves to throw her out since the Marquis is far away and doesn’t care about them anymore.

And so, the adventure begins.

After getting booted, Zia makes her way to the mage village of Haven, and on the way finds this objectively evil book in what looks like an abandoned altar…pillar…gateway…thing. It’s been here for a hot minute before she picks it up; it starts talking to her and teaching spells that her magery mentor (named Mentor) tells her a few minutes later she shouldn’t have yet, but he’s sure it’s fine.

This is objectively evil book — it has a smoky black speech bubble and everything — teaches spells and gives all kinds of historical context for the places Zia goes while looking for ways to keep a solar eclipse from ending the world. In particular, he says something that encapsulates the theme of Mages of Mystralia: the word “spellcraft.” Zia corrects him and says, “You mean magery.” He responds: “Magery is a word used by people who are afraid of the Marquis and his men. Spellcraft better describes what mages do. You should call things by their real name.

The book isn’t the only one to talk about this. At the very beginning of the game, Mentor is sitting on a log in front of a safe house in the woods, saying that he’s going to start teaching Zia spellcraft — and then immediately corrects himself to “magery,” because Zia hears “spellcraft” and kind of loses her mind. “Fine, magery, then if that word scares you less.”

“Spellcraft” is a heavily stigmatized word in the universe of Mages of Mystralia, and the different ways in which the book and Mentor react to it are important. Mentor resigns himself to Zia’s fear of it, while the objectively evil book is actively combating this attitude. These characters represent the two ways one can approach this kind of total exile. Mentor is from the older generation, the ones who saw the fall of the mage kings and who almost definitely knew mages who died in the initial purge. He is jaded and irritable, and twice in the first twenty minutes says to Zia, “Life is so easy, is it not?” when she gets antsy about using her magic.

The book, however, is older. The book represents a time when having mage-kings and actively roaming mage-guardians worked, letting players know that this system isn’t inherently flawed. Mage-kings used to be the reason people could walk freely in the valley at all; under the Marquis, the goblins run totally wild, and all the roads in and out of everywhere are unsafe. The book is calling things by their “real names,” as he remembers them, and wants to know why the modern language has shellacked all this new jargon over the truth. (Side-note, I have literally no reason to believe this evil book is male, but anyway…)

So, the objectively evil spellbook is thus far the only Socratic character in the story (which is fine, as you don’t need more than one). The purpose of a Socratic character is to be the voice of dissent in a story-world with which an audience is unfamiliar. While the book’s questions are rarely overt, his casual observations and concerns about the state of the world as it is and the world as he once knew it imply a hoard of information players don’t have — like the old quarry having flooded itself out of practical use in “[his] time,” and the seal table thing in the mage town of Haven having once been in the castle — and this inspires the player to ask questions of their own — like whether Celestial magic is truly an evil thing. It’s easy to fall into the bad-fantasy-novel trap of having everything a character tells you about the history of the land be the complete and unadulterated, non-propagandized truth; the book is our anchor against this type of narrative complacency.

The book functions as Zia’s anchor as well; alone, she wouldn’t think to ask these questions. The people she meets who know she’s a mage — and who fear her because of it — believe that magic is dangerous, and to keep themselves safe, the Valley just can’t have any magic in it at all. Zia was raised by these people; she grew up believing the same thing. Now that Zia is in the thick of it, she has to look further into it; but they don’t, because they are satisfied with the answers they already have. Their terror of mages stems from physical insecurity and an unwillingness to trust people with inherently more power over the world than they’ll ever possess, even in theory. The fastest way to solve that problem at the time was to get rid of the offending power. That way, their ‘side’ (non-mages) would be the biggest fish in the ocean. There would be nothing left — in theory — capable of scaring them.

The turning point of Mages of Mystralia happens when the Marquis dies in the most suspicious fire ever. The Chancellor says, “A mage did it” and decides to find all the ones they let go the first time in order to kill them properly now. The first place to be attacked is Zia’s home village, Greyleaf.

This incident is the turning point not because it’s where the status quo gets paved over, but because public opinion begins to turn in Zia’s favor. The Marquis is dead, and the Chancellor — who was the voice of the Marquis and a man in whom the public had great trust — is becoming as dangerous as mages had ever been. Aetius had to be stopped not because of his Celestial magic, but because he was using it to burn villages to the ground; now the Chancellor is doing the exact same thing. The only difference is the Chancellor is using the army instead of magic.

The most eye-opening thing Zia learns, however, is that the fear of mages was not entirely organic, but orchestrated by a single person. The Chancellor, we discover, is a mage. His goal is to exact revenge on the mages of Haven who exiled him for trying to master magic he was not ready for — Celestial magic, just like Aetius. Does this mean, then, that mages are evil? If the last two people to burn down the Valley were mages, surely magic must be the problem. Yet it is not, precisely because Zia also a mage. If both the hero and the villain are mages, the only difference between them is who they are as people.

Mages of Mystralia is Zia’s journey — not only to love her new self, but in learning that, to quote The Blacklist of all things: “the line of good and evil runs through us all,” and the world is never as simple as we think. Mages aren’t inherently evil, and non-mages aren’t inherently good. We are presented with mages who are good and mages who are evil; we are shown people who fear the player, and people who do not. The Chancellor is a mage who hurts people; Zia, Mentor, and everyone in Haven are mages who save them. The world is full of evidence to something, but whatever that might be, Zia and the book have to find out what’s really true for themselves.

“You will not always find the answers you seek,” says the Enchanter in Haven, “but you will always grow stronger, seeking them.”

Kyra Merchen is a student at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, currently studying art, theatre, and video game theory (yes, really). She’s really, really sad they never made a new Pokémon Rangers game for the Wii and will fight you for cheating on the Mystery Dungeon personality test.

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This Heart’s on Fire: ‘Death Stranding’ and Heartman

‘Death Stranding’ has no shortage of your standard Kojima weirdos but one that almost no one is talking about is the eccentric Heartman.

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Death Stranding Heartman

*This article contains spoilers up to and including Chapter 8 of Death Stranding*

Over the course of Hideo Kojima’s wildly ambitious Death Stranding there are a whole cavalcade of intriguing and intoxicating characters for players to meet and acquaint themselves with. From the guy with the weird goalie mask to the lady with the magical umbrella, there is no shortage here of your standard Kojima weirdos but one that almost no one is talking about is Heartman.

Portrayed by writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn, best known for Drive, Heartman brings the game to a dead halt when you finally meet him face to face in chapter 8 but the reprieve comes as a welcome comfort to the player. Having just crossed a treacherous mountain range and survived a second trip to Clifford Unger’s war-torn beach, most players will welcome a little down time, and Heartman is there to provide it.

Death Stranding
It’s immediately clear that Heartman’s home is something special from the moment Sam walks through the door. Lit with a ring of holographic fire, the foyer of the mansion is immediately welcoming in the hostile environment of the snowy mountains. However, it also has a sort of clinical detachment to it. This is by design, as reality for Heartman is merely a distraction — downtime to be filled.

Yes, Heartman comes with the tragic backstory players will no doubt be expecting but, like most of them in Death Stranding, his is a real treat. Delivered partly through voiceover and partly through flashback, Heartman reveals how he lost his family to a terrorist attack while in the hospital for a heart operation. When he flatlined during the operation, though, he was able to find them on the beach before being whisked away back to reality.

Obsessed with finding them again and joining them, Heartman now spends his life in 24 minute intervals: 21 minutes of life, 3 minutes of death. Every 21 minutes Heartman journeys to the beach by flatlining himself with a personal AED, only to be resurrected 3 minutes later. During those 3 minutes though, where time is altered by the elastic effect of the Death Stranding, he seeks out his family and makes observations on how the beaches and the after life work.

Death Stranding
Bizarre as all of this is, it makes Heartman a truly fascinating character. Since his life is mainly confined to 21 minutes at a time, he has collected hundreds of books, movies, and albums which can be experienced during that tiny window of time. His study is brimming with them, stacked on the ceiling high bookshelves that surround his work area. Also in the study are eerie recreations of frozen corpses, old family photos, and a host of other curiosities, each of which will earn the player likes from Heartman for noticing them.

Of course, this is the most interesting part of the meeting. As Heartman continues to explain his theories, a counter occasionally appears in the bottom corner of the screen, showing how long Heartman has before he will flatline again. When the moment of truth finally comes, he lays himself down on a chaise lounge, turns over a golden hourglass and dies before your eyes. As the Funeral March begins playing from an old record player, Sam must keep himself busy for 3 minutes while he waits for Heartman to return to the land of the living. It’s a truly brilliant moment, as a counter appears in the bottom corner again, and the player must simply take in Heartman’s eccentric home from a first person perspective for 3 minutes uninterrupted.

What would be boring as sin under the wrong direction becomes a welcome moment for the player to just sit and absorb this strange, yet comforting, place. Then, after three minutes have elapsed, Heartman reawakens and picks up from where he left off as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. He even breaks the 4th wall as he continues to talk, swatting away the timer when it appears on screen again and adding likes to your counter in real time.


There’s really nothing like the meeting with Heartman in all of Death Stranding — but then, there’s nothing like Death Stranding really in the realm of gaming either. With its long periods of walking between haunted destinations and its deliberately cryptic mythology, the game is like a series of tone poems and intellectual treatises mashed together into a post-apocalyptic courier sim.

Heartman then, with his heart-shaped lake and pink-lit study, is just one more piece of Kojima’s mad puzzle here but what a piece he is. Who would have thought the most normal looking member of Death Stranding‘s bewildering cast would end up also being one of its most interesting? Certainly not this writer. Still, Heartman and his eerie, purgatorial existence make for one of the nicest surprises in the game.

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Five Best New Pokémon Designs from ‘Pokémon Sword and Shield’

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Much like Pokémon Sun and Moon before, Pokémon Sword and Shield is an adventure full of fascinating surprises. Some of those many surprises across the Galar region are the new pokémon you will come up against. While many of the designs in the eighth generation were a sorry sight to behold, here are five that should stand the test of time as welcome additions to the ever-growing franchise.

Flapple

When I first encountered an Applin, there was a stark realization across my mind that Pokémon had ran out of ideas. Here I was, with my then Sobble, about to fight an apple with eyes. It was about as baffling as the ice cream cone back in Black and White, which looked as if it was designed by a child. But for not the first time, I was wrong, and instead of becoming three apples or a pear, Applin actually has a fantastic evolutionary journey.

Throw a sweet apple at Applin, and it’ll evolve into a Appletun, which is an interesting evolution in its own right. But when you throw a tart apple in its direction, it evolves into something so much better, with the result becoming the Flapple we see above. A tiny dragon using the broken apple it burst out of to flap around in the air is a creative concept to say the least, and certainly helped to change my early judgement on the apple core pokémon.

Sirfetch’d

Farfetch’d has been an unfortunate pokémon ever since its illustrious debut on Pokémon Red and Blue. A weak pokémon that was rare by virtue of being delicious, Farfetch’d has been a pokédex filler ever since. Luckily, in the Galar region, the Farfetch’d are a little more feisty, with a new typing to match.

With a little patience and a shovel of goof fortune, you can evolve your Galarian form Farfetch’d into Sirfetch’d if you manage to deal three critical hits in one battle. The odds are increased if you catch a Farfetch’d holding a leek, and then further increased at level 55 when your Farfetch’d learns leaf blade. For what it’s worth, the hard work does pay off. Sirfetch’d is a fantastic design and suits the theme of Pokémon Sword and Shield honorably. The evolution that Farfetch’d always needed has been worth the two decade wait.

Galarian Corsola

For all the demonic ghost pokédex entries and back stories, the Galarian form Corsola hits most close to home. While the change is largely a new colour and a sad face, the reasoning can be a little more tragic.

There are no secrets about the destruction of the coral reefs across the world due to climate change. It only takes a change of a degree in temperature for the coral to expel the algae that gives them their unique colouring and become the bleached white. While the coral isn’t dead immediately, if left in that state, it does eventually starve to death. Hence Galarian form Corsola represents more than the sum of its parts, and its a clever message Game Freak has left in Pokémon Sword and Shield about the destruction of our ocean ecosystems.

Grapploct

Ever since Hawlucha, I have a bias towards Mexican wrestling pokémon. They’re fantastic. Clobbopus and Grapploct are no exception, and the only reason I’ve chosen Grapploct over Clobbopus is because of way Grapploct swam like a hungry Olympic swimmer to announce my destruction.

While its base stats are actually average, the confidence it showed to pursue me on my journey across the sea certainly left a stain. The design of Grapploct itself is so consistent with fighting type pokémon that it’s one of the least lazy designs in Pokémon Sword and Shield, and for all the prayers to Arceus, there are some hopelessly lazy designs in this generation.

Corviknight

This is going to be huge statement that might rile up a number of pokémon fans, but for me, Corviknight is the best designed bird pokémon. The whole concept fits the brief, from the armour on its head, to its seamless fit into the inspiration behind the region.

It’s no secret that the Galar region was inspired by England, from the train system to the architecture, there are pieces of Ol’ Blighty everywhere in Pokémon Sword and Shield. Some of those influences are seen in the pokémon themselves, and none express that more than Corviknight. The raven has a lot of folklore behind it, particularly its presence in the Tower of London. It is said that if the ravens were to leave the tower, then the destruction of England is imminent. As such, not only does Corviknight look like a formidable bird pokémon, it actually has a clever reason behind its design.

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‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still as Difficult, Demanding and Amazing to This Day

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Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later

Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!

What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.

What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.

But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.

It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

Donkey Kong Country

Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!

– Ricky D

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