Alakazam! – An Examination of Video Game Magic

I have a confession: I hate playing as wizards in games. When given a cool class list with a number of compelling options for how to customize the character I want to play, almost never do I choose the class whose primary focus is the casting of spells. In a game with a team focus, where lots of party members are present on the field, sure I’ll keep a white mage around to handle the party’s healing. But I consider magicians a necessary evil for my team, and when giving the choice between warrior and wizard I always give favor to martial combat.

I don’t have to look far, though, to understand the reason for why I don’t care much for magic: the game mechanics. Most video games implement magic in the same boring way. You have a limited pool of magical energy (generally called MP) that is a semi-renewable resource in that it can only be healed by items or by a rest at an inn. Magic-restoring items are very expensive in comparison to health-restoring ones, so you’re going to be scrounging all of your MP to use against the boss of a dungeon instead of wasting it on randoms. Which means that your squishy, limp-armed mage is going to be wasting a party slot on your team 85% of the time.

Luckily, there are a few games out there in the world that handle magic in a different way. These games are the ones which set magic apart, which make it feel like something more practical and useful rather than a win button to bust out only against boss characters. Whether it’s a simple adjustment to the MP system to make it more practical or a total overhaul of the thinking around how magic works, almost any change is welcome and I’ll be discussing differences both subtle and grand in this sweeping examination of all things magical.

Dishonored Blink

THE SUBTLE: STILL MP, BUT BETTER
Sometimes all it really takes to make a system feel fresh is to add small touches that differentiate it from the norm. MP doesn’t necessarily need a complete overhaul to work well – there are little quality-of-life changes that make magic practical in more situations than just boss fights. Take, for example, the Dishonored games – here you have a mana bar that depletes when you use your magical abilities, but there is a set portion of the gauge that recharges after you cast a spell. Some of your most basic yet useful spells, like Blink and Dark Vision, only use the portion of the mana bar that recharges. So as long as you space out your Blinks enough for the recharge to happen, you’ll never actually reduce your mana bar and run out! This allows you to use these helpful spells throughout your journey and not just when you’re trying to overcome a significant obstacle or enemy.

The Final Fantasy Tactics games handle MP interestingly in that you recover it on a turn-by-turn basis. In Tactics A2, you start the battle with zero MP and recover a set amount at the start of each turn (I want to say 10, but it’s been some time since I played). So every turn you don’t cast a spell, or when you cast a spell that costs less than 10 MP, you’re slowly building up magic towards your maximum. It’s an interesting way to force the player to build up magic power – and thus preventing its abuse – while still allowing the magician to take meaningful action during the early parts of the battle. Of course, I prefer the way they handled it in Tactics Advance, where you start with all your MP and recover 10 each turn. This makes it so mages can come out the gate swinging, and only have to worry about MP if they are consistently spamming their more powerful spells in their arsenal. Luckily, the game’s difficulty demands that you use those powerful abilities, so it’s a balance of using spells that deplete your MP versus those which don’t use up your entire recovery.

In other cases, it’s less about changing the MP system itself but about changing the power scale of magic or the magicians who use it. Take Ni no Kuni, for example. The magic system in that game has a lot of the problems that I don’t like about video game spellcasting, and you’re basically only going to bust out Oliver’s spells during big boss fights. But the thing is, Oliver isn’t a wimpy baby without his magic – he commands familiars to fight for him on the battlefield and for all of your regular encounters, that’s all you need. Oliver’s magic is mighty and effective, so putting the familiar away and busting out Oliver is whipping out the big guns in a way that feels satisfying and epic, particularly at the end of the game against powerful enemies like Shadar. And unlike most JRPGs, where your magic is exclusively used for combat and has no practical real-life application, Oliver has a number of field spells which he uses for interacting with the world in a meaningful way. He helps people with magic constantly, so even when you aren’t using it in battle you still feel like a wizard. The MP system as it stands can work well as long as the game positions it properly within the fiction of the game world.

Shulk

THE INTERMEDIATE: MP-ADJACENT SPELLCASTING
Some games handle magic with a system that is similar to MP, still requiring some kind of resource to cast spells but which has a bit more of a renewable feel to it than the typical magic gauge. A good example of this is Xenoblade Chronicles (and perhaps the other Xenoblade games, but I haven’t played them to know). These games use a cooldown that you might see in any MMORPG you would play online. All of your special abilities have a time they spend recharging when you use them – once the recharge is over, you can use that ability again. So unlike a normal RPG where your spellcaster can reach a point where they no longer have any magical power to spend, you’ll always have your spells. They just take time to recharge after you use them, so careful timing and staggering of your abilities is key to managing the battle.

Xenoblade isn’t the only game where magic works on the same system as other special abilities. In the lesser-known Square Enix title Final Fantasy: The Four Heroes of Light, all special abilities magic and otherwise run on the same type of energy, called Boost. These points build up one per turn, so regular actions like attacking just take one Boost, but special actions take multiple points. This means you need to spend turns not taking significant action in order to build Boost and use your most powerful abilities. This system was later refined for games like Bravely Default and Octopath Traveler and incorporated alongside a more traditional MP system.

In The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Nintendo changed things up by getting rid of classic elements like a magic meter and ammunition for arrows and bombs, replacing all of it with a stamina meter that applies to all items equally. This made it so that items both magical and mundane use the same resource, making both equally viable and effectively unlimited. You never run out of arrows, but you have to space them out. The same applies to the more magical items in your inventory such as the Tornado Rod or Sand Rod – you don’t have to worry about depleting your gauge for longer than a few moments. You might notice a theme here – in this category, the solution is to give magic the same treatment as all special abilities or items in the game. By making magic no different than other abilities, it simply becomes another tool in your arsenal rather than a powerful final measure. Perhaps because of that, though, magic is a little less special in these sorts of game. Is there a meaningful distinction between Shulk’s “spells” and his “combat abilities?” Does it really matter which of Link’s items is “magic?” The same mechanics which make magic more bearable also erase its identity, so let’s move on to games that deeply experiment with the system.

Chrono Cross Spell

THE SIGNIFICANT: TOTAL MP OVERHAUL
Some games throw MP to the wayside entirely in favor of doing something unique with magic. One of the most significant examples of this is the sequel to the celebrated Chrono Trigger, the much more controversial Chrono Cross. Chrono Cross replaces Trigger’s MP based system with a slot system that kind of works like spell slots in Dungeons and Dragons. You have so many slots per spell level (or elements, as they are called in the game) and when you spend a slot, you can’t use it again for the rest of the battle. This gives any character a balance of weak, medium, and powerful spells that they have to manage throughout the fight. Where things get interesting is the fact that you fully reset after every battle – HP, slots, and everything goes back to normal from battle to battle. This makes it less about attrition like in other games – you can bust out your craziest elements in random encounters and not be penalized in any way when the boss comes around. However, with no way to restore element slots you’ve spent, during boss battles you have to carefully manage when you use your elements, because once you’re out that’s all she wrote. It almost reverses the normal expectations around magic in other JRPGs: you can spam magic as much as you like to quickly sweep weak enemies but have to manage it more carefully against bosses.

Final Fantasy XV also tried something strange with magic. Only the main character of the game has access to true magic – he has to share his power with others in order for them to benefit from it. He does this by extracting magical essence from elemental deposits in the world and then mixing the magical energy into concoctions contained in glass bottles. Those battles can then be thrown like grenades during combat for one-off effects. Magic is cripplingly powerful but hard to renew – you’ve only got so many bottles to fill and you can’t replace your spells in the middle of battle. This makes magic a resource that you rarely apply in battle, but when you do it’s dynamic and game-changing, definitely wiping out weaker enemies and doing a significant chunk to bosses and the like. Vancian spellcasting (the spell slot system) is often criticized as something that turns magic into ammunition rather than this mystical force that the wizard controls – Final Fantasy XV took it to the next level and literally made spells your grenades.

Two Square Enix games making an appearance in this section – it’s interesting, eh? Square Enix is perhaps the worst offender when it comes to making the boring MP system I described in the opening of this post. Many of their games implement magic in a way that’s not engaging and that has been recycled in countless roleplaying games. However, they are also the most willing to experiment in their games, flipping our expectations and trying something different than the traditions we’ve come to expect. I’ll give credit where it’s due – I’ve been the most bored with magic in some Square Enix titles, but I’ve also been the most compelled by magic in their games too. When you have a library as expansive and impactful as Square, you’re bound to have some duds along with your strokes of genius. And heck, which game is which is even up to the opinion of the individual gamer. I’ve spoken of Final Fantasy XV’s magic as being unique and interesting here, but there are many who would have preferred a more traditional JRPG to the boy band road trip. The risk when you go big like this is that the system you create could be seen in a negative light (look at Chrono Cross’s reception compared to Chrono Trigger), and for developers it can be easier to go the safe route and use the same system as everyone else. So I’ll applaud Square Enix for being willing to experiment in the titles they create – thanks for giving us magic that isn’t so boring!

Tidus Laugh
Now if they could just learn to write…

That’s it for me today, adventurers! If you enjoyed this dive into the world of video game magic, consider checking out some of my other magic-themed posts. I’ve done a very similar discussion to this one about summoning magic, as well as talking about my appreciation for healing characters in games. And if you want to go really far back in Adventure Rules history, you can check out this post on useful spells for parents along with its sequel. If you have your own thoughts on magic in video games that you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments! Particularly if you have a suggestion of a game with a great magic system that I might want to try out!

3 thoughts on “Alakazam! – An Examination of Video Game Magic

Add yours

  1. I really like Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s take on this. Each character can equip up to three Blades (who are both weapons and companion characters that support them in battle), and each Blade has four basic abilities, three of which can be equipped at once.

    Rather than using a time-based cooldown as in the first Xenoblade Chronicles and X, here your cooldowns build up by you making automatic physical attacks. And when you make use of one of your cooldown-based abilities, you build up another meter through up to four stages. This allows your Blade rather than your character to make use of a powerful, elemental, spell-like ability that often has special effects attached. These skills can then be chained together to ultimately have various effects such as sealing specific enemy abilities and suchlike.

    It sounds really complex on paper and is kind of hard to explain, but it flows beautifully in battle, and means everyone is able to get stuck in and contribute constantly without getting “exhausted”. It kind of blurs the line a bit between the traditional “physical/magic” roles, though there are still distinctions between tanks, healers and damage dealers, for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I get the concept and it sounds pretty good. The fact that you recover your abilities based on dealing blows rather than just waiting it out gives you a more action-focused way of getting your skills, and spending some abilities to fill a meter for more powerful ones makes it worthwhile to use your moves as much as possible (whereas a normal cooldown mechanic might tempt you to wait until you really need a specific ability). I haven’t played the game but it sounds like all that would work together to keep the action moving faster and be more engaging.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: