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Mystic Ark (SNES) artwork

Mystic Ark (SNES) review

"I liked it better than 7th Saga, but that's essentially damning with faint praise."

At the very least, Mystic Ark doesn't make the same mistakes as its predecessor, 7th Saga. When Enix localized that previous game for North America, the level-up bonuses characters received were reduced, forcing players to grind a lot more if they wanted to become powerful enough to handle the opposition. The end result was an obscenely difficult game, wherein a player could easily find his party wiped out by each and every random encounter.

Mystic Ark never made the leap to our shores, and the mistake that ruined its predecessor was thus never repeated. Some enemies that you encounter in the sequel can be tricky thanks to their ability to cast instant-death spells, and some bosses definitely require a certain amount of grinding and/or strategy, but there aren't many points when a reasonably intelligent player will feel like he or she has slammed into a brick wall. It's easy to consistently advance through this game's multiple worlds and, thanks to some great 16-bit graphics and music, many players will want to keep going.

Well, maybe they will. Mystic Ark doesn't make the SAME mistakes 7th Saga did, but it does have plenty of its own flaws and those warrant a good bit of discussion. In fact, such talk will take up much of the review to follow. After all, the stuff the game does right--a fun battle system, a party that’s easy to customize and the aforementioned high-quality graphics and tunes--is a little too basic to make for interesting reading.

Mystic Ark screenshot Mystic Ark screenshot

There's not much of a story in Mystic Ark. You pick between a male or female protagonist, and both are fairly similar to one another. The male is a bit better at attacking, while the female gains access to a bit more useful collection of spells, but it'd be hard for a player to say that picking one or the other would either give them an advantage or hinder the ability to progress. If you pay attention to the game's intro, you'll notice a mysterious force kidnapping a handful of other people. They'll be present as figurines in the mysterious shrine where you start play. You'll grab those things and eventually gain the ability to infuse two of them with relics known as “arks” that give your hero a pair of allies, each with their own specific skills. The ninja, for example, can cast spells and use abilities to attack twice per round or buff everyone's strength. The grappler is far more one-dimensional but has great power, making that one dimension quite formidable. Another character is the game's best healer, while another possesses the best attack magic.

None of the potential allies have any personality or dialogue, though. For all intents and purposes, they're mindless constructs you can choose to power up when it suits you. That was one of my biggest problems with the game. The shrine serves as a hub leading to a number of small fantasy worlds where you'll be expected to solve problems to get another ark. Those can be interesting, but your characters aren't and neither is the extremely generic plot that ties everything together. That's probably why so many of this game's boss fights are simply enemies visible on the screen that yell some variation of "GRAAA!" before attacking you, and then vanish after the battle to never be referenced again.

I also found the game's reliance on point-and-click adventuring to be tiresome. While I realize that is a fairly popular genre of game, there's a very good reason why very few of the nearly 400 games I've reviewed took such an approach. To access the many worlds connected to the shrine, you'll be expected to check items, pick them up, move them places, use those arks you've been collecting to alter things and so on. And in many of the worlds, you'll be doing still more of that same sort of activity. In some places, such as the early stages of the world primarily inhabited by a group of children, or the one that reminds me of a gigantic haunted house, this sort of play dominates the proceedings. When I'm looking to get into fights to build up my characters and maybe do a bit of puzzle solving in the process, this sort of thing seems like a boring interlude, as if the game is saying "We know you want to fight monsters, Rob… but we're going to have you figure out how to manipulate these half-dozen objects in the proper order before you can move on. Because we hate you."

In fact, let me go into a bit more detail about that haunted house I mentioned. Enix went for atmosphere and created a location that seems like Sweet Home’s dressed up big brother. Except for the way virtually every single room has a point-and-click adventure puzzle to solve, all to unlock other doors… and the way battles only are found at random times when you walk from one room to another. Oh, and you actually WON'T want to get into fights here, because for some reason, you're not allowed to summon allies in this place. That makes the area's hard-hitting optional boss arguably the toughest encounter in the entire game. It's like the programmers tried to make their game be too many things at once. If you're a point-and-click fan, all of the JRPG level-grinding likely will seem like tedious busywork, while if you're an RPG buff like me, the pointing and clicking quickly becomes an unwanted and tedious, yet mandatory, diversion.

I admit that the unusual dynamic might just be a problem in my mind, due to me not being a point-n-click fan. What should be a problem in nearly anyone's mind, however, is the constant backtracking and how tedious the programmers made it. In every world with the exception of that haunted house, you'll get to a point where you have to go back to the shrine to get an item or rescue one of that place's inhabitants who've been turned into a figurine. On its own, this shouldn't be that bad, but Mystic Ark finds ways to make it a chore. The only character who exists in the shrine is the main guy, so your allies will vanish. When you go back to the world you came from, they won't magically return -- instead, you'll have to use your arks to re-infuse their figurines or run the risk of finding yourself having to try to solo a tough group of monsters. Having to do this every single time you go from the shrine to a world is just annoying. Interestingly, if you infuse a weapon with an ark to grant it additional power, the ark won't leave until you decide to move it to another piece of equipment. That feels like the programmers were intentionally trying to anger players by forcing them to regularly re-infuse figurines!

The good and bad are intertwined throughout much of this game, with the late-game fairytale-based world serving as their true marriage. On the surface, the area effortlessly melds (with minor alterations to names) such childhood treasures such as Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, the Wizard of Oz and the Emperor's New Clothes to create a whimsical land… until things completely fall apart for a good stretch.

First, when finding said wizard, you'll see that his tower is a horribly dull and linear slog through two large spiral rooms. Then, after a lengthy bout of talking to a lot of people to find a secretive tailor, you'll have to go back to the shrine and into a previous world (don’t forget to re-infuse those arks!) so you can tackle a dungeon best described as a maze with invisible walls -- something I find it difficult to believe anyone ever could have thought was a good idea. Upon returning to the fairytale land (re-infusing arks yet again in the process) and backtracking through a short forest area you have previously explored, plot stuff takes over and you'll have to return to the shrine to rescue some people. Finally, upon arriving (and, of course, re-infusing arks once again), you're able to tackle the final dungeon. Well, you can tackle it after--for no reason whatsoever--another trip to the wizard’s tower.

The whole string of events was just horrible! It was as if the programmers had a good game, but were determined to cover that quality under a heaping pile of manure.

Mystic Ark screenshot Mystic Ark screenshot

Mystic Ark is loaded with unfulfilled potential. To go with the fairytale world, there's one with two warring bands of pirate cats who don't seem to remember why they're in conflict, another one loaded with people who grow gigantic fruits and vegetables to turn into villages and, of course, the haunted house (which is genuinely creepy when not being mind-numbingly tedious). There's a lot of imagination here!

Instead of building on that imagination to make a game I'd consider to be legitimately great, though, the developers allowed those bursts of creativity to be dragged down by disruptive point-and-click puzzle solving and tedious backtracking, made all the worse by the tedious ark infusion system. The result is still interesting, and RPG fans who like graphic adventure titles should still dig it. Personally, I'm just relieved I was able to persevere long enough to see the final credits…


overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (March 02, 2014)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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