April 3, 2006
CYBERMAGE: Darklight Awakening
Game Review By: Metatron
Publisher: Origin/Electronic Arts
Degree of Cyberpunk Visuals: High
Correlation to Cyberpunk Themes: Medium
Introduction: As far as hybrids go, this one has to be among the most unusual. A bizarre fusion of- as the name implies- fantasy and cyberpunk themes, Cybermage is a peculiar mutation- but one that actually works, at least to some degree. Developed by Origin (a steady purveyor of cyberpunk-related games at the time), this first-person shooter has never quite achieved the status it deserved. It was slightly overshadowed by System Shock- a spiritual predecessor of sorts- and never attracted enough attention to warrant as much as a sequel, which meant it has fallen into obscurity soon after its debut; yet it is worthy of attention both because of its unusual storyline and innovative gameplay which introduced a couple of features that would not be commonly used in other games in the genre for some time to come. Also, all screens taken from Mobygames.com
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE: Cybermage is a schizophrenic beast. It begins with a comic-book slideshow in lieu of a more usual intro animation, which may at first look like a lame cost-cutting exercise but is in fact crucial to the character of the whole experience. You see, Cybermage is, in part, a dark superhero story, and the comic book elements become even more pronounced as the time passes by. Once you do realise that this is a part of the package, you will learn to forgive certain strange traits, such as exaggerated graphics or cheesy character speeches. Yet this is only one part of the game’s split personality; mixed with the comic book narrative are distinct cyberpunk themes evident in both storyline and graphics- the main protagonist is, after all, a cyborg- a result of an experiment by SARCorp (hello to another nice, socially responsible corporation!) whose adventure begins in a shattered cryotube. Yet his exploits subsequently leads him not only through the more predictable cyberpunk settings such as war-torn wastlenads and assorted urban ghettos, but also slightly more unusual locales- including a sprawling Gothic sanctuary populated by fanatical death cultists. It is then that the “mage” bit comes in, leading to some almost comical theme clashes. You have to admit that bombarding the area with explosives one minute and then spraying it with magical projectiles the next can feel a bit like quickly changing channels between Lord of the Rings and Aliens. Yet the overall feel of the game is actually quite consistent, as Gothic and dark future themes do have a peculiar ability to go hand in hand, sharing what one could refer to as certain aesthetic and spiritual core values. It didn’t bother me an awful lot back where the game first appeared, but then I didn’t really pay that much attention to thematic consistency or other highbrow stuff like that anyway. More frags was all that mattered. Simple days…
REBORN: Our journey begins in an underground lab, where our character has spent a while being enhanced and reconstructed so that he could finally begin his life anew. Yet it seems that becoming a cross between Robocop and Gandalf the Gray, clad in an outfit of a bad Power Rangers copycat pissed him off a bit- so on he went, slaughtering corporate vassals and butt-ugly mutants like there was no tomorrow. The actual story is of course more complicated than that- involving a helpful guardian-angel sorceress Earthmother and a mysterious crystal embedded in our man’s tacky rugby helmet- but the no-spoiler rule and overall vague recollection of the plot mean that I’ll stop at this point. Suffice it to say that the enigmatic leader of the unlovely corporate monolith that is out to get us- the aptly named mr. NeCrom- will stop at nothing to reduce our superhero to a piece of scrap and molten tissue, and so the only option is to ensure he suffers this very fate himself.
This will be no mean feat. SARCorp is a massive entity involved both in hi-tech experimentation and dabbling in the occult, resulting in a steady stream of murderous thugs of various sorts opposing our progress wherever we go. Along the way we will have the pleasure of smacking down overzealous satanist monks, vicious mobsters, dumb zombies and a dazzling array of android assassins. In addition, we will often find alongside allies, who are generally quite helpful as even when they can’t shoot straight, they will at leas draw some enemies away. Their inclusion is also cool in that it greatly enhances immersion- the world of the game feels much more alive when populated by NPCs rather than being some imaginary Gehenna where the only righteous man left standing is yourself. NPCs will often engage you in dialogue, revealing subsequent goals and plot issues, and sometimes letting us increase our arsenal. Due of our character’s Terminator-meets-Saruman nature the weaponry used will be more than varied, ranging from missile launchers to fireballs; what’s more, we will also have a chance to fly about in a levitating aircar or better still, hop inside a small tank, which inevitably results in a handsome carnage of enemy infantry. And after we slaughter the corporate stormtroopers with high-velocity shells, we may jump out of the tank to harvest their souls, visible as bluish spectral phenomena hovering above dismembered corpses, which is useful for regenerating our mana. You’ll get more of this schizophrenic design as you go on, including scorching hordes of cyborgs with malevolent sorcery of yours, or peppering robed wizards with plasma blasts if you wish to. At some point we even meet a bizarre military figure with a tiger-like looks which, given that Origin also made the Wing Commander flight sim, made me think that he was some kind of fugitive Kilrathi. Pure conceptual insanity.
What is even more astonishing is that there seems to be a method in this madness and the whole thing actually fits together. Cyberpunk visuals abounds, from the neon-lit alleys of a futuristic metropolis to cold, sterile laboratories where watchful androids prowl. Many areas may feel rather generic, especially today, after many sci-fi games have followed this particular path insofar as aesthetics are concerned, yet the tedium of nondescript corridors is interrupted quite often and in a grand fashion. Highlights include a suicide run through a gang-infested slumtown, survival of the fittest in the war-torn no man’s land and the cleansing of an unholy monastery, superior firepower taking place of the more usual exorcisms. In the middle of the game we will also spend some time in the decadent metropolitan hub, where pleasures of various sort lurk around every corner. Prudently, the developers have spared us any chances at in-game carnal knowledge (perhaps because at close range characters dissolve into hideous pixel heaps- hardly titillating I presume) and thus secured a marketable rating for the game. What you can do, on the other hand, is engage in gambling- including watching urban gladiator fights. Funnily enough, it is very easy to cheat in these- just pick your man, then lob a grenade over the fence at his opponent… In any case, the feel of this part of the game is simply awesome- especially when a curfew is declared later on, visages of NeCrom on huge screens advising citizens to remain indoors… Pure genius. The cyberpunk feel does decrease a bit when we leave the neon towers and sinful streets behind and head further, yet the dark, medieval grandeur of NeCrom’s stronghold somehow manages to feel consistent with what comes earlier, even though sometimes the place feels so D&D that you may expect an goblin or two to emerge from the tunnel ahead. This part also does show that thematically the game is anything but pure, but our replicant sorcerer’s troubled transformation, megacorporate dominance and abundance of sci-fi locales and robotic foes still make for an overwhelmingly cyberpunk experience.
GRAPHIC VIOLENCE: As in the case of any elderly game, the looks are hardly a strong point today. The game runs on a half-decent engine from the pre-Quake era, which means pancake-flat characters and blocky, simplistic architecture. That Cybermage manages to convey that much atmosphere using simple level design and low-res textures is quite impressive, although even in its times Cybermage was not without fault. The art direction might have been very cyberpunk and nicely executed, but with the characters the fussy, comic-book feel seems to have gone a bit too far, resulting in individuals that look more like shiny G.I.Joe action figures than living beings. Much less forgivable is the engine’s lamentable lack of stability. Cybermage would very often crash spectacularly with no apparent reason which prompted me to punch the quicksave key way too often for comfort. Amongst many misbehaving games I have sampled, this definitely counted as one of the worst offenders. Sometimes the sound would also die; the soundtrack itself was, again, nothing to complain about in those days, especially since the characters actually spoke, rather than communicate with you through written messages.
The Bottom Line: Cybermage is ultimately a love it or hate it affair. If you find the concept of a comic-book inspired game that follows the exploits of a mutant techno-Gandalf laughable, stay away. Yet if you do make it through the initial strangeness of the concept, you will find a game that is endearingly diverse and packed with intense, non-stop action. It is a stylishly violent, complex and atmospheric game that, a few crashes aside, will keep you glued to the screen. Shame about the massive pixels, then…