The song you hear calling from the center of Lichdom: Battlemage is one of ice and fire. A chorus chants from within, urging you to chill your personal demons with the ray of frost you blast from your fingertips, and to burn them with showers of brimstone. Elemental powers aren’t the only ones you command in this magic-driven action game, but they are the two that define the initial hours of Lichdom’s overlong campaign, which hobbles to a close long after it milks the joy out of its excellent but single-minded combat.
Let’s return, however, to those initial hours. Lichdom: Battlemage is built around the most satisfying spellcasting this side of Kingdoms of Amalur, and it’s this one system that drives the adventure from beginning to end. There is no mana bar obstructing your access to deadly magic. The only cooldowns you need consider are the intrinsic casting times of the spells themselves, not additional timers that dole out casting permission at specified intervals. Wizards and skeletons spawn into the level from nowhere, and you fling icicles at them or soften them up with a hive of buzzing parasites that floats above your head.
Casting these spells from Lichdom’s first-perspective feels oh so good, and they come in three types of magical flavors, called sigils. Each sigil allows for three casting techniques: a focused attack, an area-of-effect attack, and a parry--termed a nova--that typically offers its own kind of offensive enhancement. A focused spell might take the form of a continuous ray of elemental energy or a ball of filth, though I was most taken by homing missiles, which I could fire off in quick succession or charge up for a more thorough display of destruction. To turn an archer into a pile of ash is simple enough with such a missile: hold a mouse button, then release that flaming projectile and watch your target skeleton dissolve into the wind when it hits.
Forgive my focus on fire and ice. It’s easiest to describe these types of magic in light of the more complex sigils, such as kinesis and delirium, which allow you to control the battlefield in various ways, turning enemies against each other or halting them in their tracks. I grew fond of a slaughterous trio comprised of necromancy, corruption, and ice. Necromancy does what it says on the tin, turning fiends into friends when the grim reaper comes to visit, while corruption allows you to spread an epidemic of tumorous growths and ravenous parasites. These sigils often work in tandem with each other, turning a sequence of properly-timed blitzes into a colorful spectacle of frozen sorcerers shattering into a trillion pieces. This may be magic, but I am more than a mere magician: I am a demigod.
More specifically, I am a Dragon, capital-D, and a significant figure in Lichdom’s baffling story, which stars you--a battlemage of the gender you choose--and a scout of complementary gender whose role would best be described as "exposition faucet." He or she flits in and out of your travels to share the details of a story that’s never properly established, making every line of Lichdom’s dialogue a mess of white noise. "Here’s a story about something cool you’ll never witness for yourself," says the scout, in essence, and you move on to making your own story. The beautiful environments thankfully have stories of their own to share; twisted tree trunks and tarnished temples rise from a fetid swamp, and you see massive sea vessels encased in ice, as if they were frozen in time before their captains were aware of such an unlikely danger. CryEngine 3, the same graphics technology that humbled many a PC in 2013 in Crysis 3, has returned to remind you that your machine really needs a new graphics card. To be fair, however, the game looks great even with medium-ranged setting activated, though the game’s liberal use of motion blur will have you rushing to tweak its visual options to diminish the discomfort.
As tempting as it is to compare Lichdom: Battlemage to Skyrim, what with the early snowy environments and all that magic, this is no role-playing game--at least, not in the traditional sense. Lichdom does, however, grant you plenty of agency over how you exercise your magical talents. Your spells are not assigned to you as if they are medicines prescribed by a doctor (burn two brutes to a crisp with this bog-standard fireball and call me in the morning). Instead, you drive your own destiny by designing your spells using the various materials that occasionally rush to your body after a kill as if drawn to your magnetic personality.
Elemental powers aren’t the only ones you command in this magic-driven action game, but they are the two that define the initial hours of Lichdom’s overlong campaign, which hobbles to a close long after it milks the joy out of its excellent but single-minded combat.
I couldn’t possibly begin to detail Lichdom’s convoluted spell creation, which isn’t ungraspable, but requires that you make sense of various terms--mastery, control, critical effect multiplier, apocalyptical chance--and interpret the results of each step of the crafting process. At first, it’s difficult to tell why spells behave as they do, especially when there are countless statistical minutiae differentiating one spell from the next. ("These two spells are the same except one offers a slightly larger attack radius and the other does slightly more damage. Is it worth spending time on a decision that won’t likely matter much on the field of battle?") It’s both empowering and somewhat tedious to have so much control over so many magical attributes, but whether or not you fall in love with this system, you’ll spend plenty of time attending to it: more powerful demons shall arrive, and you will have to create higher-level spells to destroy them.
After several hours of winding your way through Lichdom’s linear levels, it becomes clear that developer Xaviant relied on this combat system to the detriment of other basic aspects of game design. One by one, combat scenarios appear, each one exactly like the last. Enemies spawn into being out of nowhere--and should you die and have to relive the battle, they always materialize in the same locations with no concern for your position relative to their spawn points. You wave your hands about, spreading disease and death, until every demon has fallen--or until you are wholly annihilated. You then interact with a floating sphere that generates a purple hologram depicting two or three characters talking about apparently vital story events you never get to witness for yourself. And then you repeat this scenario, with only boss fights and the occasional appearance of your opposite-gendered exposition vessel to disrupt the flow. Necromancy, ice bolt, ice bolt, fiery aura--once more, with feeling.
To be fair, the flow is also disrupted by frequent deaths, an annoyance that’s sure to hound you when you enter new areas with spells that no longer adequately protect you, but without the components that would allow you to create stronger magic. Some battles are teeth-gnashingly, hair-pullingly grueling, particularly those with enemies that enjoy freezing you in place, and Lichdom almost takes a perverse delight in how far apart its checkpoints occur. And so you take part in a tedious video game version of Groundhog Day in which you perform the same amazing supernatural feats so often, and in the same repetitive scenarios, that those feats become as boring as collecting Gandalf the Grey’s dry cleaning.
That isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate the inherent diversity of Lichdom’s spellcrafting; a ray of focused flame behaves differently than the necromantic conversion of dead demons, after all. But the game's general approach takes the burden off the design and transfers the impetus of creating variety to me--and without innate structural variety, Lichdom stretches its one excellent idea to the point of tearing. The game’s inordinate length only reinforces the monotony. I hesitate to suggest a game should be shorter than it already is, but Lichdom itself makes an excellent argument for brevity. Xaviant miscalculated the formula. (Great spellcasting) - (mana bar) + (meaningless story) + (unvaried battles) is not, in fact, equal to 15 or 16 hours of consistent enjoyment and $39.99 of your money.
While Lichdom makes a strong case for a shorter game, it also makes the case for another Lichdom game. If there is any game this year deserving of a sequel, it’s this one. With a steely backbone of meaningful world-building, sensible storytelling, and proper pacing, a Lichdom 2 could have an unassailable place to hang its best asset. The game at hand is concerned only with the magic. A few hours in, I was convinced that it might be enough. The love affair didn't last, but I’ll always have those golden memories.
In what is more than likely a pricing error that will be fixed very soon, the Dell Store currently lists the Collector's Edition of Assassin's Creed Unity for PS4 and Xbox One at the budget price of $60. The tip comes from the deals site Dealzon, and the Dell listing says you get:
You can read more about the Collector's Edition and other pre-order bonuses here. The edition is currently listed as unavailable on Amazon and GameStop, but Best Buy is still selling the same version for the standard price of $130. So, that's a pretty good discount if you were thinking about picking up a current-gen version of the game and wanted a few fancy extras.
Unity launches November 11 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC, alongside Assassin's Creed Rogue for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. And we also recently learned about Assassin's Creed: The Americas Collection, which is a bundle coming October 28 that collects Assassin's Creed III, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, and Assassin's Creed III Liberation HD for Xbox 360 and PS3.
Justin Haywald is a senior editor at GameSpot, and you can follow him on Twitter @JustinHaywald
As toy franchise lifespans go, Skylanders entering its fourth year is no small feat. Creator and main developer Toys For Bob has managed to avoid stagnation partly due to the series’ ever-evolving roster of new characters. Every year sees a roster twist, whether it’s extra large figures or creatures with swappable halves. Fans now expect that the fall season means something different with each new cast, although Toys For Bob has always added some first year-style “core” characters as well. These are the smaller, basic characters who lack enhancements but are no less useful in the battlefield. This mix of new and old figure styles complements the series' "forwards compatibility" value, where you can use older figures in all future installments.
Skylanders Trap Team’s theme compels kids and adults to dabble in the dark side. Fans got a taste of this last year with the GameStop-exclusive Dark Edition Starter Pack, which was a reskin of five fan-favorite characters: Dark Washbuckler, Dark Blast Zone, Dark Stealth Elf, Dark Spyro and Dark Lockjaw. They were enhanced with dark powers, but they nonetheless still fought for good. With Trap Team, fans now get the opportunity to play as actual Skylanders bosses. That’s where the 16 Trap Masters and their Traptanium crystals come in. The crystals are needed to capture bosses, provided a given villain is elementally aligned with one of the crystals you own. If you defeat the water elemental Cross Crow, you can only capture him if you have a water elemental trap crystal. While that might mean completionists will be spending more money this year, Activision’s packaging plans doesn’t seek to alienate the Skylanders fanbase. You can get different styles for each crystal, but you only need one crystal for each element. So if you manage to complete the foursome of air elementals (Dreamcatcher, Buzzer Beak, Bad Juju, Krankenstein), you only need one air crystal, since you can only use one villain at a time. Activision, given their prerogative to make money, could have forced consumers to buy one crystal for each boss. The current set up makes Trap Team appealing, especially since you can still complete the game using everything in the Trap Team Starter Pack, which includes two starting crystals.
I was recently given the opportunity to engage in a Trap Team mission that pits the Skylanders against a zeppelin. This was a two-phase level that began with an on-rails shooter sequence where you’re thinning out the ship’s exterior defenses. The second half of the mission involved infiltrating the zeppelin itself and the inevitable boss fight. The owner of this zeppelin is Chef Pepper Jack, a living jalapeno who can also be mistaken for a deformed lobster. Transitioning from the outside to the inside of the flying ship is a superb trick in level design, where the interior feels much more expansive than the exterior implies. In between brawls--of which there are many--you’re tasked with typical Skylanders problem solving: puzzles that are hardly brain teasers for teenagers or older. If your progress is blocked by a sturdy wood barrier, there’s a good chance a barrier-breaking cannon is nearby.
In a ship stocked with giant forks, kitchen tools, and Norwegian chefs, I had to ask a Toys For Bob spokesman if most of the game’s art direction is centered on food. He replied that, “Food is just one of many visual themes in a game of many themes.” True, none of the other villains in Trap Team give off a foodie vibe like Chef Pepper Jack. The notable exception is a new core Skylander named Food Fight who happens to be a living artichoke. It is both amusing and disturbing that a walking, sentient artichoke is wielding a gun that fires tomatoes. To draw a mammal analogy, this would be like a human firing a gun that shoots monkeys, or the other way around depending on your fondness for tomatoes over artichokes.
It is both amusing and disturbing that a walking, sentient artichoke is wielding a gun that fires tomatoes.
Toys For Bob’s wild imagination is on full display even beyond Trap Team’s partial food theme. The oversized horns of the Valkyrie-inspired Head Rush Skylander is emblematic of the studio’s talent for abstract character designs. On the other end of the spectrum, you have the plain-looking Bushwhack, who stands out for looking like the most human Skylander in the series’ history. Then there’s Hood Sickle, a villain who is sure to be a fan favorite since he’s the possibly the cutest sickly-wielding executioner you’ve ever seen.
Going back to the Traptanium crystals, one has to ask: Can you replay a previously-beaten area using the boss you’ve just captured to beat the same boss again? Absolutely. Chef Pepper Jack doesn’t blink an eye in having to fight against Chef Pepper Jack. It’s easy to see these playable villains enhance Trap Team’s replay value, especially if they can access previously locked areas. Skylanders has always felt inspired by Pokemon, but with Skylanders Trap Team, it’s as if the pocket monsters finally get to catch other pocket monsters themselves.