Origin was famous for pushing boundaries and creating unconventional games. They also loved to knock out gorgeous games with significant hardware requirements – they were sort of the Crytek of their day. A direct result of having games that many couldn’t play well on their creaky computers, along with having those games often defy traditional definitions, meant that a lot of Origin’s catalogue ended up overlooked. The first System Shock may be known, but I really doubt many have played it. And you probably haven’t heard of CyberMage at all, so I think you can see where this is going.
CyberMage takes place in a fairly by-the-numbers cyberpunk universe. It’s 2044 and megacorporations have declared themselves autonomous nation-states. In the world’s shortest origin comic (included in the package), you learn that you’re a regular schmuck in a nameless city. After leaping in to save a genetically-enhanced “exotic” from assassination, your broken body is used to host a mysterious “Darklight” gem, granting you access to a series of mystical powers and abilities. Your regeneration is interrupted by the troops of a corporate overlord – NeCrom – who has amassed much of his fortune and power through the benefits of his own implanted Darklight gem. Now on the run and hunted by what passes for law in the city, you’ll encounter resistance movements, corporate labs, strange mutants, and slowly unlock your own considerable power on your quest to take down the Big NC.
Like System Shock or Strife, CyberMage uses the groundwork of a first person shooter to expand its gameplay into something much more complicated. You’ll absolutely shoot the hell out of some faceless goons, but you’ll also control vehicles, access new levels by exploring an elaborate city hub, gain story and objectives from friendly NPCs through recorded dialogue, purchase new weapons and equipment with collected money, gamble to get more, and more similar features that make this feel like a living city.
There’s a lot of clever stuff going on in this world. I particularly liked collecting backstory logs and playing them in a holo-communicator machine, or learning the locations of shops in the city hub. I appreciated the moments where directions to “meet so and so at this club” meant wandering the city until I found the club’s gaudy neon signs, walking in, and meeting the promised informant. Early on, you’ll need to make 2000 credits to enter an arena fight that will let you leave the slums. Later, you’ll need 5000 to pay an informant for an access card to a corporate lab. You can even donate blood for cash at the hospital vendor, at the cost of a few points of life. It accomplishes what something like TekWar seemed trying to do with its cities, and makes this feel much more like a first person RPG than your typical shooter.
There’s also a strong focus on the comic book aspects. Most directly, the intro movies are shown as comic panels, and the cover of a new comic “issue” introduces each level. The art style resembles a high-end graphic novel as well, especially with its highly stylized, detailed characters. But it’s actually the overall tone that hits the comic style the most. CyberMage goes to great lengths to create a world with an actively-referenced backstory and political intrigue. There’s the plights of the genetically-bred exotics and the Mungs, the street gangs fighting for scraps in the slums, the cultish remnants of religion, the mystical battle between the Firemother and the Earthmother, and so on. Even you versus NeCrom pretty overtly references the struggle between light and dark. It’s rich stuff for a game, and probably attributed to the idea that this game was supposed to kick off a separate comic franchise.
This feeds into a strong sense that your actions have implications, and there’s a great effort to give you specific missions, purpose, and clear direction from friendly NPCs. However, like System Shock, the base gameplay of simply controlling your character can get overly complicated. CyberMage’s engine allows you to look up and down, crouch, and even fly, but without the direct benefit of functional mouse-look.
Instead, the numpad seems to be your intended controller, with movement broken out across all the keys (even with the delineation of running with 8 and walking with 5). Turning is surprisingly twitchy, and more advanced controls like jumping or changing altitude work erratically. The occasional required platform jumps can be a real bitch. I was also stuck in one particular jump-pack area because I had rebound the keys, and had to revert to defaults for the game to recognize the “increase altitude” key. Actually, all the height changes feel especially hacked in, and you get the impression you’re able (and expected) to do more in the game than the engine was built specifically for.
One of the great features of the interface is the ability to manipulate certain panels with a hand controlled by the mouse. You’re actually making selections at the store computer, punching in the buttons of a numeric code, and so on. Unfortunately, your weapons and inventory use the same interface, so you’ll have to stop and select your next weapon by pressing the appropriate function key (guns, magic, inventory) and selecting it from a floating list now obscuring your view. This is extremely inefficient in the middle of a fight. While I appreciate that there are so many weapons and attacks available that they can’t just map them to the row of number keys, this doesn’t feel like the best way to handle it (assigning favorites to hotkeys would have helped).
Combat itself can be a bit of a struggle. First and foremost is the extremely limited cone within which auto-aim will register. It’s astonishingly easy to miss, even with an enemy right in front of you. Your shots frequently whiz just to the left or right of your target – magnified when you introduce a target at a higher or lower elevation than you – and the loose controls don’t make it any easier to line up your aim. This means combat will have to be a bit more deliberate than in your usual FPS, because the floaty controls won’t do much for you in a panic.
Per the “CyberMage” of the title, you have both magical attacks and traditional weapons. This may be nothing more than preference or playstyle, but I found the guns to be the only useful attack. All guns have limited ammo, but it’s easy enough to cycle through your generous arsenal as one type runs down, then buy more bullets between missions.There’s also some crossover between the two, so the strong fire spell is mimicked in its entirety by the rocket gun.
Meanwhile, magic felt like a waste of time. Spells pull from a recharging pool of mana, so the setup is certainly there to encourage you to switch to guns while your magic regenerates. Unfortunately, that’s the only practical way to do it – your mana regenerates too slowly to use magic exclusively. You can absolutely hang around a safe hallway and wait (and you must in the initial, ammo-scarce levels), but I found this to be painfully boring. Most magic attacks also aren’t that powerful. The ones that are take up significant charges per shot, making it all the more annoying when the controls cause you to miss.
Magic isn’t all bad news though, as a sort of “leveling up” system exists. You learn any spell that you’re hit by, so you can turn a useful electric snare back around on its attackers. Your character’s two attributes (life and mana) can also be extended by collecting the essence of defeated organic enemies. These appear as blue vapors, and can randomly offer a small recharge, or up to a +3 permanent boost to your life or mana pools. Count that up across the numbers of enemies you’ll be slaying, and you can see how that starts to add up. These essences only stay around for a couple of seconds however, so you’ll have to be quick to collect them. This also has the effect of discouraging safer, long-range kills, and forcing you into danger.
If you hate wandering around huge, complex levels looking for the next door your key unlocks, then CyberMage is not your game. There are far too many multi-level police or laboratory complex with halls upon similar-looking halls of locked doors. Keys are called things like “retinal mimic”s or “infiltrator”s, giving you no sense of which door they’re supposed to open. Bodies stick around, so that’s at least a useful sign of your passing. A limited automap also fills in as you move around, which helps when navigating the straight-up maze levels. Still, your navigation, and your patience, will surely be tested.
The presentation is undeniably impressive. CyberMage’s high-res 640×480 artwork scales well, demonstrating and maintaining some pretty great detail. The comic style also helps it stand the tests of time a little better. City streets are architecturally blocky but artistically active, with lots of thematically-appropriate flashy neon and shadowed alleys. Indoor areas often suffer from rooms of repeated textures, but each area of these complexes at least try to have a different motif. The later levels are less interesting visually, but a nice fog effect in the DMZ, and a decent sense of darkness in the subway tunnels, help these areas from becoming too boring.
Voice acting is campy, but recorded cleanly. A log in your inventory lets you play back important messages, and you’ll also catch news reports and threatening broadcasts from NeCrom as you pass by monitors on the streets. Guns and similar effects sound okay – nothing too special there. The worst part is the music, which is limited and gets repetitive quickly. Luckily, you can adjust its volume independently when you’ve had your fill.
CyberMage has some beautiful art, some great ideas, and some smart storytelling. If you loved System Shock’s role-playing take on the FPS genre, then CyberMage is worth a look. It runs at System Shock’s pace too, however, with a greater focus on action but with mechanics that don’t quite support it. Controls aren’t as precise as they need to be, waiting for your powers to recharge is a drag, and wandering around lost for long stretches can encourage you to just give up. If you’re willing to stick with it though, and aren’t playing strictly for raw action and thrills, you’ll find a game that demonstrates well how the FPS can be more that just a simple corridor shooter.
Looks great, technically and artistically. The comic book vibe is pulled off well with a fairly rich universe. Vehicles you can enter and leave at will are fun to use. Huge arsenal of guns and powers. Awesome pseudo-leveling system lets you get noticeably stronger as you play. Neat concepts like the city hub and shops.
Plenty of large, complex maps to get lost in. Confusing key items result in plenty of awkward backtracking and trying every door. Hover cars and jump packs are a little janky. Controls are awfully floaty and it’s easy to miss your target. Kind of a turd about running on DosBox with the correct speed.
“The ‘plex says you’re some kind of experimental cyber-op. There must be some heavy wire in you for NeCrom to send out an invasion force like this. We sure could use your help.” — City cop