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I must have been wearing my cranky pants this week. I can’t remember playing a selection of role-playing games that left me feeling so annoyed before.

Let’s start with Magic: Legends, which launched an open beta this week. Cryptic’s game has some things going for it. Its adaption of cards is pretty neat. Each card goes into your deck as a power, and as you use them, the system deals you new cards to replace them. I’m playing a necromancer, so my deck has cards such as Scathe Zombies (summon three zombies that fight), Vicious Hunger (it summons four coffins that damages a monster in their middle), or Impale (an stab of necrotic energy that rips up through the earth). Two display at a time. You have mana (in reality, a cooldown) for using these. And as you use one, it disappears, and when the cooldown ends, a new one appears. It’s a clever way to adapt cards for an action-RPG.

It’s also cool the way it’s adapting the limited Magic lore I know. You play a planeswalker who just sparked for the first time, and in your first journey, you meet that charming Izzet mage, Ral Zarek. You fight saprolings (some of my favorite decks run these fungus critters) and sporecap spiders (another of my favorite decks uses arachnid creatures). So right away, I’m happy with what I’m seeing. It’s Magic as I, a rather neophyte mage, know and love it. I met Nissa in Zendikar a stage later. I don’t care for her and her mana-cheating trickery, but thankfully, she just blathered on a bit before giving me a task to do and leaving me alone.

And that’s about all the good I have to say for now. Magic: Legends is a mess in its first week at launch. I didn’t face queue times, but I had lag. Lots of lag. As did many others in chat. At times, my framerate dipped below 15 fps. I can’t remember the last time I played an online game that struggled with such lag. Considering that Cryptic runs several online games (like Neverwinter or Star Trek), I know the studio knows how to deal with such issues. Yes, this is a beta, but Cryptic’s been doing this for two decades. I was kind of shocked at the lag issues.


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Above: Into the great wide open.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

Technical issues weren’t the only ones I saw. The lack of loot and doodads to fiddle with as you explore levels is weird. In most action-RPGs, as you slay monsters and travel around, you find loot. Some of it comes from killing foes, but other goodies drop when you look in, say, a stump, or behind a bush, or when you inspect a totem. None of this exists in Magic: Legends. This makes levels feel empty unless there’s a monster, a quest goal, or an NPC standing in a bit of space. It’s quite dreary.

The lack of loot bothers me. I’d gone through two stages and hadn’t found any loot, even though I know Magic: Legends has items, skins, and so on. All I had earned were cards and different hats or bodywear, all cosmetic. If I were playing Path of Exile (one of the most popular online action-RPGs), I’d be swimming in loot by now.

Magic: Legends remains in beta, so I hope Cryptic is able to improve these issues in the future.

Black mood

Above: Black Legend does get one thing right: Placing your troops before combat.

Black Legend looks how it makes me feel when I play it: dreary and lethargic.

Colors feel muted. Now, Blackguards has a lot of dark colors, but they seem deeper. Black Legend is just muted, feeling like anything could slip into gray. Now, that could be an intentional design choice by the developers, to heighten the story’s mood. One of the problems you’re dealing with in the Victorian city of Grant is this dreadful fog. It’s just too dreary for my taste, sapping the energy out of the game.

It has a couple of cool ideas. I like the alchemy system, which uses four elements (nigredo, albedo, citrinitas, and rubedo). You uses these in your attacks to get bonuses and key on enemy weaknesses. It is a bit complicated, but it’s a cool idea, and it makes combat more strategic. If you have an attack that applies nigredo, you want to make sure you’re getting the most out of it with your foes.

I also like how easy it is to switch classes and some of the gear. Now, usually, I’m going to love any game that gives me a halberd to swing around (it’s my favorite weapon in tabletop role-playing game).

And the tactics aren’t bad. You can place your troops before combat, taking advantage of their abilities and gear. You can even place them on higher pieces of terrain (like crates), giving your sharpshooters a place to snipe from.

Yet playing Black Legend has been a chore of me. My biggest issue is the lack of an in-game map. The city doesn’t have many distinguishing landmarks, and it doesn’t take long to get lost. With a few exceptions, most streets, alleyways, buildings, and squares look similar to one another. At the guild, I swapped out one of my mercenaries for another, losing my best ranged attacker. Once I realized this, I spent more than 20 minutes trying to find the guild again. It was annoying. I used to love making maps for my games, but nowadays, not having an in-game map feels more like an insult that a tribute to old-school game design.

A spokesperson for Warcave Games said that an in-game map and other quality-of-life improvements are coming in its next patch. I’m going to go back and see if this helps make the game more enjoyable for me after that.

Not cranky by Default

Above: Weird mystic swirly portals are always a good sign. Right?

Image Credit: Nintendo

Bravely Default II’s continued use of the “Asterisk” wordplay remains annoying, but it’s the only complaint I have so far with this series debut on Switch.

Square Enix’s ode to turn-based Japanese RPGs remains charming, with its vibrant artwork and enthusiastic characters. Your party may be facing some dark stakes, but they have such a gung-ho attitude when it comes to the pursuit of their goals.

Party talk is one of my favorite parts of it. Chatting with companions is also one of the most enjoyable parts of Baldur’s Gate III. These games take different approaches. In Larian’s Dungeons & Dragons RPG, you’re often discussing serious issues about your survival and the what you’re discovering about the corner of the Forgotten Realms you’re adventuring it. Sure, it has some light moments (such as flirtatious banter), but you’re also making decisions about whether to let your vampire companion feed on you.

You don’t need to worry about undead party members looking at you like an Arby’s beef sandwich in Bravely Default II. The banter is far and away more upbeat. It provides a nice break between the encounters.

I’m digging it as a portable RPG, too. I’ve only played it docked once. Grinding out encounters as I sit in my rocker-recliner has been a fantastic way for me to wind down after dealing with work and kids all day. I admit: I’m going to be disappointed whenever I wrap it up.

Maybe Black Legend and Magic will have their issues fixed by then.

The D20 Beat is GamesBeat managing editor Jason Wilson’s column on role-playing games. It usually runs every other week, but like wandering monsters, it can appear at any time. It covers video games, the digital components of traditional tabletop RPGs, and the rise of RPG streaming. Drop me a line if you have any RPG news, insights, or memories to share … or just want to roll a digital D20 with me.

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