Highly praised by local critics as the groundbreaking FPS that set new limits despite having a few flaws, CyberMage: Darklight Awakening somehow never managed to live up to expectations. High system requirements, a rough and unoptimized engine, and a slow beginning were probably the main reasons for this. By the following year, 1996, Duke Nukem 3D and later Quake arrived, which grabbed hold of you as soon as you started playing, leaving CyberMage destined to miss any real success.
I was more than delighted to hear about a game where you finally get to play with NPCs on your side against the evil ones, but after trying to play it for a while on several occasions I dropped it without reaching very far. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. A decade and a half later, it somehow came back to my mind and stayed there, reawakening my curiosity, so I decided to give it another try -- but this time I resolved to be more patient with the game. Surprise: It was well worth it. It surely deserved bigger success back then, and it is once again interesting to see how many good things can stay hidden below just a few bad ones.
If you like cyberpunk comics, than CyberMage atmosphere is what you’ve been looking for. Designers aren’t even hiding that the inspiration for the plot and surroundings came from cheesy comic books, making the intro and outro to appear the same way, with comic boxes appearing on the screen and characters’ voices instead of text. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too much of the plot, but you can probably guess most of it: In the not-so-distant future (which is now even closer, as 2044 is getting near) there are no more governments, but corporations rule the world; and rebels fight against these oppressors. You are revived without memories as some sort of superhero, who can use some strange magic power called Darklight. As with every other super-hero, you have your evil counterpart NeCrom, who has the same Darklight powers as you. You both have some strange crystals embedded in forehead. As you escape the laboratory before Necrom’s men, you begin your quest to find out what’s going on, which will naturally include more mystic powers, aliens, saving of the world and many cool cyberpunk surroundings, all along with the final showdown, with you and NeCrom as the main stars.
Pros and Cons
So, what’s bad about CyberMage? Well, first of all, that already-mentioned roughness of gameplay. For a game two years younger, you would expect at least the same capabilities Doom had. Even though Doom had VGA graphics and a lack of many abilities (like jumping), it was fast-paced and smooth. Enemies moved smoothly and pathfinding was doing the job properly. While bringing much more detailed SVGA graphics, CyberMage had NPCs walking around like half-damaged robots that might easily get stuck at the corner of the building. They may also take some illogical routes (both friendly and hostile NPCs), such as checking some hidden corner even though you are fighting in an open area not very far away. System requirements may not be a problem anymore, but the slow start surely is. The first level takes you to some caves or sewers, where you slowly progress, fighting some odd and repetitive creatures. Combine this with game mechanics that would displease any Doom fan, and you get the picture. Also, the menu is unnecessarily complicated. A simple change of weapons requires at least two keys if you memorize them. If not, it may require even more. All this sounds annoying and off-putting, and indeed it is.
This brings us to the positive parts, that can be simply described as the designers’ wish to provide so many features and innovations to the classic FPS genre that they couldn’t handle everything properly. But if you just handle a little roughness, those features will give you back much more. After playing the entire game, you will see that it was indeed setting new limits at the time and had more cool features than the much more successful Duke Nukem 3D, only in an obviously less likable package.
Designers invested a lot into the game, surely intending to create a long-lasting hit. The graphics are as good as they could get back in 1995, and every creature, and objects that can be walked around, have eight sprites for every situation (standing, walking, shooting, lying dead, etc). Unlike any other mid 90s FPS game, it relies heavily on plot, and you will have many conversations in the game, although everything is linear.
There are slight RPG elements, considering your Darklight powers. Namely, after every living creature is dead, its life energy will be seen shortly above the body and can be picked up. It will either replenish some of your energy or mana or increase the total amount of energy or mana. It can also reduce some, if you happen to pick up the energy of friendly persons. You use mana for various shooting spells that you will heavily depend on early in the game. Mana also recovers slowly on its own, so if you are low you need to wait a bit before rushing into the next fight. This RPG element isn’t very important, but it does add to the gameplay, as you are trying to suck out evil souls for your own powers. You will often fail to pick it up, since it lasts only for a short time, but your health bar will eventually grow to be quite long.
You also get to find various pieces of equipment, like scanners for enemies and walls, a personal computer for recording conversations (necessary for remembering the instructions that you will receive from NPCs), regeneration packs, and an armorseal that will restore your health and armor to max, as well as various items necessary for progress in the game. Unlike in previous FPS games, you collect different parts of body armor (head, torso, legs and arms), which are getting ruined depending on where you are being hit. If you don’t repair armor on time and a part is destroyed, you’ll have to find a new one. This is also the first FPS where you get to enter and control vehicles like tanks and a flying car. You will also find a jetpack, and even wings on one level.
It doesn’t end there with the cool features: You get to fight in an arena, after which you can bet on the following fights, and watch the show. You can also bet on some slot machine and earn zillions, visit computerized weapons and armor shop (indispensible for car repair and weapons and ammo), as well as watch public TV for latest news (one of those will be you). And, once you get caught up in the middle of events, you will fight along with the rebels on several occasions. All this is not nearly as good as you might expect after playing modern games; NPCs are slow and the AI is poor. Although some of the features could be seen in other games soon after CyberMage was released, it took a while before you could see all these features in just one game, and Cybermage is really impressive in this regard.
There are also many types of enemies and they get to speak and threaten you as the battle starts. Some of these foes will turn out to be friendly later in the game, so don’t shoot as soon as you spot someone, if you want to hear what they have to say. You can still fight them if you wish, and those NPCs that are necessary to finish the game can’t be killed. There are also many kinds of weapons: mêlée weapons, grenades, and weapons that fire lasers, plasmas, bullets or explosive ammo. It is nice to see variety, although it's likely that you won't use some of the stuff you have very often. Mêlée weapons are very impractical, and grenades are not exactly devastating on infantry, but are good for strong enemies and tanks. There are so many weapons, plus so many spells and items, that they had to split everything into sections; thus it's impossible to use a classic single number key for each weapon. Also, it's a bit complicated to change your weapon quickly and you may make mistakes in the middle of a fight. Pressing F1 gets you to weaponry, F2 to the select spells menu, and you press F3 for inventory.
The level design also deserves praise: Levels are mostly huge mazes, and if you like exploring and checking corners and distant platforms and rooftops, you will most likely end up with a prize. Some parts can't be accessed before obtaining certain items; there are many secret rooms, teleports and small, barely noticeable switches and buttons (pay attention to those -- keep checking the walls); there are lots of traps as well as level mechanics that you have to figure out in order to proceed or to reach some prize-holding areas. It is much more complex and demands more wit than other FPSs of the time (with Dracula and perhaps Dark Forces as the exceptions). The already-mentioned atmosphere is up to scratch: slums full of gang members, the city, populated by robots, soldiers, flying vehicles and strippers (yep, even they weren’t introduced to the FPS genre by Duke), the battlezone, with trenches and wires, temples staffed by evil priests, and so forth. Despite the rough mechanics, the atmosphere and surroundings are really impressive for the time.
This review could go on for a while, counting all the interesting facets of the game. There are obviously some flaws, but most players will surely enjoy Cybermage. Just be little patient at the start -- give it a chance until it starts rolling. If you are an FPS fan, you should check out CyberMage just for the historical value. You just might be surprised to see so many original features that you have so enjoyed in newer games.