Apr 262012
 

mystic-empyreanBy Paco Garcia Jaen

When you risk a fair bit of money in Kickstarter, the fear of getting a good product doesn’t dissipate until you actually get your whatever-it-is you’ve invested in in your hands and find out if expectations have been met.

Mystic Empyrean wasn’t one of those moments. I can’t say I was worried for a second.

Firstly, this game comes from Level99 Games, one of the most prolific companies in the gaming world out there. Secondly, I have had the pleasure of chatting to the owner and designer in the company and if there is anything that man exudes, is professionalism and talent.

You might not have heard of Level99 Games. You might not know their products and, unfortunately, their products aren’t as widespread as I wish they were. However, some of their games and games accessories both for the iPad and physical copies, are simply outstanding. Buy Battlecon if you don’t believe me.

However Mystic Empyrean is not an iPad game, and is not a boardgame either. This is a GM-less (more or less) Role Playing Best that has managed to develop storytelling in a truly fantastic and accessible way.

First of all, the game itself.

Niall[1]The setting is very simple. Once there were myriad realms of reality. Those realms were shaped and controlled by the Eidolons; beings of immense power with a special connection to aspects of reality. However, Aether, came out of nowhere and almost destroyed everything. And I mean everything. Eidolon’s powers were almost nothing against Aether and realms and dimensions fell. Eventually the advance of Aether slowed down and now the Eidolons have a chance to start to rebuild what was once lost.

By the power of Anima, and the discovery of Cornerstones, the Eidolons have a chance to recreate the world where the game takes place.

This is a very summarised version of what goes on in this game. There is more to it. A lot more. And the best thing is that this book gives you all you need to create it.

The book

It’s gorgeous. Lovely artwork, a traditional two column layout and a good to read if original font, make for a very nice book to hold. I am not a friend of the paper used, though. It is thick and strong, but matt. I would have preferred to see the book on a shinier paper. This is just a preference, not a criticism. There is nothing wrong with the paper!

The art, by Katrina Lin, is absolutely fantastic. A great number of illustrations that keep a consistent style throughout the book and is placed in the right locations. Absolutely no problems with it at all!

The chapter organisation is also very well thought and perfectly planned. To start with it feels a bit confusing. Soon though, every piece starts to fall into place and things become perfectly clear; including the reasons why the book is organised the way it is.

I don’t have much of a memory. Being dyslexic, retaining information requires a lot of effort. Not this time. Everything is explained in such order that the learning progression has enough reminders throughout to help you remember everything.

image-60734-full[1]The Mechanics.

Simple, elegant, Open to modification and interpretation, comprehensive without being cumbersome, the Balance can be stricken and designed to suit your game.

Sorry… let me make some sense.

The Balance is the mechanism you use to add some randomness to the storytelling nature of this game, at the same time you introduce an element of randomness to keep you on your toes.

Every Eidolon is “attuned” to one of the elements: Fire, Light, Electricity, Water, Stone, Darkness and Air. Then there is Aether, which goes against any other element and it is omnipresent in any realm and dimension.

To play the game, you build the balance by creating a deck or cards, or tokens or any other item you want. Those cards or tokens will be as many as elements. To resolve an action, you draw one of those items from a bag. Every action will be associated to an element (like fighting to fire) and depending how close to that element is the item you draw from your Balance, your action will succeed totally or partially; or fail partially or totally, or disastrously, if you draw Aether from the Balance.

Character creation also has quite a few very interesting traits. Apart from choosing abilities and characteristics, players are also urged to take control of an aspect of the game. For example a player could take control of Healing. This doesn’t mean the other players wouldn’t be able to use healing, but that they’d have to use it by the rules of the player who controls that aspect. This gives everyone a fantastic chance to take control of something they care about and use it to shape the world they play in, and the new chunks of that world as it is discovered or unveiled.

Oh, and character progression is not just up to the owner of the character. To gain experience, the character sheet is passed on to the rest of the players, who will allocate points into the abilities and characteristics they think the character owner has displayed more often. So your progression is not just about what you want, but about what you do and how that is perceived by your friends. Love it!

tower1[1]GM-less

This is only partly true. The players take turns to become the GMs during scenes and locations. The game gives very good guidelines about how to start creating an adventure, and then develop it in a way that will allow the rest of the players to take control after a scene ends, and develop it in a way that might not be expected, even if it is still in pursue of the same goal.

Say the Eidolons set off to bring a Colossus under control. The first player could define the first scenario in which the Colossus is spotted and a token of his power is unleashed upon the players. At the end of that scene, another player acts as GM and creates a new scene that will have, as a goal, to get ready for the adventure, or maybe locating an item to help bring the creature under control. Then the next player will prepare another scene and so on and so forth.

While a player is acting GM, her character becomes an NPC, able only to offer marginal help. That way, once the GM mantle is passed on, there might be new things for that character to do that weren’t expected.

Although this does need a group of players who have to be in the same way of thinking, the potential for surprise and story-telling is incredible. The possibility of creating an adventure and then not knowing how it’s going to develop might be scary for some, but the thought of collaborative story building, mixed with the unpredictability of the Balance system is very appealing to me.

World creation

The game does encourage you to create your own world. For that purpose it provides with a very comprehensive guide to help you create and think of every aspect of the world. From high fantasy, to inter-dimensional space-travelling or steampunk society, this book gives you the formula you need to create the world as you want it.

Just to make sure everything is perfectly clear, a steampunk style world is provided. Locations, politics, characters, motivations and perils galore are given away. This is also done in a way that helps make perfect sense of all the theory provided earlier on in the book, so all the knowledge is backed with practical elements. Fantastic.

Conclusion

This is a truly fantastic game. I will even say this is a fantastic system, not just a game.

Although I started with some reservations when I opened the book and read the first few pages, by the end of this book I was excited and really looking forward to discovering what new worlds can be discovered by playing with my friends.

The selection of existing world was just right. I love steampunk, so that was going to be a big hit.

The mechanics are so simple, and yet can cater for pretty much anything you want and gives both acting-GM and player alike a way to control what happens and how. That really grabbed me right away.

The players interaction is also encouraged, and the character progression is so well thought, that acting the proper role of your character is not just necessary, is also rewarding in more ways than a traditional game makes you feel.

I really wish I had more than 5 stars to give to this game. I can’t recommend this highly enough. If you want storytelling and cooperative playing, this is just the right game. If you want tactical play, stay away!

Strongly recommended!

To find more information about this fantastic game, you can visit the Mystic Empyrean website by clicking here.

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Paco G. Jaen

Born in Spain with a talent for dyslexia, I am gamer, player, graphic designer, photographer and psycotherapist. Also online magazine publisher and writer. Yep.. I do lead a busy life!