Mage Knight: Apocalypse brings the tabletop game system to the PC. Fans might be disappointed that more factions aren't playable, but character customization is easily Apocalypse 's strong suit. Choose from one of five guardian types - Vampire, Draconum mage, Elven paladin, Amazon, or Dwarf - and you'll find three skill trees for each, filled with active and passive abilities that'll help you survive and slaughter.
In the game's nicest touch, experience points and levels are thrown out in favor of improvement through practice. Cast lots of fire spells and your intelligence will climb higher as you work your way to the fire tree's most powerful offerings. Not locking the player into a particular skillset lends a liberating touch, even if its inconsistency means you'll occasionally gain increases that seem arbitrary.
The forging system lets you customize your hero's gear by dropping magestones into slots, adding elemental damage and other effects. Pack a staff full of ice stones and become a one-man blizzard, or mix types to find special attacks. You could spend considerable time just experimenting, and there's no shortage of equipment lying around to trade in or infuse.
The problem is that despite character development options, the bulk of actual play just isn't enjoyable, thanks in equal part to combat mechanics and technical troubles. Whether you're casting spells, slinging arrows, or swinging swords, beating down monsters means clicking the heck out of anything that moves.
That's not necessarily a bad thing: simplistic gameplay can be a blast. Unfortunately, while other games concentrate on action-packed carnage, Mage Knight: Apocalypse interrupts the flow constantly with amateurish pathfinding issues that hang your companions up on the simplest of obstacles, a spastic manual camera, and enemies that seem to enjoy standing idly in corners. A few of the linear hack-and-slash missions seem like real stumpers until you realize the last wave of goons got stuck and need to be lured around an obstacle.
There's never any sense of jeopardy from the decent looking but utterly braindead bosses, and though you'll find yourself dying frequently, there's no incentive to develop strategy since your nitwit companions can't navigate, and all damage done to bosses survives your resurrection. Other irritations mount on the side, like the loot system that forces you to micromanage your backpack to the point of agony, character interjections that fill your screen with text while you're trying to fight and shops that overwhelm you with hundreds of purchase options at a time. That the storytelling is hopelessly unexciting doesn't help, either.
Devotees of this universe's mix of fantasy staples and steampunk gadgetry might find themselves unable to resist Mage Knight: Apocalypse's dubious lure, and may even enjoy the game's character-building freedom if an effective patch comes along, but they aren't likely to stay enamored for long when this holiday season's bigger and better RPG offerings finally appear.