Libra is our “first impressions” series. These are generally spoiler free, but may reveal some base plot points and mechanic details.
On paper, Mittelborg: City of Mages should be a game I adore. While RPGs will always hold first place in my heart in the world of gaming (in both video game and tabletop form), I’m also a big fan of roguelikes and resource management board games, which Mittelborg seeks to expertly combine, while wrapping the whole thing in a mythic, fantasy-fueled package. While I had never heard of the game before it’s announced release on Switch, I was excited to get my hands on it and see how well-executed the game’s core design would be. After playing the game off and on for several weeks, I have to say I’ve been… disappoined, to say the least.
Mittelborg casts the player as the leader of a extra-dimentional city, which rests between the borders of other worlds and stands against dark forces that threaten many of them. The player must manage the crumbling city’s defenses, build fortifications, gather resources, and send scouts to other worlds to find rare artifacts and new recruits. The way the player executes all these actions is through the use of mages. Starting the game with a single mage and slowly building up more as each run goes on, the player must anticipate what kinds of attacks and/or opportunities are coming with each wave of attack to allow them to defend, heal, or acquire resources at just the right moment.
Each mage is represented as a token on the city map, and they can be moved to different locations each round, based on what kind of wave the player sees (or can guess through hints and other game mechanics) next. Most locations on the city map must be built by the player using in-game currency, and then will be subsequently available on future runs. Upgrades to each location – which may unlock new abilities or allow multiple mages to be deployed to given location – must be rebuilt each time the player dies and starts a new run. In this way, the game tries to balance its roguelike and tabletop elements against what a standard video game player may expect from a long-term investment in a new game.
This core design COULD be effectively executed, but unforutately I’ve found the game frustratingly brutal – and not in a good way. Enemy attack waves hit hard – even with mages deployed to the correct locations, and healing is slow and nearly pointless. You’d think, setting out, that upgrading your defenses would allow you to mitigate this threat over time, but unfortunately each wave hits harder than the last, so by the time you get those much-needed upgrades, you’ll find yourself still taking the same amount of damage each turn – maybe more. This rips any feeling of accomplishment away from the player, as they are hardly rewarded for smart thinking and careful management. This sort of unsatisfying game balance permeates most aspects of the game, as simple actions – like using an oracle to predict the next type of wave on the horizon – become increasingly expensive as the game goes on. This means that as you gather more and more resources, eveything just keeps getting more expensive.
On the flip side, there are certain story-based scenarios that pop up here and there throughout each run, which present the player with a moral dilemma and four choices on how to handle the crisis. Generally, two options will have some kind of benefit and two will have a negative consequence, but which will be right or wrong isn’t spelled out by some unifying philosophy or moral center. I found myself just having to memorize good and bad consequences as I saw them, and then try to remember it for next time when inevitably the same scenarios popped up again from what must be a very limited pool of crises.
By my assessment, Mittelborg missed completely what makes roguelikes or resource manamgenet games fun and interesting – player choice and gradual progression. Instead, you must memorize what the best choices are – or find a way to get the game to TELL you what they are – execute those choices, and then sit back and watch all your progress mean nothing as you teeter on the edge of death round after round.
- Interesting core concepts
- Poor execution
- Unsatisfying progression system
- Gameplay based on rote memory, rather than strategy
- Tiny text size and difficult menu controls (due to poor PC porting)
While I still have a bit of ways to go before passing final judgement, I’m not confident Mittelborg will be able to recover itself from my current assessment. For now, I’d say it’s a game to avoid.