Today's selection is Mystic Blade by Chronos30, who is undoubtedly more well-known for his work on the ZZT Encyclopedia and for the whopping thirteen-part sci-fi series Chrono Wars. Somehow, after spending four months streaming the Chrono Wars series last year, I found myself ready for more. For those that remember their Chrono Wars history, you'll recall that the series originally ended with part ten before Chrono returned to it more than a year later. It was during this gap in which Mystic Blade was released.
While Mystic Blade is devoid of any numbering in its title, it remains a Chronos game, and as such is meant to be part of its own lengthy series, so don't expect things to wrap up nicely by the end. Prior to writing this article, the world (as well as its demo) were marked as "incomplete", so I was going into this one waiting for the game to just stop suddenly at any moment. That turned out not to be accurate. This is just a "Part 1" of lord knows how many given Chronos's history with endless sequels. Things will end cleanly here. There's a proper #endgame, obligatory "To be continued..." text, and of course plenty of questions deliberately left unanswered to entice players into keeping an eye out for the next chapter.
The game is also a victim of MegaZeux's temptations of power. The game's text file describes it as a prequel for an upcoming MegaZeux version. Like so many other ZZT games before it, work on the ZZT side of things was stopped in order to take advantage of MegaZeux's significantly more enhanced capabilities. MegaZeux's vastly expanded counters, support for strings, variables, arithmetic made it a popular choice for younger programmers dreaming of creating their own RPG masterpieces. Mystic Blade is yet another example of a project being dropped entirely after making the switch, with no demo or releases in the series to be found on the MegaZeux side of things. MegaZeux certainly isn't to blame for any of these former-ZZT projects going under, and it's not like ZZT itself isn't littered with releases that end on a sequel hook which would end up never seeing the light of day. It just shows up often in an era when ZZT's limitations were treated as flaws, with authors having to hammer their ideas to fit into a ZZT shaped hole rather than being designed around ZZT to begin with.
When it came time to select a game, Mystic Blade caught my eye partially due to Chronos's name. There's endless technical jargon in Chrono Wars and the game is pure science-fiction above everything else, even though it too features an RPG engine at one point. Chronos's love for time-travel, spaceships, and the butterfly-effect made me really curious how he might adapt to the far more grounded medieval fantasy seen in Mystic Blade. This game certainly isn't a game focusing on an accurately portrayal of the age of chivalry or anything. It's got magical weapons and spells, healing potions, and its share of fantastic elements. It's still very much a Chronos game, and if you know much about the bizarre directions Chrono Wars went in, it's hard not to be curious what Mystic Blade might be.
As an extra reason to check it out, the game has some clout associated with it. While there aren't any traditional reviews from the z2 era, it did receive a Classic Game of the Month award from Knightt back in 2001, three years after the initial release. Knightt praises the game extensively in his brief review, claiming it to be better than Chrono Wars but not receiving any of the attention the other series received. For Knightt, it's not even a nostalgia trip, as he admits in the review that he played the game for the first time just prior to giving it the title. Surely there's something here then?
And there is! The comparison to Chrono Wars is inevitable, and one that's incredibly unfair. (This won't stop me.) With only twenty-some playable boards, compared to the literal hundreds in Chrono Wars, it's silly to try and compare the two. What might be more apt is to compare it with some other roughly-contemporary medieval fantasy games. Here's the obligatory reference to Interactive Fantasies releases King's Quest ZZT and Quest for Glory. Mystic Blade shows up just a few weeks before Quest for Glory, making for a good summer for fans of this genre like myself. At a glance it's hard to say who was influencing who here, assuming the authors were playing each others worlds that is.
So expect some sword and sorcery, with quite a bit of fun in store for players in this teasing introduction into the world of Mystic Blade.
Story and Gameplay
Breathe a sigh of relief, this isn't Chrono Wars. There will be no time travel, no dimensional travel, not even a sense that things are just being made up as the game progresses. I mean, maybe if the series continued I wouldn't be shocked to hear it gets wild, but what's here is a pretty straightforward story that wouldn't be out of place in any other medieval fantasy game.
Players take on the role of William, a young man training to become a great knight of the kingdom of Sarconia just as his father is. The game opens with William being summoned to the castle to speak with his mentor Sir Thomas, about one final task to complete his training and become a full fledged knight. From the opening, things could go anywhere. It's pretty much a blank slate as the player gets their bearings in the barracks and castle grounds.
Before reaching the castle, players get to take a look at the barracks.
If I had a nickel for every time Chronos wrote about a gaping hole, I would have two nickels. That's not a lot, but it's funny that it happened twice.
Sorry to get crude almost immediately, but I have to document this. Just as in Chrono Wars 9 there's a gaping hole. At the time I streamed the game, I was unsure if the innuendo was intentional or not. There's no doubt now.
Within the barracks is a small library that functions as the game's manual. The books cover information such as how to attack enemies, and the player's current health and magic limits at level one. They also provide more in-universe information, giving an overview of magic which plays a pivotal part in the game's story. Members of "The Dark Order" use dark magic. Paladins use light magic. There are enchantments and curses that cause permanent changes in objects, and simple elemental magic for a wider variety of spells. Another book goes over the games weapons and armor, though rather than just listing them off with some stats, they get brief descriptions to give them some pizzazz.
The titular Mystic Blade is discussed in one of these books as well. It's a legendary blade created by a warlock a century ago with the capability of re-sharpening itself and being as light as a feather. Given the game's title, one might think this game would be about the search for the fabled weapon, yet it's actually never mentioned again! If you want a ZZT game named after a cool sword that's actually focused around that sword, might I recommend Flame Frost Blade?
Before setting out, William stops by the kitchen for some breakfast and to chat with a few fellow trainees and paladins before properly setting off. You can skip the meal, missing out on some health, but skipping on the conversation is a more serious mistake. One of the men eating is actually looking for William, handing him a claymore (which the game considers a baby sword for babies), and telling him the password needed to enter the castle where Sir Thomas is expecting him.
The path to the castle is one of only two boards that feature melee combat. Touch the rats before they touch you is the name of the game here, as these basic enemies wander aimlessly until they catch sight of the player and give chase. I wouldn't put much stock in a board like this, but this is fifty percent of the game's combat here. Despite the library promising a leveling system plus weapons and armor to upgrade, it feels like the combat is only here because it's expected for a game of this style to feature it.
The castle is the next screen over with a watchman up top asking for the password before the drawbridge will be lowered, and William can finally enter the castle he's been summoned to.
Inside the castle there's a brief delay before William and Sir Thomas can speak with each other as an enemy spy has been captured and brought to Sir William. He orders the spy thrown into the dungeon and gives both William and the player some information on just what's going on. The spy belong to "The Dark Order", worshipers of the dark queen Illyth. They are experts in dark magic and have been using it to wage surprise attacks on the kingdom of Sarconia. Efforts to stop them have been ongoing, with the kingdom's survival being in the hands of the paladins that keep watch over the region.
Making matters worse, the Dark Order members are infamous liars! Sir Thomas explains that these spies cannot be interrogated effectively due to their skill at lying, and also the fact that they can cast "Explode", offing themselves and any nearby interrogators in the process. It's a pretty intimidating skill-set to be sure, but Thomas states everything rather matter-of-factly and quickly moves on to the task at hand.
William isn't even a knight yet, so there's no sense in worrying about any of these exploding spies and the lies they tell. Instead, he's tasked with a classic quest to recover the king's stolen scepter. It shouldn't be a difficult job, as informants have already learned that the scepter is being kept hidden in the town of Hampton, the town nearest to the castle.
Chronos tries to make the land of Sarconia a dangerous one. Even with his training, William is given some strict orders about how to act once outside the castle grounds. Muggers are everywhere, and rather than risk potential bloodshed, and the possibility of this trainee being killed outright, Sir Thomas gives William a bag of coins specifically to use if he's mugged.
Heading east from the castle a mugger shows up on the bridge and demands William's money if he wants to cross alive. This is where the game first uses its inventory system, with the player being on a short timer to give the bag of coins. If you're too slow, the mugger will get impatient and kill William. What would otherwise be a typical do-or-die scenario turns out to be something Chronos really went all out on. Game-ending scenarios like this normally don't bother with detail. Some red fakes, or some words of your grisly end sure, but Chronos goes beyond expectations.
While the game over text is on screen, telling the player to quit the game and try again, players can watch the mugger throw the player off the bridge and into the water. That's a level of commitment I don't think I've seen before! The bridge itself is lined with well, line walls, so actually pushing the player over the edge requires the object to first put a fake wall over part of the edge before shoving the player through. It's a really unique scene thanks to how unexpected it is for anything to have special actions only taken once the game is over.
Amusingly, the bridge itself turns out to be within the castle walls where a guard stands at the exit, definitely close enough to witness the mugging. Did this guy just watch me get stabbed and thrown into a river last time?
Between the castle and Hampton William discovers a small cottage that he barges into, eliciting confusion over the reason for the trespass. William explains he's just passing through, with the man's attitude quickly improving after William accepts an invitation to sit down and listen to a long story. His name is Friar Garren and he's troubled with the state of the world.
This is where the game really gives out all the plot information. I don't think anything actually stops players from just continuing beyond this point without stopping to talk, which would lead to some odd dialog later as the game just assumes William and Friar Garren spoke. The way this is handled without William having any reason to go inside and listen other than "it's a video game" comes off as a bit of weak storytelling. However, Garren's story is what makes Mystic Blade Mystic Blade, differentiating itself from other ZZT medieval fantasy RPGs.
FRIAR: It was a long time ago. I was a
priest. My church was very loyal
to me, but suddenly, the Sarconians
came. They originated right to the
west, where you came from. They
used their weapons and power to
scare everyone into submission, and
then they took over, bringing their
influence with them. My
congregation followed the Sarconian
way, and threw me right out of my
FRIAR: It was my "corrupted views", they
said. I noticed patterns all
around me. Patterns everywhere:
In life, in behavior, in the sky.
Now, it didn't mean I was
renouncing my faith; I just believe
God sets these patterns, then
leaves them alone! The Sarconians
thought God controlled everything
all the time, but I don't think
they do anymore. Now... MAGIC!
Isn't THAT the popular word! Every-
one wants it, everyone marvels over
The story itself though does a good job at setting up the potential for a number of different conflicts that might happen. Garren gives William a bit of a history lesson. The kingdom of Sarconia was founded on conquest of this land. They used their weapons and power to conquer the land and force their way of life on those there here before. Garren continued practicing his faith until he was kicked out of his own church for his "corrupted views", of believing everything in life followed patterns set by God rather than God actively controlling everything.
This is where I began to worry just how Chrono Wars things might actually get.
FRIAR: That's just it... that magic can
be used for good... by members of
the Dark Order and paladins
alike... I've researched it very
thoroughly, and have discovered
that men will secretly capture
members of the Dark Order, then
their powers are DRAINED into
a staff, then "BESTOWED" upon a
FRIAR: Exactly. Now, why would such
a God-fearing government practice
such a horrific act? I smell
FRIAR: I have reason to believe that
"magic" isn't supernatural at all.
Somehow, it follows the same
patterns that the rest of the
world follows. Perhaps the user's
body is altered at a very magnified
level. And I also have reason to
believe that the Sarconian
government knows this. They must
keep it secret so they are not
called hypocrites... People who
believe the "lies" I do...
FRIAR: The government makes them think so.
They say that God bestows magic
upon paladins through the scepters.
They say His blessing gives them
the power of magic.
FRIAR: Exactly. I have a full, backed-up
story that would blow the whole
thing wide open, but I am sure no
one will even start to listen to
me. I would be hanged, anyway.
The plot keeps itself under control, with an excellent line "I smell conspiracy" line.
The friar goes on to talk about magic's nature in this world. It can be used for good listing both the members of the Dark Order as well as the Sarconian paladins as forces for good! However, he reveals that the source of the paladins' power is in fact siphoned from members of the Dark Order and drained into a staff that is then given to a paladin to control. The government, it seems, is not to be trusted.
William over here was out running errands for the day and suddenly gets told everything he believed was a lie. Chronos absolutely does his damnedest to turn Garren's spiel into a manifesto with some real choice phrasing about religion and the government. It works on William at least, who while not about to renounce his king and country just yet, believes every words Garren says from the get-go.
FRIAR: Well, I sure do sometimes, but
my magic makes me feel safe.
FRIAR: Indeed. I saw one of those hired to
capture members of the Dark Order
and drain their powers. He was
killed trying to capture one of
them, but I found his scepter.
One of my few followers has it
right now, and is hiding it in
FRIAR: That IS a predicament. Well, it
is your choice what to do when you
find him. I will give you my
emblem, to prove to him that you
are my friend. He will hand it over
when he sees it, and if you take it
back to me, I would be willing to
transmit some of my powers to you.
Perhaps all of them; I am getting
old, after all.
FRIAR: Sure. Nice to meet you, son.
• • • • • • • • •
Through sheer coincidence, one of the friar's followers is the one hiding the scepter William was sent to recover. William spills the beans about his mission, ashamed about what he's been tasked with doing. Despite Garren's effortless ability to persuade William, he doesn't try to convince him to abandon his quest. Instead he gives William his emblem so that he can obtain the scepter peacefully as a friend of the friar's, avoiding needless bloodshed.
Where things get interesting is that he wants William to bring the scepter to him. This could be a great moral conflict about who William believes and finding out what the truth really is. I made a separate save and everything when I was ready to return the scepter to see how things played out if I took it back to the friar versus taking it back to the king.
None of that mattered as I misinterpreted exactly what the friar was asking. He only wants William to take a detour with the scepter to see him before returning it. With the scepter he can transfer his own powers to William, giving him access to the magic he currently holds, performing a voluntary transfer rather than one forced by the government to empower a paladin's staff.
Upon finally reaching Hampton, there's little to do beyond tracking down the scepter. A shop sells torches, blue keys, and health drinks/jars with drinks being consumed on the spot and a jar being a consumable item during the game's RPG battle. Another home is currently empty, but provides a bomb William will need later.
The final home has a woman who is in quite the absurd situation. A man has been digging underneath her house and has killed people! Her plan is to wait in the living room until somebody nicer walks into her house to deal with him. Looking at it now, I'm unsure as to whether the lady is actually referring to the person in the basement or to a mugger that's hiding behind the house in the view of the town.
A basic puzzle using the game's inventory system requires placing the bomb by the fireplace to activate it and then lighting it to clear out the barricade to the basement. Some unsightly collateral damage occurs as the breakables wall outside are caught in the bomb's explosion radius.
Eventually, William makes it into the basement for the game's second combat sequence. The rats are replaced with sewer rats, and if they behave any differently it's impossible to tell in the short winding corridors of the basement.
The path leads to an underground dwelling where William meets the current scepter holder, John. John demands proof that William can be trusted before turning the scepter over. This is another "puzzle" of just showing John the emblem Friar Garren gave him. Afterwards, the scepter is Williams and he can begin his trip back to Friar Garren's cottage to learn some magic.
Garren keeps his word and William gains the ability to cast two spells. It's a little unclear since William currently holds a scepter, but the transfer is from Garren to William, with no need for an extra tool. For gameplay, this means that these spells are forever Williams's, persisting even after returning the scepter to the king. From a story perspective, things once again get interesting. William is now a knight in a training that shouldn't have magic, that has magic, and also doesn't require a "blessed" staff to use it. Garren warns him that if he's seen using magic it likely won't end well for either of them and stresses to only use it in the case of an emergency. So much for having a lot of fun making magical mischief...
The player doesn't even get an opportunity to try out his new abilities in private, as magic uses mana (ammo) and William currently has none. All that hype and the player is still left hanging.
On his way back home to return the scepter and not bother with any soul-searching about what all of this magic stuff means, William runs into yet another thief. This time it's an elf that's making fun of him for being an arrogant knight-in-training.
William is confirmed as a weenie before the thief makes off with all of his gems! Chronos likes to let the player have some agency even in these forced situations, so it is possible to give chase and catch the thief before he makes it off screen. Doing so reveals a tattoo on the thief's arm of an unrecognized symbol and rewards William with getting some of the money back before the thief makes a successful second attempt at escaping. I think it's a nice compromise to allow for these mandatory plot events without completely removing the player's abilities from the equation.
The rest of the journey back to the castle is uneventful.
Back in the castle Sir Thomas awkwardly explains that the spy must have pilfered his key to the throne room, so the scepter still can't be properly returned. William is given a new assignment to recover the key. Under normal circumstances the dungeon entrance would be just behind him. No such luck here, as the spy is a bit of a trickster with his magic and has used a spell to form a barrier that blocks the door. ...Kind of weird to lock yourself in a dungeon even further, but given the hassle getting to the dungeon is afterwards I can maybe see why. Thomas tells William of an alternate route. There's a secret passage that can be found in the bushes of the nearby field. The passage leads to the kitchen of the barracks. The kitchen has stairs to the cellar. The cellar has a vent to crawl through. The vent provides access to the moat. Finally, a brief swim through the moat will allow William to surface in the dungeon. It's as easy as that!
Please do not ask why William can't just start from the moat outside the castle and go diving from there.
Really the sequence seems to exist just so Chronos can have a bit of lighthearted fun. The kitchen staff isn't trying to kill William, but very much does not want anybody that isn't a cook to be back there.
It's a scene that could lend itself to comedy easily enough, but this is the author of Chrono Wars we're dealing with, and so wild escalations of violence are actually what's called for here. After stealing some food still being prepared, confusing the cook that was working on it, William takes the opportunity to. Then he takes his apron, disguising himself as a cook. Again, this is the kitchen of the barracks where William lives. These people probably see him every day. Once "disguised", he can finally enter the cellar when another cook asks him to go down there and bring up some more flour.
From the basement William finds the vent and somehow, on the other side, is the elven thief who robbed him earlier. This leads to an underwater chase sequence through the castle moat which is definitely a neat idea. In its execution, it's just crossing some dark blue fakes while the thief, introducing himself as Erik, swims ahead far enough that he won't be in the torch light of the player. This makes the chase feel no different than walking across any other board. There is at least one detour that lets the player surface and access some treasure they've been able to see outside of the castle that's been previously unreachable. I appreciate the inclusion of such a thing. Having out of reach goodies and a unique way to get to them is a nice touch.
The treasure may at first appear to be a bonus, but it's mandatory, as the treasures consist of another bomb and "thirty mana" which gives... ten ammo. Players also won't miss this path amidst the chase as ZZT's passages are visible even in darkness.
The chase with Erik is immediately forgotton. I guess he just swam up and fled as he'll never show up for the rest of the game. William finishes crossing the moat and reaches the dungeon from the opposite side of the main entrance. What follows is another big infodump as William gets to itnerrogate a very cooperative spy. Prompts are provided to ask what the prisoner knows about magic, the scepters, Queen Illyth, and how to find the Dark Order.
The spy explains that queen Illyth is the source of all magic, though nobody has any real understanding of how it works. When asked about the scepters, the spy gets upset, calling the paladins barbarians that strip them of their blessing from Illyth. He doesn't know how they work or how they're made, suggesting asking King Gabriel instead. He shows his tattoo which matches the one shared by Erik, telling William that it's the mark of members of the Dark Order. The only topic he's unwilling to discuss is where to find his people.
At the last moment William remembers that he wasn't sent to interrogate, but to get Sir Thomas's stolen key back. After reclaiming it the spy falls asleep, but not before casting one last surprise spell to close the entrance William used as well trapping him and the dungeon guards entirely. This is a potential soft-lock, though Chronos drops in a fourth wall breaking scroll earlier in the board warning players to save before they enter the dungeon, and to make sure they've collected everything before stepping inside. It's a bit clumsy, but it's definitely preferable than anybody who opted to take the path to the dungeon instead of the passage to the surface having to load a save when they have no bomb and mana.
Using his bomb, and lighting it with the fire spell (the other guards either don't notice or care), William escapes the dungeons and back to the room of Sir Thomas who has no updated dialog. The key unlocks the throne room, finally allowing William to finish his quest.
KING GABRIEL: I have heard about your
feats. You have recovered
a scepter and a key and
taken them back into this
kingdom! Here... let me
take your scepter back.
KING: You know about our war with the
Dark Order... but you do not know
KING: Every day, more die. I have to read
every name. Every damned one of
them! We are running low on troops
just defending the gates. You HAVE
met those demons, haven't you?
• • • • • • • • •
King Gabriel thanks William for his efforts and delivers a short monologue about the war. He reveals no sinister intentions or hints about the nature of magic and the staffs wielded by the paladins. He is saddened at the toll taken by the war against the Dark Order. Morale is low, and troops are dwindling.
It's a compelling scene, not for the quality of the writing, which is adequate, but because it continues to make it hard to understand the motives of King Gabriel and the Dark Order. The king seems to hate that this war is happening, but so far William has only seen the Dark Order as the victims. For players, it's really up in the air what the truth is. For William, it remains unquestioned, and he hands back the scepter without any comments of his own. As a reward, or perhaps highlighting the desperation King Gabriel feels, William is proclaimed a knight.
Here William finally raises an objection, but not due to the information he's come across on his eventful adventure for the day.
The true test of loyalty occurs soon after the knighting when the two guards unexpectedly run up to King Gabriel and assassinate him! William notices the mark of the Dark Order on their arms (he should probably tell somebody about that) before he has to fend for his life against the two in an RPG battle.
The details of the battle can come later, for now, get a look at these amazing depictions of guards.
When the guards have been beaten they run off with William following in pursuit. They end up leading him straight to the lair of the Dark Order!
As William approaches the fortress he is trapped between two gates being closed off. Attempts to use magic fail, with William wondering what's going on. A "TO BE CONTINUED" appears and the game ends.
Obviously being the first entry in a series that never saw a sequel, the story is very incomplete. Based on what players get see in this first chapter, I think the story is actually pretty interesting. William seems to be a bit too trusting, effectively agreeing with whoever is speaking to him at any given moment with no real lasting effects. That could be the basis for some personal growth over the course of the story. Part one of the tale keeps things ambiguous enough that things could really go either way with which group is morally correct here. The truth behind the source of magic seems to be a closely guarded secret that perhaps nobody knows.
Is Was the king trying to protect his people? Did he have a thirst for greater power that could only be achieved by harvesting magic? Where exactly did things spiral out of control? For poor William caught in the middle of this, there's a lot he doesn't yet know. The imprisoned spy states that he doesn't know how the scepters work or are created. It's rather odd that he doesn't corroborate friar Garren's story. It's also odd that he uses his magic only to be a nuisance when everybody else seems to be convinced he's going to detonate as soon as somebody asks him a question.
Compared to the Chrono Wars series, I found myself a lot more interested in where this story could go. Even if whatever was planned may have amounted to the least surprising possibility where King Gabriel was indeed knowingly instigating the war and deliberately draining the magical abilities of the natives, there ain't no reason that can't lead to a grand adventure. What's shown here puts the evidence in favor of the Dark Order. I wasn't lamenting the death of the king, but because everything is so unclear still, it's difficult to tell what's justified and what isn't. Perhaps this was to be a game about the futility of war with both sides committing escalating atrocities and never managing to find peace.
But also as far as the story as presented solely in this chapter, it does make me feel rather vindicated about finally sitting down to play through all of Final Fantasy VI. Gosh... a kingdom taking the powers of magical beings and using technology to turn that magic into weapons of war certainly sounds familiar...
That being said, I don't think Mystic Blade is trying to be FF6 with the serial numbers filed off. There are parallels to be made, and ZZT is no stranger to big commercial games serving as inspiration for original stories. Luke Drelick's Overflow admits to its Chrono Trigger inspiration, retaining some shared DNA but playing out as its own unique adventure. Tseng's November Eve is a beat for beat adaption of Parasite Eve that injects enough humor with Tseng's characters that it too feels more homage than rip-off. Even when using those stories as a base, ZZTers tended to create these kind of games to tell their own stories in similar worlds rather than try and hide that you're playing a knockoff of a PlayStation RPG. While playing FF6 I was definitely getting some strong Rhygar vibes when I got to see Sabin's backstory, but to claim Rhygar is just cribbing from FF6 would be really reaching.
The Chrono Wars saga shows that Chronos is more than capable of creating an original story so I trust that he had his own plans for the world of Mystic Blade. What's here is a pretty compelling introduction that left me wanting to know more about the world, its inhabitants, and the truth of its magic. Alas, this mystery looks like it's going to remain unsolved.