Mystic Ark Maboroshi Gekijyo: A mystical time at the phantom theatre

On the surface Mystic Ark: Maboroshi Gekijyo shares many broad similarities with Super Famicom RPG Mystic Ark: you’ll spend a lot of time exploring strange worlds connected to each other via a hub area, those magical Arks once again play a central role, and the whole game is drenched in a distinctive fairytale atmosphere thanks to Akihiro Yamada‘s beautiful artwork.

These links are however purely conceptual rather than a more straightforward case of “and this is what happened afterwards”, your chosen boy or girl avatar (there’s a third character to unlock too) not an RPG hero ready for a fight but a young child whisked away to the game’s titular theatre, at which point the establishment’s strange owner/scarecrow, Silver Fingertips, explains that you alone must search for the seven Arks as he begins his “show”.

Whoever you decide to play as, all of the major events in this puzzle-focussed 3D adventure game play out in the same way, with a few changes in the puzzles from time to time: one character’s decorative object becomes the solution to another’s unexpected problem, something happens to one kid that doesn’t to another, a vital object isn’t found in the same place it was last time around. The differences are significant enough that if you enjoyed your time with the game a second (or third) go with a new character will offer some new experiences and unique headscratchers to solve, but they’re also slight enough that if one run through was enough then you’re really not missing anything important if you’d rather move onto something new.

Unlike the first Mystic Ark combat is rare here, which turns out to be something of an unfortunate positive as it’s so very disappointing when it does pop up. You really can’t do much more to an opponent other than walk up to them and press the game’s only attack button to either strike or optionally slash at whatever it is with one of the only two weapons—both swords—in the entire game. Holding down a direction on the d-pad at the same time as pressing the attack button alters the move slightly, although the practical difference between these punches, kicks, and swipes is minimal. As shallow as it is there is something quite satisfying about punching a monster in the face with a life-ending right hook and then carrying on with your business, especially when playing as a sweet pigtailed girl named Alice.

The puzzles you need to solve are generally fair and logical, although that only applies if you’ve encountered one of the increasingly infrequent situations where the game has given you access to everything you need. Yep, Mystic Ark is sadly one of those games where key items may simply not exist unless you’ve triggered something else first, and that means you’ll sometimes stumble across a room that’s clearly set up as a conundrum to be worked through, but there’ll be no reward for solving it because the item you’re supposed to collect at the end simply isn’t there yet. To make matters worse there are some objects in the game you can examine from the very beginning, even though you may not actually need to acknowledge their existence until you’re almost at the end of the game, if at all.

As if to prove there’s no consistency to the game’s internal logic you’ll even find yourself in situations where you everything you need is right before you… and you still can’t solve the puzzle until you know exactly why you need to collect or combine a particular object. These frustrating roadblocks encourage a very dull sort of behaviour for safety’s sake, exhausting all dialogue options and triple-checking every item just because it’s easier to do that than feel fairly certain you’ve learned all you need to, run off, and then realise you can’t proceed because although you may have already put two and two together, the game hasn’t set the little flag that allows you to make four yet.

To add insult to injury many of Maboroshi Gekijyo’s problems must be solved using unlocked ark powers, represented by consumable playing cards. These are in short supply at the best of times, and you can use them at any time you like, even if they’re not needed. Thankfully your pool of these vital summons can be replenished by challenging and then winning a rather bland card game set by spirits hidden in very random and otherwise unremarkable objects scattered around the environment—a nondescript lamp, a trumpet, a pot—and if you don’t have enough card-arks in your inventory to play these spirits will merrily dish out cards until you do, a sensible feature that makes softlocking yourself into an unwinnable situation impossible… and also immediately raises the question of why you ever needed to play the damned card game in the first place.

Luckily—and I really do think luck (and technical limitations to a certain extent) plays a large part in it—even when you’re able to travel back and forth between all three worlds (four if you include the hub area) these issues are irritating rather than genuinely unmanageable as there aren’t that many places to check (again) for something or someone, either within a single room or an entire mini-world.

These almost-realities are strange and intriguing places to explore, every area infused with a sense of craftsmanship and individuality, something created by hand as much for its visual impact as its necessary function. Everywhere has an appropriately carnival-esque look to it; bright and fun and just a little off in a way that implies something’s not quite right. Maboroshi Gekijyo’s a place where wooden chairs may turn into horses, where every strange artefact may be a portal to another world. Every location starts and ends with a hard line, always surrounded by an ornate border separating you just a little from the on-screen action—as if you were watching actors in a play.

The music accompanying the questionably designed puzzling ranges from dreamlike pastiches of ordinary fantasy RPG music where gentle melodies are broken up by discordant jumbles of almost-words, to background ambience that sounds like it was originally meant for—and there really is no more suitable comparison to make—Silent Hill. I can’t say it’s a soundtrack I’m eager to listen to outside the game, but it makes for an unforgettable experience while you’re in it.

Mystic Ark: Maboroshi Gekijyo is a fascinating albeit definitely flawed experience that deserves to be praised for its artistic endeavours with the same intensity as it should be pilloried for being a puzzle-adventure game that makes such a mess of its own self-inflicted puzzling and adventuring. For all its flaws, this is the sort of uniquely uneven PlayStation experience I look forward to butting heads with the most. There really is nothing else out there quite like it: the game doesn’t care if it makes sense to or satisfies anyone other than itself, and if that means being weird and creative in an undecipherable way rather than polished and understandable then that’s just how Maboroshi Gekijyo’s going to be, sales figures be damned.

The final curtain may have fallen on Mystic Ark series, but at least the series went out dancing to its own tune.

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