Sometimes, even the simplest things in life can prove to be pretty difficult. Examples of such include trying to follow the cooking instructions on a frozen garlic bread without burning the bready bastard in a crispy oblivion, or trying to navigate iTunes. Byte and Magic is a game that could easily fall into this category, but not for the same reasons.
Byte and Magic is so unashamedly old school it might well be sold with a Tiger electronic handheld. The game is a throwback to the types of RPG games that were common in the ’80s; astonishingly difficult, but wholesome and addictive. When you first start the game, the first campaign that is available to you is labelled “Hard”. This is the easiest that Byte and Magic gets, and after spending a fair amount of time with it, that’s absolutely fine in my book.
Upon starting your adventure, you have to choose from a wide selection of randomly generated heroes. There’s everything here in terms of race and class, from halfling thieves to dwarven fighters and shadowy necromancers, so anyone who has ever played an RPG will know roughly what to expect from each class. The charm of Byte and Magic starts to emerge at this point, as you read the biographies of each character and discover ridiculous facts about them, such as “She prides herself on her collection of crusty axes”, or “He once fell in love with a dirty road”. While the game randomly generates these humorous descriptions from a set of parameters, they come together in a funny fashion that sums up Byte and Magic’s sense of humour. This is reminiscent of games such as Theme Hospital, when you’d hire a doctor purely because he “smells faintly of cabbage”, and firmly establishes the character of the game.
Once you have established a company of three people (and one of those realistically needs to be a healer), you’re ready to head out into town. Here you can speak to the townsfolk to gain quests, and visit the shop or one of several other buildings. Once you’ve selected a quest, of which there are eight on each campaign, you can set off on your adventure.
The journey to each dungeon provides an automated sequence, where three randomly generated events will occur. These range from meeting crazed cultists to finding dead bodies, and you’re presented with several options as to what you want to do. None of these options provide a definite reward or correct answer, as you will occasionally come across the same event twice. That said, the outcomes are randomised too, so selecting the same answer doesn’t always give you the same reward or punishment. This is one of the most fun things about Byte and Magic, and it gives you the perfect excuse to play around and try different approaches, because ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you choose.
Byte and Magic isn’t afraid to play around with the fourth wall, either. There are many instances where other games are referenced, such as randomly stumbling across a Mario pipe in the woods, or even coming across an “error” and being asked if you would like to “touch the error?” These fast and loose witticisms are one of the main draws of the game, and helps it to remain charming even after the 8-bit soundtrack starts to wear a little heavy on the eardrums.
Dungeons play out in a similar fashion, too. Each dungeon has eight rooms to explore, with a boss battle at the end, and most rooms will include some monsters to fight. The combat system is pretty simple to understand in that it’s turn based and you can’t use the same character two turns running. While it is simple in principle, the main challenge is trying to get your party out alive, which is especially daunting given that negative status effects are handed out like gumdrops. This does mean that you’ll need to plan ahead somewhat, but battles mostly consist of attacking your opponents and keeping your own party healed until one side is dead. And in Byte and Magic, dead means dead, and there’s no way to revive a character that reaches 0 HP, so it’s important not to let your level six dwarf tank get chewed to death by a swarm of gnats.
While these sections are a lot of fun, they also present one of the major flaws of the game. Byte and Magic doesn’t allow any free movement. Once you’ve selected your quest, you watch an automated sequence where you travel to the dungeon. Once you’re at the dungeon, you are presented with a scenario (whether that’s a battle or a treasure chest guarded by a magical barrier), then you select “next room” when done and move onto the next. Between screens, you get to look in your inventory, swap items and level up, but that’s about it. While this is a trapping of its retro design, it still feels a little hands-off at times and the game could perhaps set you up with a little more to do.
To use the term roguelike to describe this game seems disingenuous. It isn’t intentionally trying to provide a ball-busting challenge, it just revels in its retro theme that a lot of the game design is simply tougher than we’re used to. As mentioned earlier, once your heroes die there is no way to bring them back, but the game magnanimously allows you to view their rotten corpses in the Graveyard. Here you can look at your fallen comrades and wonder what might have happened if you hadn’t let your level six dwarf tank get chewed to death by a swarm of gnats. Rest in peace, Punchy, and may the halls of Valhalla stay forever open for you.