There are few games out there that nail the social sim, as well as the idea of a total "un-game" like Nintendo's own Animal Crossing. We've seen EA capitalize on the casual market with The Sims, and if you've been paying attention capitalize is an understatement to be sure. Casual gamers (or non-gamers altogether) seem to love the go anywhere, do anything, harmonic nature of sim games, so it's really a surprise to me that there haven't been many attempts on DS for more titles along those lines. DS has become the most popular handheld in history, bridging the market between gamer and casual user incredibly well, though it's taken until now to see a full-on Animal Crossing clone.
Hey… at least Konami did it well.
Magician's Quest: Mysterious Times isn't an Animal Crossing killer, but it's also far from a bland, soulless cop-out either. Giving the genre a somewhat unique Harry Potter-inspired feel, even more oddball characters such as walking pumpkin heads, friendly undead, and dozens of other magic-inspired species Konami has created a game that feels very much like Animal Crossing, but also oddly all its own. It takes a few chances – some that work, and some that don't – and while it won't be taking Nintendo's crown any time soon, it's a great option for those looking for more of the familiar Animal Crossing offering.
In the end, Magician's Quest is hurt by being too much like Animal Crossing really. You've got a scrolling "globe-style" world on the bottom screen, an additional top screen viewing area, you can use stylus control or d-pad, you wander around collecting bugs and running errands, can customize your snug little living quarters, and get into all sorts of non-game experiences. Every couple days new missions are added as well, which make use of your actual magic training, but even those aren't much more than finding a character, using a spell, searching for items, or general other task-based simple adventuring.
The visual style is by far the most compelling part of Magician's Quest though. Based around a magical academy somewhat inspired by Hogwarts, players arrive, customize their character and school name, and then can freely explore the halls. The game runs in real time (so if it's 3:00 PM on your DS, it's 3:00 PM in the game) and uses that system for determining when quests are open, if classes are available for learning new spells, what characters are doing and when, as well as shop hours. The world seems nice and large at first, but it won't take long to realize that the overall size is pretty on par with Animal Crossing on DS. You've got a few classrooms in the school (only one you'll use for actual classes), a shopping district with a half dozen shops, a few other buildings scattered around the town, and that's about it. All the character designs, the subtle humor, and the overall "soul" of the game is well done and compels me to keep playing even after the review.
On the technical side there isn't much that Magician's Quest does above the expected Animal Crossing design, though there is a little give and take with one of the main tech decisions in the game. With Animal Crossing, you got a 3D lower screen and 2D top, showing off some basic skylines or interface menus when applicable. While interface screens still slide in with Magician's Quest, there's also active 3D on both screens, which means the framerate on each screen instantly takes a hit. Buildings look great fading in from the background and towering over the character two screens tall, but tiny frame skips and occasional slowdown are the penalty you pay for getting the increased visual scope. As for the models, character designs, and overall style of the game, Magician's Quest goes toe to toe with Animal Crossing as far as I'm concerned. Pretty impressive really.
If you’re looking for another Animal Crossing, or if you find yourself being sucked into trailers for the latest Harry Potter time and time again then you might want to give Magician’s Quest a look. It’s undeniably and shamelessly an Animal Crossing clone, but it’s also a good one, offering up a magical spin on the whole design. You’ve still got all the customization, player interaction, collection, and even multiplayer and online options as you’d expect in Nintendo’s property, but it’s all put together in a slightly askew package. The magic system is interesting, allowing for basic communication with AI and serving as a slightly larger core offering, but in the end it’s pretty basic to say the least. It doesn’t always seem like AI characters are getting what you’re saying, the magician quests are pretty simple all around, and the main story – while there is one, unlike Animal Crossing – is very straightforward and basic. Bottom line, Magician’s Quest is different kind of Animal Crossing design. Yes, it’s the best one we’ve seen on the system so far, and it actually has a lot of depth and interesting moments if you care to pour countless hours into it, but for 99% of the DS-owning population out there I’d suggest playing Animal Crossing. If you’re already bored of Nintendo’s effort, this one isn’t really fresh enough to breathe new life into the genre.