It’s not unfair to look at Android and iOS games as though they’re beneath “ordinary” gaming, especially with simplistic, cartoonish wastes of time designed to milk you out of your money through micro-transactions making up so much of the market. Every so often, however, a game comes along that forces you to think better of mobile gaming as a whole. For iOS, that game would definitely be Chaos Rings 2. For Android, I’d have to give that honor to the surprisingly incredible, micro-transaction-free Tales of Illyria.
It’s not just one long trek
Tales of Illyria is described on its app page as a “party based RPG hybrid mixing Oregon Trail and Choose Your Own Adventure game mechanics,” and while this isn’t necessarily an inaccurate way of putting it, the wording does seem to put a special emphasis on the Oregon Trail side of things instead of focusing on all of the other things that the game has to offer; while resource management is certainly something that you’re juggling while traveling from city to city, I wouldn’t call it the game’s primary focus. Invoking Oregon Trail brings to mind tedious treks often ending in death from random illnesses, after all, and the game’s choose-your-own-adventure and RPG elements are quite a bit more prominent than the description makes it sound.
You’ll be playing with developer-designed characters in Illyria rather than creating your own, and that’s a good thing—games with player-made characters have to sacrifice a lot in terms of character development in order to accommodate all of the potential characters you could be. By sticking with pre-defined characters, the game is able to develop them slowly and more realistically, and by the end of the game, I found that I was quite attached to a few of them because of how colorful their personalities can be. A lot of this is due to the consistently excellent writing; while I wouldn’t consider the overall story particularly special or noteworthy (it can be a bit cliche at times), the high level of writing ensures that your story of revenge against those who wronged you is consistently entertaining.
It’s an RPG through and through
It’s downplayed on the app page, but the fact is that Illyria is all-in when it comes to the RPG side of things: your characters level up, have numerous skills which can be learned and improved, and combat plays out like an automated jRPG (with an emphasis on positioning strongly reminiscent of Radiant Historia). You even get to equip all of your characters like in an RPG, from their weapon and armor to their horse and saddle. You’re also able to decide whether to position them in the back row or front row, which inevitably affects how you develop them; I wound up having three melee attackers in the front row, two of whom had spells for attacking archers and others who are out of reach, and three support characters in the back row who used spells. There are a multitude of ways you can build your team, and the classless system allows you to approach the game in your own unique way.
Violence is sometimes the answer
Combat plays out automatically, and while your characters do a decent enough job by themselves, you can take over by tapping on them and changing their action. This allows combat to avoid tedium (by not requiring any actual input) while allowing you to take over and use more complex strategies for the harder fights that the AI wouldn’t stand a chance against otherwise. Even if you lose, however, you’re able to restart combat and try again without any penalty, which is nice. As far as weaponry goes, melee weapons and bows work pretty much as you’d expect, with the only difference being that there are multiple fighting styles that you can learn and level up (usually by paying money at a Fighters Guild) as you play. As an example, my archer used the “precise” style of attacking, and this meant that her attacks were slow, but especially damaging. Because her archery style was slower than a normal action, manually switching her action to healing magic meant that she’d jump to the top of the action queue if I ever had a character on the brink of death. This saved me more often than I’d like to admit.
Healing spells in Tales of Illyria are an especially interesting element of combat. Not only is there no MP, AP, or anything consumable to deal with (both you and the enemy can spam spells as much as you want), but the healing only lasts until the end of the fight. Because of this, you’re often rushing to heal allies who haven’t sustained much damage so that any further damage they incur is taken out of that temporary HP. This is kind of a weird thing to explain, but bear with me, here. Say that a character has 9 hit points and loses 3. That’s 6 hit points left, right? Well, if they’re healed to have all 9 hit points after that, they’ll still have only 6 once fighting ends and the temporary HP goes away. If they’re hit after being healed so that they have 7 hit points left when combat ends (that extra one being the temporary health), that’s still 6 hit points once combat is done. If they hadn’t been healed, however, then they wouldn’t have that temporary health as a buffer when they got hit again, so they’d only have 4 hit points at the end of combat.
Resource management and travel
Health can be restored up to 80% of your maximum by camping, but camping uses resources, so it can’t be relied on too heavily. Balancing food and water (depleted over time when traveling and camping) and wine (depleted only when camping) against the hit points of your characters and their distance to the next town can be a bit of a challenge at first, but once you buy some horses to speed up travel, things become far easier.
If all of this stuff about combat and resources sounds overwhelming, don’t worry—it’s all explained in the game as you play, so it never feels overwhelming. I was surprised by how quickly I had picked everything up, honestly, especially after being scared away by the 103-page manual. It turns out that the manual is just a helpful resource, and everything is explained very well in the game. The only thing I have no idea about is the “morale” system; as you play, characters’ morale goes up when they agree with your decisions, but how this affects things isn’t ever really clear. It supposedly makes them more effective in combat, but one of my characters had incredibly low morale and still managed to make a big difference in fights. It’s also possible that a low enough morale causes them to leave your party (this is suggested in the manual, at least), but I don’t know if that’s actually a possibility. Morale aside, however, everything in the game is explained very well.
Choosing your own adventure
While Tales of Illyria has moments that are reminiscent of the choose-your-own-adventure style of play that it claims to embody, I’d say that a better comparison would be the addictive King of Dragon Pass and its random events. In KoDP, you face a bunch of random events that can be resolved in different ways. Sometimes you’ll face similar events and they’ll unfold completely differently, and oftentimes the skill of those dealing with an event plays a role in how well it unfolds. The same exact things can be said of Illyria’s random events; when traveling in a town or on the road, you’ll randomly stumble on events that play out through text and pictures. You’re then given a choice for how to respond to what’s happening, and your choice (along with your skills; more on that later) affects how things play out. For example, early in the game I helped an injured bird that I found on the road. It cost me time and some resources, but I felt good for helping. Further down the road, an angel came down to tell me that I had its support for doing such nice things, and it gave me some money to help on my journey.
Random events in Illyria run the gamut from completely normal to inexplicably insane weirdness. You’re as likely to accidentally eat some laxative berries as you are to encounter bandits, and the random bouts of weirdness (and the humor therein) make the game even more likable than it already is.
Along with your stats and spells, you also have skills that can be leveled up by paying in-game money at certain locations. Skills come into play during random events, mostly, determining your success when you try to approach a situation in a more elaborate way than just fighting or running away. For example, trying to build a raft to cross a river will usually succeed with a high “engineering” skill, while those with a low engineering skill are more likely to have it break apart, costing them resources. With a high “persuasion” skill, you have a chance to convince bandits who are robbing you to give up on banditry. With a high “sneaking” skill, you’ll be able to steal and hide with quite a bit of success, while a high “hunting” skill allows you to tap on animals while traveling to obtain extra food. Even with a skill maxed, however, you’re not guaranteed to succeed every time. This makes things especially interesting as you’re forced to weigh the potential pluses and minuses of success and failure in each individual situation.
The graphics have this “digital painting” aesthetic to them, and while that’s mostly a good thing, the art can occasionally be a bit dorky. For example, your characters’ portraits change as you equip them, and certain combinations just look dumb. I also have to mention the grass, which has this distinct “Photoshop brush” look to it. Those problems aside, however, the graphics are really interesting, and I like them a lot as a whole because of how unique they are.
Illyria’s main menu music is really good, and a lot of the in-game music is equally memorable. That being said, there are some instances where I could swear I heard it looping, making it sound like the tracks weren’t designed to loop properly. This manifests as a sudden hiccup where the track starts over again. I’m not sure if this was a problem with my Kindle Fire or the game, but it wasn’t a bad enough problem to detract from my enjoyment so much as it was a weird quirk that occasionally made me wonder.
Here’s what you should do: