Review: Mahokenshi

27 Jan 2023

As a game reviewer, I often have a number of coverage offers in my inbox. I don’t specifically look at or choose them with any expectation that they are going to be good (or bad), but I do notice when a particular game is trying to stand out with a particular feature or concept to get my attention.

One such concept that tends to turn me off is the “card battler.” I tend not to have a lot of interest in these due to their typically inherent randomness, and there are TONS of games that use card playing mechanics these days, making it hard for any of them to stand out. Today’s game fell into that category for me, but the Japanese mythology/samurai theme piqued my interest, so I decided, “All right, let’s give this a go.”

Mahokenshi, developed by Game Source Studio and published by Iceberg Interactive for PC via Steam ($24.99), with its Japanese demons and cultists waiting to be slain, almost seemed to whisper in my ear and say “Play me.” So I did. Let’s dig into it!

Celestial Islands

You control one of the eponymous Mahokenshi, legendary samurai tasked with protecting the inhabitants of the Celestial Islands, a series of islands floating in the sky filed with numerous villages and connected by portals. Based on rumors weaving through villages of dark magic and destroyed villages in the most remote islands, the Mahokenshi are sent to investigate. What follows is a chase after dark cultists across the islands summoning demons known as oni to sow chaos. You must destroy these demons and put an end to the cultists summoning them.

The plot is straightforward, but well put together. It’s not a visual novel-level story experience, but everything makes sense, has a natural progression, and has just enough substance to help drive the gameplay and make you want to keep going even in the face of roadblocks. The world it creates (which appears to be loosely based on the Takamagahara, or High Plane of Heaven in Japanese mythology) is interesting and one of the things that beckoned me to play.

Four Houses

At the most basic level, the core turn-based gameplay strongly reminded me of the Fire Emblem franchise, just if you had cards instead of an inventory of items. You have a certain amount of energy to spend each turn to move, perform actions by playing cards, or a combination of both. The other key difference is in each mission you choose one of up to four Mahokenshi, each from a different house and with a different play style- for example, one may rely on stealth and lots of quick, free attacks, and another may be very tanky and gain strength when surrounded by enemies.

The interesting thing about the cards in this game is that your “deck” is built during the mission. You start with a handful of basic cards and acquire more as you play each mission, depending on the character you selected. You can be given them through quests, buy them at villages, and you can also destroy unwanted cards or upgrade favorites, giving you far more control than you would expect from a card-based game. By carefully choosing new cards and eliminating the less useful ones, you end up with a hand each turn that may only be slightly random and your turns will play out the way you plan much more easily.

There are just the right number of effects and variables, and each of the Mahokenshi are defined by the sorts of effects that appear on them. For example, Kaito, the tank mentioned before, can obtain many different cards which increase his defense, force enemies to come to him, and deal damage in an area. Another, Sota, has access to numerous cards increasing his mobility, creating free one-time-use cards to deal a flurry of hits, and cards which avoid detection or inflict poison.

Each character may be better suited to one mission or another, but with more than one approach you can take with each, you can lean on the one that you like. The Mahokenshi level up with each played mission (whether you win or not) and earn points used to upgrade a non-character-specific skill tree. These mechanics unlock access to additional cards that will appear in the missions and special equipment and talismans which offer game altering effects. The equipment in particular can be used with any character, so there is incentive to play all of the Mahokenshi to increase your strategic options. The only downside here is you’ll likely end up replaying a fair few missions to grind EXP, but it does not take very long to reach the max level with each, so it’s not that much of a problem.

All of the gameplay systems come together well and create a satisfying experience. The game is quite challenging, but never feels unfair, and a change in strategy is often all that is needed. Despite the use of cards, I rarely felt like I only won or lost a mission because of random factors. This is exactly what makes a card based game fun to me.

There were only a few minor things working against the game for me. The first is that the missions can take a fair bit of time to play. There is no option to suspend or save the game mid-mission, so each level must be played in one sitting. It’s not like each mission takes hours, but it would be nice to be able to save and quit to finish a mission later.

The other is just a personal opinion on my part: I would have liked to have control of multiple units. The missions in this game are all basically one vs many, and while it kind of fits guardians of a celestial realm, the already solid depth could have been further enhanced by you controlling a team instead of just one hero (Like the Fire Emblem franchise as I compared it to before). There are small exceptions to this – Sota can create shadow images of himself that enemies will attack, for instance, but that’s about it. Again: It’s not like the game requires this. It stands well on its own the way it is and I enjoyed almost everything about it. But it seems like a bit of untapped potential. Maybe the devs considered this though and worried about missions taking longer, which would run against my other criticism.

Taste of Heaven

I have to say I really dig the look and feel of Mahokenshi. The 3D environments themselves look great even within the constraints of a hex grid map system, as do the Mahokenshi themselves and the enemies that walk upon the map. This is supplemented with beautiful 2D artwork for the cards and the interface that has a hand-painted style to it that drives the feudal Japanese mythology theme home. It’s all very appealing and comes off as having been a labor of love.

The music and sound fare just as well. Together with the visuals, the sensory experience is excellent. The music is atmospheric and also is used effectively to reinforce the state of the game. I would definitely consider picking up the soundtrack, with some of the music even being relaxing and helpful in concentration. There’s good variety and I didn’t find a single track I didn’t particularly like.

The rest of the sound experience is good, though it perhaps doesn’t stand up to the level of the music. There is voice acting only in cutscenes; it’s all narrative but well executed and clearly not just put in there without care. Other sound elements are also fine, though there is just that one sound when cards are destroyed which sounds more like they are being eaten rather than ripped up. But that’s truly just a nitpick.

Back Down to Earth

While I wouldn’t use the word “perfect,” Mahokenshi offered a truly fun experience that far exceeded any expectations I could have had. It has restored my faith that there is room for innovation in its genre. This game is fun, not too easy or too hard (nor too long or too short), offers a compelling world for its gameplay, and overall is something I feel quite comfortable recommending to anyone and everyone who likes mixing cards with video games, but it also has potential for people outside of this genre as well. Check it out!

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy and featured image provided by Iceberg Interactive for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.