Life is Magic screenshot
I've been looking forward to checking out Life is Magic since I first took a peek at it during GDC Online 2012. The art style, slick presentation, and location-based gameplay drew me in, but I've had it for only a short while since then. I've now been able to snag enough time to get a great idea about what the game holds for players, and so far I can say that there's definitely a polish to the game that I haven't found in many mobile MMOs.

So what is so special about this one, especially compared to other location-based MMOs like Fleck or Parallel Kingdom? There are several differences, most of them focused on the art style, unique world map, and cool collectible card game-ish system that ends up being the best part of the game.
The first thing I would like to point out is how the map in Life is Magic is different from those in other titles. In most of location-based games I have come across, the in-game map is essentially Google maps with avatars or game art drawn on top. While this method works in many ways, it can be a bit ugly most of the time. It's neat to see your real-life street or house represented in an MMO, but the map is always there, glaring at you. In Life is Magic the map has been lovingly painted over with a vectored brush, so we get to run around in what looks like a Google map that has been recreated in a cartoon world. When I chatted at GDC Online with Pete Hawley, co-founder of and chief product officer at Red Robot Labs, he told me how the developers didn't just paint over Google maps but instead built their own map that uses thousands of points to draw on. It's sort of technical, but basically this means that real-life buildings will be transformed into in-game buildings. A coffee house becomes a tavern or a store is transformed into an armory. It's a simple yet very effective trick.

Another difference in Life is Magic is how combat is represented. In a game like Shadow Cities, for example, combat is based on drawing symbols on the screen to cast spells. It's mostly representative. In Parallel Kingdom, players fight by literally clicking on an enemy and picking "attack." There is some strategy to much of the combat I've seen in other games, but Life is Magic really adds some flair by placing participants in turn-based fights similar to Final Fantasy. You and your friends jump into a group, open a dungeon using what is essentially a very generous energy mechanic, and then fight monsters by selecting a spell card and picking a target.

Life is Magic screenshot
At first you'll feel as though the game is just a grind, but once you break through a few levels and gain some new spells, you'll start to see that the combat system is more strategic than that. While you're alone, you will need to cast spells that leave plenty of pips to spend on the next spell, and you'll want to set up a combo or series of complementary spells to cause maximum damage. You really have to watch it because one missed opportunity to knock off an enemy leaves you dead.

While you're in a group, the strategy deepens. You'll not only worry about how your spell might complement your next one but also have to keep an eye out for the spells that your teammates cast. Well, I should say that you cast by controlling your groupmates. Even though you join with a group, the group is really only you and an NPC version of your friends' characters. You control all characters during combat. It's interesting and works well, but I'd rather see real-time interactions. There are a lot of fights to take part in, so I would love to see more than just a chat as part of the interaction. Fortunately, plans for more real-time interaction are in the works (bear in mind that the game is just coming out of beta!).

Life is Magic screenshotOne of your main goals in the game is to eventually conquer a PvP tower, a massive creation that resides where real-life, well-populated cities are. I had no chance in a tower, even after playing and gaining several levels, but the towers are really the pinnacle of the game. In lieu of conquering those towers and placing my name on the list of players who did it as well, I ran dungeons that popped up in my area.

Each one has an energy requirement to access, but I rarely if ever ran out. Once inside, I explored level by level, the monsters growing in strength as I went deeper. At any point I was able to leave with all of the experience and loot that I gained along the way, but if I waited and kept pushing my luck, I might lose all of it upon death. I died a lot at first but eventually knew my limits.

The game looks wonderful. The combat is fun to watch even though many of the same animations and spells are repeated through the game. There are quite a few monsters to kill, and everything is animated smoothly. In fact, Life is Magic brings an element of polish that, frankly, has been missing from many of the location-based MMOs I've played so far. Everything looks and works together nicely. Although the map in game covers only the United States, the eventual plan is cover the entire world in the beautiful, stylized artwork. I can't wait.

There are points when the game drags, however. I do not enjoy grinding at almost any time, and there's plenty of grind in Life is Magic. Fortunately, strategy starts to overtake the grind, and players will find themselves min-maxing characters and working towards maximum damage in a short time. I'm not normally a fan of min-maxing and worrying about DPS, but it's a fun activity in Life is Magic.

I imagine that the sky is the limit in this game. Once more areas are added, I can see many more monsters, loot, and magic cards taking over. Not only that, but I can see a future in which the real-life location of players is even more important than it is now. I'd love to see the ability to defend my specific neighborhood from attacks from roaming groups of monsters. Who knows? Either way, Life is Magic is off to a great start and does things with location-based MMOing that have never been done before.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

This article was originally published on Massively.