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While the vast majority of the games I write about here are PC games, I do also play games on my Android phone. I’ve even written about a few here and there. But most I don’t write about, because a lot of mobile games are either simple and light time-wasters, or complex enough that I’d rather just be playing them on my PC. Hoping to find a game that hit the sweet spot for mobile play, I turned to role-playing games, figuring that they are often turn-based and therefore easy to pick up and put down while on the go, but feature substantial narratives and deep enough systems to remain engaging over many play sessions. I scoured the internet for recommendations and came across this list, which put the Tales of Illyria series in the number one spot (it’s a living list, updated on occasion, so if you are reading this from the future, positions may have changed). So I grabbed the first game — originally known simply as Tales of Illyria, but later re-released in updated form as Tales of Illyria: Fallen Knight — and tried it out.

Tales of Illyria combines a sword and sorcery fantasy role-playing game, tactical turn-based battles and all, with The Oregon Trail. Somehow, this actually works. Really well. And yes, your characters can get dysentery.

I realize that readers who did not go to school in the United States around the same time I did may not be familiar with The Oregon Trail, so I’ll give a quick explanation. Actually, this has been edifying for me as well: I always assumed The Oregon Trail was but one game, but I’ve now learned it’s an entire series of educational games that started way back in 1971, with a text-based incarnation coded in BASIC and run on an HP-2100 microcomputer. It was then ported to various other systems over the years, adding graphics and even mouse support. I’m not sure which version we had in my school, but the Apple II version from 1985 sounds right, or perhaps one of its ports to other systems. Anyway, the game teaches players about American settlers heading from Independence, Missouri to Oregon via covered wagon in 1848, and the hardships they faced along the way. As was typical of American education at the time, it ignored the colonialist issues with this migration. My memory is vague, but I believe players could encounter Native Americans (referred to as “Indians”) along the way, often as antagonists who would attack the wagon, sometimes as local guides for hire, but never as indigenous people who were being displaced from their land by the player-controlled settlers. This is, apparently, something that’s been improved in more recent entries in the series.

But where the original game failed through its glorification of American expansion, it was historically accurate in other ways. Players needed to plan for the lengthy journey by purchasing supplies before their departure, and would suffer many mishaps along the way, from broken wagon wheels to broken arms. And, famously, catching dysentery, which led to many a player’s virtual death in elementary school computer labs. There are dangerous river crossings at appropriate points, as well as historically accurate settlements to visit along the way to refill one’s rations. Especially popular among my classmates was the hunting minigame, a short action sequence in which players aimed and fired their rifle at wildlife. That wildlife was accurate too, with small hares and foxes giving way to herds of bison as the wagon ventured farther west. Chillingly, the minigame was also an accurate recreation of the devastation settlers brought on the bison herds, as eager players shot as many as they could, then were informed that they could only carry one hundred of the thousands of pounds of bison meat back to the wagon. With careful planning and a little luck, it was possible to make it all the way to Oregon in the game, and overall it offered a surprisingly compelling experience, given that most of it is spent watching a wagon slowly trundle to the left.

Tales of Illyria has the same simulation of the logistics of travel at its core. Players take the role of the disgraced Lord Elric, who was framed for the murder of his own family. A highly cliched opening, but it’s written well enough, and soon Elric is on a mission of revenge against those responsible. To do that, however, he’ll have to travel, which means he better stock up on some rations and water canteens, some wine to keep morale up, and maybe spring for a horse if he can spare the coin. Then it’s a long road to the next town, and anything can happen along the way: perhaps bandits will attack, or perhaps something more monstrous will leap from the dark. Or maybe he’ll find someone in need of help, or some nearby ruins that might be worth investigating. He might even find a new ally to join his party.

The world of Illyria is a network of cities, towns and villages, and the roads that connect them. Typically players will have a mission to reach a specific place, and must travel there one road at a time. Settlements offer various services, from basic supplies to arms and armor, healing, and even advanced training, although these vary a lot from town to town. The meat of the game is in the travel, in which the party is shown from a side-on viewpoint as they ride (or walk, if they’re unlucky) towards their next destination. Occasionally birds and game appear on this screen, and players can tap on them to try hunting them, although the party’s hunting skill will need to be boosted to have a good chance of success. The same is true for certain foliage, which relies on alchemy skill to harvest. The pace of travel can be changed, but going too fast will lower the party’s morale unless they’ve invested in some expensive and comfy saddles. Similarly, faster (but much more expensive) horses can shorten travel time without having to turn up the pace too much. Random encounters abound during travel, popping up text boxes with tough choices, often gated by skill checks (engineering skill to repair a merchant’s wagon, for example), and sometimes leading to battle.

Combat takes place on a small grid, with most spaces occupied by the player’s party and the enemies. Fighters on the front line protect archers and magic casters in the back, and tactical decisions revolve around what skills to use when, and on whom. Perhaps you want the healer to bless the party to increase their speed and prowess, while the fighters focus their strikes on the most dangerous enemy and the archer tries to take out that nasty mage in back who’s throwing fireballs around. But wait, Elric just took a big hit, if he gets knocked out he’ll face a nasty injury like a concussion or a broken hand. Gotta check the imitative order to see who’s next… the healer is too slow, she’ll go after the enemies. Good thing the archer learned a little healing magic too. She’ll get Elric patched up so he can keep trading blows on the frontline, and the healer will still be able to get that bless going to help turn the tide.

Developers Little Killerz describe the combat as completely turn-based, but that’s a bit misleading. Characters do indeed act in turn, but those turns play out one after another in real time, although players can pause at any point to issue orders. This frustrated me at first, because I wanted to manually control everything, but eventually I came to appreciate it. It allows for fine control but maintains just enough chaos to keep things exciting, as attacks and spells go off in quick succession. Speaking of spells, there’s no system to limit magic through “mana points” or any similar mechanic. Spellcasters can keep casting spells over and over, as many times as they want. This really opens up the tactical options during battle and keeps every character contributing to the fight. If players don’t manage to issue specific orders to every character at all times, characters will act according to a (customizable) AI, which takes off some of the pressure.

After the fight, the party may gain some loot or face some other outcome with decisions to make, but then it’s back to travel. Although at this point it’s a good idea to make camp, because healing magic is only temporary, so the party will need to rest and recover before the next fight. Of course, camping means going through a day or two of rations and water, so it’s risky if supplies are running low. And random events can crop up while camping, too. On the other hand, making camp gives the party the opportunity to share wine and raise their spirits, which helps them face the hardships of the road.

This combination of game elements works so much better than I thought it would. Role-playing games are often full of loot — magical swords, fancier helmets, etc. — and Tales of Illyria has these, but it’s almost as exciting to just find a bunch of food. Tales of Illyria pulled off something that I have often wanted from games: it prevented me from getting rich. Hoard too much food and it will spoil, so stocks are always being depleted and there’s always a resupply cost. Equipment is expensive. Horses are expensive. Training in skills, both for combat and outside of combat, is expensive, and the cost rises sharply for higher levels. I always had more things I wanted to spend money on than I had money, which makes the whole logistics simulation sing. At one point early in the game, I’d just spent most of my earnings on some better horses for my meager party, and set off full of confidence. But during the journey, one of the horses stepped in a hole and broke its leg, and another ran off. My heroes were left lugging all their supplies on foot, but were overburdened without the pack horses, and dispirited from the whole affair to boot. It was a long march to the next town. But even that could have been worse. At least it wasn’t winter, when food consumption is doubled, there’s far less game to hunt, and the party must carry a supply of furs to keep from freezing.

The constant travel also helps flesh out the characters. Like Elric, the recruitable companions are pre-written characters rather than just collections of skills and statistics, and they engage in banter during the journey and while sitting around the campfire. Throughout the adventure, Elric has many chances to define his moral code, acting righteously and selflessly, choosing a more pragmatic path, or embracing wicked and selfish ways. His party members have a slight tendency towards doing good and helping others, but some prefer remaining neutral or acting in their own self-interest, and they’re all too happy to pass judgment on Elric’s decisions. Even when they disagree, however, they slowly form an undeniable bond from their days traveling together with a common goal, and this made me care about each of them in a way that doesn’t often happen in other role-playing games. The line to line writing in Tales of Illyria is decent, but the larger narrative is more compelling than I expected, deftly handling the trauma of war and the redemptive power of hope. I was also impressed with the array of random encounters on offer. I did eventually see a few of them repeat, but there’s still a huge variety of things that can happen, and they shift based on how Elric and his party comport themselves.

The dungeon-style encounters deserve special mention. They’re rare enough to feel really special when they come up, and offer challenging fights with substantial rewards. As the party explores these places room by room, the fact that magical healing is temporary becomes critically important, because there’s no chance to rest between fights. In the later stages of the incursion, the party will have start battles with frantic healing just to stay upright, before they can engage the enemy. These explorations get tense, but if the going gets too tough, players will be consoled by the forgiving treatment of failure. If a battle is lost, it can be replayed again with the difficulty (and experience reward) reduced. I sometimes had to do this a few times, but eventually prevailed, and it was still worth it for the supplies and equipment I recovered after the battles. This may sound like a cop out in terms of the game balance design, but in practice it seems to funnel player parties to where they need to be in the larger story. Run into something a bit too hard, and you can still get past it, but it won’t catapult your party to new heights of prowess because the reward is scaled to how well you can actually fight.

Of course, Tales of Illyria is not without weaknesses, and one of them is that it poorly explains its character progression systems (a common problem for role-playing games). Characters gain experience from fights and other encounters and eventually level up, but they won’t earn that many levels over the course of the entire game, so it’s important to plan how to increase the party’s attributes. To the game’s credit, each character can be molded into nearly any combat role, with no restriction on who can learn spells or anything of that sort. But when just starting out, it’s hard to know that should work. In the early game, I failed to realize the importance of the Agility statistic, which governs how fast a character acts during combat. Acting quickly and often is hugely important for surviving battles, and I soon decided to start over and have my front line fighters invest equally in Agility and Strength, so they hit fast as well as hard. Gaining levels also grants skill points, which can be redeemed by paying for training in combat techniques or spells. Given how tight money is, these decisions are even more important, but skills tend to have only vague descriptions of what they actually do, and how much benefit is gained from training them up to (very expensive) high levels. I learned the importance of buffs and debuffs, giving most characters the ability to cast the Haste spell, and favoring ice magic for offense since it both damages and slows enemies. There are some player-written guides featured on the game’s site which helped me with some of this, but many of them are out of date (or I simply disagreed with them), and I wished there were better hints in the game itself.

Tales of Illyria’s most egregious flaw, however, is its interface. It’s a set of clunky, nested menus that require far too many taps, and often fail to display information in useful ways. After combat, for example, the party might find a new weapon or piece of armor, but the text window does not state how good the item is, only its gold value. To see if it’s worth using, I have to tap the “view inventory” choice in the window, then tap equipment, then tap the type (helmet, shield, body armor, etc.), then tap the item. This will finally show whether it has a better rating than what the party members are currently using. Turns out it does! But I can’t equip it from here, oh no. I have to back out four or five times to return to the post-battle summary, then choose “view party” instead of “view inventory”. From here, I have to tap the character I want (do I remember who was planning to equip this?), tap their equipment, tap the equipment type, tap the “swap” button, tap the new item I want to equip, then tap a button to confirm. This is crazy. This stuff should be available right away, from a single screen, maybe two screens maximum. Oh, and after I’ve finally equipped the item, I have to back up four or five times again to get back to the post-battle summary screen once more, just so I can click the “continue” choice to resume my adventure.

But it’s worth putting up with this. I don’t say that lightly. Tales of Illyria is the most compelling mobile game I’ve played in a long time, and stacks up favorably against a lot of larger scale PC games too. To be clear, it’s obviously a low budget game. The character art looks a bit amateurish, although I was impressed that there’s hand-painted artwork for every piece of clothing and equipment in the game, so each hero will actually don the mail shirt and helmet they’ve been given. The art grew on me, especially during travel, when several layers of foreground and background slide past in lovely parallax. Backgrounds during travel are varied and give a sense of traveling the world, be it across wide plains or dense forests, and each changes according to the season too. It manages to look lovely, even though it’s clear it was made with a fraction of the art budget that larger games get. Tales of Illyria does also have the option of in-app purchases to get more gold in a pinch, although there are warnings explaining that the game was not designed with this in mind, and I never used it. But this does mean there’s no narrative acknowledgement when the party simply can’t afford something. I did get stuck in an unfortunate situation where I had to either convince someone to help, pay them a lot of money, or take what I needed by force. I didn’t have the skill to convince them or enough money to bribe them, and no option to come back later with more cash, so I was forced into the “evil” option.

So it won’t wow you with its presentation, but Tales of Illyria is such a great design and a satisfying adventure that its rough edges cease to matter. It’s a gem, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a mobile role-playing game (although it is Android only, Apple fans will have to look elsewhere). Even better, it’s but the first game in a trilogy, and I gather that the games get progressively better. I plan to check out Tales of Illyria: Beyond the Iron Wall and Tales of Illyria: Destinies, and will be sure to write about those here when I do. But you don’t need to wait for me to eventually get around to that. Nothing’s stopping you from embarking on your own adventure with the first installment, Tales of Illyria: Fallen Knight. Certainly not me. Just be sure you pack enough rations, and watch out for dysentery.