Preview: The Last Spell

3 Jun 2021

For whatever reason, I wind up reviewing and previewing a lot of roguelikes here. I don’t know exactly why, especially when the line between a good roguelike and a mediocre one can be so thin.

See, the thing is that it’s really easy to make a game wherein you start out underpowered and have to keep playing the opening over and over as you steadily unlock more and more stuff with a whole lot of failures along the way. In some ways it’s actually kind of like training wheels in game design; you can make that happen without even worrying too much about balance. But a good example of the genre actually makes you feel like everything is doable from the start, that the obvious motivation of greater character power is matched by your own player skill.

In other words, a good roguelike doesn’t just let you get more powerful with failures and re-attempts; it actually makes you feel like you’re getting better at the game at the same time that you’re powering up your characters. It’s a closed feedback loop.

The Last Spell feels like an odd combination when it comes to the roguelike genre. It’s mixing in a tactical RPG format – a genre that’s all about using smart placement to defeat much larger forces – with the sort of fail-and-retry arc expected of any roguelike game. That shouldn’t work very well. And yet it ultimately does, much to the game’s credit, by virtue of some smart design decisions.

The Last Spell releases into early access on June 3rd on PC; the Steam build was played for this review.

Fight Them Zombies

Here’s the basic plot of The Last Spell. You are helping a human settlement defend against an incoming horde of zombie or zombie-adjacent creatures. Want a more detailed plot?

Uh… too bad. That’s all that was in this build. Rather than giving you a grandiose outline, this is all pretty simplified. Your group of characters is trying to fight back a horde of encroaching undead enemies that come out every night. At the center of the town are a group of mages casting the eponymous last spell to fix everything. Unfortunately, they’re going to get overwhelmed and taken down by the hordes… over and over. Until, of course, you get strong enough to stop the hordes and let them cast that spell for a near victory.

That’s really about all that you get in terms of story. And you know what? You don’t actually need that much more. There’s enough of a story told through the ruined buildings and the like that you can piece most of it together. It’s clear that what you’re dealing with are undead hordes to be held back, you understand that this is a life-or-death situation, and you know that it’s dangerous. More story isn’t necessary when the game is clearly more about the building ludonarrative than anything.

No, Really, Fight Them Zombies

Fighting in The Last Spell is strictly turn-based and phase-based, and it largely works along those lines. The fundamental shift is between the day and night phases. During the day, you can build fortifications against the undead hordes, build buildings, buy and equip armor and items, and otherwise prepare yourself. Then you deploy your characters around the town, and as the horde approaches at night you do your best to kill them all before they get into the town and destroy the ritual.

The basics, however, get quickly subsumed by the details. For example, every character has a number of action points. While the enemy horde can only move and attack once, your heroes can attack multiple times based on their total AP. Your abilities are determined by your equipped weapons, with each character able to equip two different sets and swap between them as necessary for no AP cost. There’s also a limit to how many times each ability can be used in a given turn, but not everything is limited by mana.

This is good, because your mana and health do not fully regenerate after a given night; you only get a certain amount back and have to use special buildings to restore more. Of course, that also means assigning workers to those buildings to restore your health, and workers are one of the more limited resources you possess. Each worker you use to restore health is a worker you’re not using to build things or salvage ruins, each gold piece you use to buy equipment is a piece not going toward repairs, and so on. It’s a delicate balance of constantly trying to get better equipment to kit out your team, build up your fortifications and the town, and still be healthy enough to have a fighting chance on the next night.

It’s also not a case wherein you can constantly squeak by with no penalty. As the horde invades, panic sets in within the town, and so you want to keep them out of the main body of the town as much as possible. But that also means that you’re constantly asking questions. Is it worth putting my characters in harm’s way when I can’t be sure they’ll be healthy enough the next night or they might even die? How much risk is too much? What happens if this character drops? What’s the best equipment loadout given my need for this character to survive?

You get the idea. Even leveling up is random; you get to choose what upgrades a character gets, but they’re upgrades from a random list, and there’s no assurance that you’ll necessarily get the upgrades available you want. The thing is that this all still ties in with the tactical scenario; you have to recognize that your archer might get specced to be more of an archer/caster depending on circumstances, or she might be better served as an archer with a melee weapon as backup. You want to hit as many enemies as you can, but also keep an eye on your mana, and so forth.

It’s a lot of fun. A lot of management goes into it, but every part of it is clear and understandable, and it makes you want to keep playing and just come that much closer to a victory. And if you fail… well, there’s always the roguelike stuff to unlock a few more options and then try again, now armed with more power and more skill.

The Zombies Ain’t Gonna Fight Themselves

I’m honestly not a huge fan of the game’s soundtrack. Don’t get me wrong, I get what the designers were going for, and there’s definitely something to be said for the screeching guitars and vaguely metal-feeling music that permeates the game. Sadly, it all feels kind of generic, like someone wanted to copy the same general audio soundscape as a game like DOOM without the compositional talent.

The same cannot be said for the UI. For a game that clearly wants to be grim and gritty, the UI is remarkably colorful, clear to read, and frankly lovely to look at. You get a sense of everything being used at a glance and can unpack a lot of information from the various clear and recognizable icons. Everything is lovingly detailed in pixel art, and the animation and sprite work is top-notch.

It also has a solid interface. While a few things are a bit less clear than they should be (like paging between characters), nothing ever feels hidden, and there’s a helpful list on the left-hand side running down everything you need to do on a given phase and giving you shortcuts to everything you need along the away. About the only problem I had was that it’s not really possible to rotate the camera, resulting in the occasional misplaced click, and there’s no way to take back movement once you’ve clicked a square.

One Last Spell For The Road

For a game that’s in early access, The Last Spell feels like a remarkably finished and polished product even now. It’s a lot of fun and should appeal nicely to basically anyone who’s a big fan of how tactics games work, along with the fact that it nicely mingles in the sheer visceral rush of mowing down hordes of enemies with various skills that can be so intoxicating when done right.

If you like either tactical games or roguelikes, this is one to give a look. And if you like both? You’ll be in for a very good time. Sure, you’ll have more losing battles than you might be accustomed to in the early stages, but isn’t it nice to have a tactical RPG where you can’t just waltz to victory from the start? Just keep at it, and before you know it you’ll be slashing your way through hordes with aplomb.

Preview copy provided courtesy of The Arcade Crew for PC. All screenshots courtesy of The Arcade Crew.