Date: March 9, 2023
Developed by Ishtar Games, The Last Spell is positioned as a tactical RPG with roguelite elements where you’ll be alternating between leading a team of plucky heroes into battle against relentless hordes of monsters, and ensuring that your monster-free Havens are sturdy enough to remain that way when the next horde arrives. And in the meantime, your mages will be working on the eponymous Last Spell that will rid the world of all magic and thus the magic-fueled monsters infesting it. The game launched into early access back in 2021. And now, following several major content updates introducing new Havens, enemies, and mechanics, it’s is fully released and available for purchase.
The general premise here is that after a protracted magical war, a certain wizard invented what was originally seen as a weapon of mass arcane destruction, but instead of ushering in a new age of stability you generally get when mutually assured destruction enters the picture, he merely gave all the other wizards ideas. Eventually, this resulted in an all but devastated world. And then the fun began, as the fumes left behind by this new magic started producing endless waves of monsters hell-bent on ravaging whatever remnants of civilization they could find.
Pretty grim, as far as setups go. However, even the game’s opening cinematic can’t quite maintain the tone required to sell such a world. Right after we’re told about an arcane explosion killing “several hundred thousand” people, the spell used for this nefarious purpose is colorfully described as “purple magic.” Because as we all know, the recipe for an arcane genocide calls for such ingredients as water, sugar, and purple. It’s just such a jarring contrast.
And while this alone would’ve been a nitpick, it’s indicative of the game’s larger problem with its tone that keeps going from deadly serious to downright goofy, where not wearing any pants gives you a critical hit bonus, and a constant barrage of anachronistic pop-culture references makes no sense in or out of context.
Oddly enough, this bipolar nature seems to be intentional, as the game’s two main NPCs are these interdimensional beings, and one of them is all noble and serious while the other is more edgy and vicious. These two will be your main lore dispensaries throughout the game, gradually telling you more about the true nature of the purple magic and your connection to it. Unfortunately, with the way the game is structured, there’s a chance you’ll finish it before you learn all there is to learn, resulting in some confusion as to why you’re fighting who you’re fighting at the end. Though, with this being a roguelite game, storytelling isn’t exactly its main focus. And having anything at all to frame what you’re doing is nice.
Now, seeing how roguelite is such a nebulous term, it’s important to note that The Last Spell uses it to prepare us for a high degree of randomization in just about every aspect of the game, from the loot you find to the attribute increases your heroes get when they level up. These heroes also get the short end of the stick in that they’re the ones who have to deal with permadeath, while you, as their commander, get to enjoy living your life on some higher plane where inexplicably bodacious kind-of sort-of demons dispense assorted boons onto you as this game’s form of permanent progression.
With there being two of these demons, you get two progression tracks. One of them runs on Tainted Essence you get from fighting monsters and performing various heroic feats, while the other is more concerned with keeping track of your achievements, like using a certain weapon type enough or traveling a certain number of tiles per turn. The Essence track usually makes your heroes permanently better in some way, and the Achievement track mostly unlocks new buildings and gear variations.
Both of them also unlock new Omens that serve as these modifiers you can enable before starting a “run.” There’s a great heap of them. Some make your heroes stronger by granting them extra movement or action points, while others improve your economy or static defenses. And while usually, you can only enable a certain number of Omens per run, there’s also the Boundless Mode where you can enable them all at once, plus some unique ones making the game easier in various ways. To offset these, the game also has the so-called Apocalypse modifiers that, unlike Omens, make things harder on you.
All this talk about runs brings us to the game’s basic structure. The campaign map offers a total of five Havens, all working towards the goal of casting the Last Spell. Evoking its localized form takes several in-game days, usually between 7 and 14, and once you’re done severing a Haven’s connection to magic you can move on to assisting the next one. Each Haven comes with some unique theme, twist, or mechanic, like overgrown vegetation making it hard to navigate or ghostly braziers spawning invulnerable enemies until you extinguish them.
A day in The Last Spell is separated into three phases. The Production phase lets you level up your heroes, surround your Haven with walls and turrets, and erect an assortment of useful structures like shops, mines, and healing temples. Then comes the Deployment phase where you’ll be positioning your troops. And finally, come nightfall, you get to the Battle phase where your heroes are placed on a square grid to battle enemy hordes in a turn-based fashion.
The game treats each Haven as a run, so while your campaign progress persists, losing a run, by either getting all your heroes killed or by letting the monsters destroy the Magic Circle that’s usually situated at the heart of your Haven, resets your progress in that Haven and invites you to try and save its slightly different cousin from a parallel reality.
This may be a fairly standard roguelite, or even proper roguelike for that matter, procedure, but it doesn’t take into account that a single run of The Last Spell can take you about 10 hours. And seeing how it’s all but impossible to lose during the early days when the monsters are just probing your defenses, this goes against the basic premise of these games where losing a run is no big deal and is simply a reason to start a new one and try some different setup or strategy.
To make matters worse, each Haven ends with a unique boss fight, and if it’s your first go at it, you have no way of knowing what to expect or how to build your heroes to do well against the challenges ahead of them. So it’s very much possible to lose a run at the last moment, and that can come as a gut punch and elicit a feeling of betrayal. Especially since, despite this being a game with roguelite aspirations, if you know your turn-based tactics and don’t make too many mistakes, you’ll be able to play through most of its campaign in a fairly straightforward and linear fashion without too much restarting or replaying things you’ve already played.
Still, when it’s not crushing your hopes and dreams, the game’s combat is a thing to behold, especially since it’s backed by juicy pixelated visuals and an exciting soundtrack. Your squad initially starts with three heroes but can eventually grow up to eight, with six being the usual sweet spot for a well-rounded party. Each hero has access to two weapon sets, as well as separate pools of action points for movement and attacks. During your turn, you’re free to spend these points in whichever order you choose. And with the game having a total of 20 different weapon types, each with its own skill set, the moves you can pull off and the numerous tactical tricks you have at your disposal can be genuinely impressive.
Seeing how for most of the game you’ll be fighting hordes of enemies, your weapons generally come with all kinds of AoE attacks. But instead of just giving different shapes to your damage, these take things a step further, with some attacks letting you pick multiple targets and others chaining between adjacent enemies, adding some variety to your monster slaying.
This is aided by the game’s character-building system where each hero starts with three traits, a set of primary and secondary attributes, and a robust perk tree. Selected at random, traits can be positive, negative, or offer a little bit of both. Primary attributes generally include things like flat damage increases and critical hit chance, while secondary attributes govern situational damage bonuses and experience gain. And perks tend to make your heroes better by unlocking new passive or sometimes active skills.
It’s hard to describe how satisfying it is to create a hero who can turn a single two-shot attack into a volley of eight if not more shots and each of them is almost guaranteed to crit while completely ignoring armor and resistances. However, the game’s highly-randomized nature can be a big detriment there. Each time a hero levels up, they get to increase one primary and one secondary attribute. But not only are the options themselves randomized, they also differ in quality and rarity, and this makes the whole experience less than satisfying when all the stats a hero needs are Common and all the stuff they have no use for is Rare.
Moreover, the game’s perk tree is separated into several tracks, with each hero getting slightly different options, and some of those options are significantly better than others. And this leads to a situation where it can be very hard to realize a build, as you can take all the poison perks in the world, but if the game decides not to give you any poison-related attribute increases, there’s nothing you can do about it.
And so, while the core loop of The Last Spell is extremely engaging, its overreliance on randomness and roguelite elements hinders rather than elevates the whole experience. Each night, when your heroes and defenses are put to the test, is tense and thrilling. But the entire Haven system would’ve worked better as part of the game’s permanent progression. Because losing ten hours of progress due to not rolling well enough on level-ups or just going with a suboptimal build for the challenges ahead, without having any way of knowing what those challenges are, is never fun.
One last thing to mention here is that thanks to the game’s early access phase, most of it is entirely free of any noticeable bugs. However, the review build I played featured an entirely new and very much untested Haven, and that one had some issues. For starters, its key mechanic – pieces of terrain phasing in and out of existence – made it really hard to notice enemies and some of the stuff you placed on the ground.
And the boss fight at the end was way too long and grueling, and either didn’t work right or had some UI issues preventing you from knowing exactly what would happen during the enemy turn, which is something the game is usually very good at. At one point, one of my characters got killed by seemingly nothing at all, and afterward, his model remained as a phantom on the battlefield. That fight can also spawn Elite enemies right on top of your heroes without you having any way of counteracting it. Now, considering the polished state of the rest of the game, it’s very unlikely that these issues won’t get fixed, but it’s still important to note that they do currently exist.