After playing through and completing more universally acclaimed indie games such as Axiom Verge and The Messenger, I took a gander into the Nintendo Store to see what was on sale. Amongst dozens of other titles, was this pixelated action game called Mana Spark. Originally developed by BEHEMUTT and Kishimoto Studios, then published by BEHEMUTT in late 2018, Mana Spark was something that I haven’t played in quite awhile, a rogue-like adventure.
Mana Spark kicks off with this copy/paste story where the world is ruled by mana, being human is a curse and that those who can wield mana are the real power and have turned humans into slaves.
You start off as Ellis, a hunter who wields a bow as a weapon. The first thing you’ll pick up on, is the awkward control scheme. Your left control stick moves your character, while the right control stick controls your characters aim with his bow. Maybe this is a very different experience on PC, but it takes a lot of getting used to here on the Switch. Many enemies are fast, or give you just enough time in between their attacks to fire off one shot of your own. If you miss, and you’ll miss, the process repeats. There were many instances early on where I died because of what looked like me missing a shot by one or two pixels.
Each of the areas are randomized to a degree, so if you die to a certain pack of enemies one time, you may encounter a completely different room the next time you traverse back into the dungeon. However, the level progression of the dungeon is not randomized, something I will get back into further into the review.
As you traverse, you’ll find coins, which can be used to purchase item upgrades for you to utilize on this particular run through of the dungeon, and mana runes, which if you can get them back to town, act as upgrades to a degree.
You’ll also find ‘Peculiar Rooms’ in set locations that act as hubs. Here, you can store mana runes found during your current journey, have a place to rest and continue later or spend coins that you’ve found on item upgrades.
Enemies aren’t just simple attack and kill situations. Early on, you will encounter enemies that can’t just be outright struck for them to be killed. Boars can’t be attacked head on because you will get deflected off their tusks, enemies with shields need to be attacked from the rear or you must wait for an opening to deal damage, and so on. I feel that a large part of the difficulty comes from room layout. Killing one shield skeleton in an open area is fairly easy, while killing that same skeleton in a small hallway, bordered by poison or spike traps, can become troublesome.
The early game is tough, really tough, and you’ll die often. The first character you unlock, the crossbow guard, takes around double the hits to kill enemies than your starting character. I can tell you, with the control scheme as wonky feeling as it is, trying to hit a shielded skeleton five times to kill it while its dashing toward you is no easy feat.
When you do die, you’ll have the option to instantly jump right back to the beginning of the dungeon with three random properties. This will randomly assign you one of the available characters you have, a sub-weapon and something else. You also have the option to return back to town and manage your upgrades or switch your character.
Throughout my time playing Mana Spark, I’ve found a few serious issues that really stops me from enjoying the core of the game…
Mana Spark vs. Rogue Legacy
A lot of my issues with Mana Spark are answered in a 2013 rogue-like game called Rogue Legacy. In Rogue Legacy, you brought a new character into this ever changing castle over and over again until you eventually got through the main four sections of the castle, defeated its bosses, and moved on to the end of the game. It may sound similar to Mana Spark, but there are a few major differences.
First, level progression. In Mana Spark, each of the areas you encounter may be randomized with different rooms and enemies each time you venture forward, but your progression is a straight line. You will always go through the Wolfsbane Woods I and II, then hit your first Peculiar Room, then hit the Buried Tunnels I and so on and so on. It gets repetitive and boring, in spite of the variety you’re supposed to be getting with randomized rooms and enemies.
In Rogue Legacy, the map is broken down in four sections with varying difficulty; castle, forest, tower, darkness. I could go to any of those areas from the start of the game provided I found the connecting room. In terms of difficulty, the game could be nudging me towards completing the castle area first before heading into the forest, but I could try my luck in the darkness and attempt to grab a piece of armor down there which would make my life exponentially easier for the other sections I’ve yet to complete. And just to note, the rooms and enemies found in those rooms is also randomized in Rogue Legacy.
Second, gear/upgrade progression. At first glance, Mana Spark appears to have this with the three NPC’s that are brought back to your meeting area. You have a researcher that allows you to pay runes to weaken enemies, a blacksmith that allows you to switch between sub-weapons that you find on your adventures and a cook that allows you to pay for recipes that upgrade your damage, attack speed, coins drop rate and more. The problem arises after you start purchasing multiples of these upgrades. The researcher allows you to weaken one enemy in total.
If you’re not giving me gear to upgrade, or stats to view or anything to really look forward to or build upon, at the very least let the player feel more powerful by collecting runes, and researching enemies to weaken them. It’s not the same as increasing stats like strength or dexterity, but I will receive the same affect. By limiting this to one enemy feels laughable.
Recipes also follows the same line of thinking. You will unlock multiple recipes, but you will only be able to ‘equip’ one per adventure. There are no compounding benefits to the player. Each journey, if I last three levels or fifteen, should yield some progression. I don’t feel I have that in Mana Spark.
Rogue Legacy takes the opposite route. There is a large upgrade tree that requires coins per upgrade level. There are also multiple sets of armors for you to find and discover within the castle. I could jump into a new castle, grab 150 coins, but still die within 45 seconds of the game starting and still be able to purchase an upgrade somewhere on that upgrade tree before starting fresh with a new castle. No effort feels wasted. My time feels well spent because I will most likely benefit from the time I’m putting into the game.
With Mana Spark, what keeps you going? You’re charged with collecting mana runes and coins during your time in game. The mana runes allows you to upgrade your health, damage, attack speed and more with recipes, but only one recipe at a time. They allow you to research weaknesses of enemies to make them easier to kill, but only one at a time. Past a certain point, you just have to get lucky with enemy combinations, room layouts and items received on that particular playthrough and hope you get to where you want to go and that’s not fun.
Mana Spark is a game that looks promising on the outside, but rears back and shows its colors within seconds of booting up the game.
The controls are downright difficult and awkward for ranged characters and the alternate melee play style is met with this weird lag whenever you land attacks. You die often, which is fine, but the variety in gameplay to make that more interesting just isn’t present. Every game, you will go through two levels of Wolfsbane Woods, which leads to a Peculiar Room, which leads to Level 1 of the Buried Tunnels, which leads to the Library and the first boss…and so on.
When trying to find a positive takeaway from my Mana Spark experience, I was really just feeling positive that I wanted to move on to a different game.