When it comes to RogueLikes it’s safe to say that the average player is spoilt for choice on mobile devices as the genre has been going through something of a revival this past few years. Already having thrown his hat into the ring once with ‘Microgue’, Jason Pickering self-publishes that charming Ms Spell.
The below review is going to sound a little harsh on Ms Spell, but one thing needs to be clarified immediately. We LOVE Ms Spell, it’s addictive, full of charm and plays to our retro yearnings. Jason Pickering is an extremely talented solo-developer who has provided us with a master-class in simplicity when it comes to visual and game design. It’s great to see him strike out to self-publish this title and we want to see more from him in the future because if this is his introduction to mobile gaming then we can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. That said, this simplicity and purity of design may also be what makes the game hard to recommend, with it taking few to no steps forward for a well-represented genre.
Graphically this game punches for an extremely retro style, each game takes place across a single grid-based screen and the characters are extremely 8-bit and pixelated in their appearance, which could potentially be too retro for some. The environment is lush, with rich green trees and grass making up most locations, and the handful of monster types are all visually distinct, but there’s a lack of variation here in Ms Spell that ultimately damages the game. Text is easy to read however and the games boxes are well suited to a well-placed finger or thumb to avoid mistakes, which shows excellent special awareness on the part of the games designer.
Musically there’s a wonderful little ditty that plays on the title screen and again when the player dies (this may be slightly slower in pace, it’s hard to tell) but is otherwise the games music in its entirety. Gameplay itself is silent with the sound of steps, attacks and spells punctuating the experience. It does feel a little bare bones (which doesn’t help to break up the monotony of the repeated scenery), but the fidelity of the period the designer is aiming for and samples chosen for each action do give a good sense of the type of game Pickering is aiming to make.
The story is slight, but reasonably well implemented for a RogueLike, a sub-genre of the RPG that’s always been light on narrative. You are a young mage who has lost her spellbook in the woods, it’s now your job to explore this lush green area and relocate it, gathering pages that have escaped along the way. There’s not much more to it than that at this point, and collecting the book doesn’t give any splashy finale sequences. It’s a simple mission for what amounts to a very straight-forward game. The title screen does an excellent job of conveying this concept wordlessly (though there is text later to do so) by showing the book teasingly out of the heroine’s reach.
Gameplay sees you swiping your finger in one of the four cardinal directions to make your heroine take a step one grid-space in length. Scenery includes immovable rocks and breakable greenery (through the use of a well spent fire spell that can wipe out everything in a grid around you, allowing for sneaky shortcuts), whilst your way is blocked by monsters who move as you do. It’s strictly turn-based in style and execution, which allows players to take their time. The game lays out a series of 10 levels, with moving to an icon teleporting the player immediately to the next stage. Moving over pages arranged around the maze will add them to your limited inventory where they take the form of one-shot spells such as the aforementioned fire spell, healing and bolts that freeze enemies. Occasionally you’ll be lucky enough to find a chest that contains a piece of equipment that takes up a spell slot but boosts stats full-time unless dropped. Combat is a simple case of moving toward an enemy, and careful play is advised as healing is rare, the player doesn’t level up and usually they’ll get the first hit in. It’s ultimately quite a short, but challenging experience that will unlock new content slowly as you progress through the game and meet hidden pre-requisites.
Overall, Ms Spell is a hard game to review. It does nothing wrong and it has a lot of charm, but It’s not doing anything that isn’t being done better in other RogueLikes on the same handheld, some of which are completely free to download and play. Jason Pickering has a number of additional elements he wants to add to the game in future updates such as special stages, boss monsters and dialogue, which will extend the experience considerably, but right now we’d have to advise that it’s for the earnest lover of the genre only.