Word games are one of the most populous categories on the mobile marketplace.
But on Steam, “Word Game” is one of the least used tags, alongside other rarities like “Mini Golf” and “Lemmings”. And on consoles the word game genre is essentially non-existent. So, when new competitor Spellspire made its appearance across all platforms, it had to be given a closer look.
In Spellspire, you play as a lone wizard trying to fight his way to the top of a tower. The tower stands 100 floors tall, and each floor is filled with beasts and baddies looking to stop you from reaching your goal. If you manage to reach the peak and defeat the final boss, the tower will be yours to keep.
The base gameplay in Spellspire is similar to that of other word games like Letter Quest and God of Word: spell words to deal damage to enemies, deal enough damage to defeat the enemy and move on to the next opponent, clear all the baddies and move on to the next level. Although the core concept is very similar to other games in the genre, Spellspire has some different ideas that give it a unique feel.
One of the gameplay mechanics that makes the experience so challenging and distinct is the unswappable tile-set. Each level presents the player with 10 random letters, and the player has to use these letters, and only these letters, to defeat every enemy on the floor. A minor annoyance with the 10-tile system, is that there isn’t always a 10-letter word available for the player to find. One of the most satisfying moments in a word game like this is finding the longest hidden word and absolutely annihilating an enemy. It seems like a game with predetermined and stagnant tile-sets would be able to easily allow for this sort of gameplay. Though as we will discuss in a moment, Spellspire seems to have issues with challenges throughout their game.
As mentioned earlier, the campaign is split up into 100 floors of the tower, each standing as their own level. After being completed, each floor also has a challenge level associated with it, that rewards the player with a star upon completion, which are used to unlock additional equipment. Unfortunately, all 100 challenge levels employ the same challenge: defeat all enemies without taking any damage, and all of the enemies attack 10% quicker. But Spellspire does have unique and interesting challenges; you’ve just got to dig for them.
And by dig, I mean beat all 100 levels of the tower to unlock the hidden underground dungeon. After you’ve defeated the final boss, you’re presented with an entirely new set of floors to clear, but this time they’re climbing downwards, and the gameplay concept is slightly different. Now the levels are an endless marathon of enemies that must be defeated, and in order to progress further into the depths, you must complete five sets of three challenges in the marathon mode. This dungeon feels like almost unlimited additional gameplay, and unlike the earlier challenge levels, these ones have nice variety from run to run.
The only minor annoyance with these challenges is that the tile-sets sometimes don’t give you the letter you need to complete them. For example, there are challenges that require you to defeat enemies with words that start with a more difficult letter, like a vowel. Then the tile-set you are given for the run won’t contain that letter, meaning you wouldn’t be able to complete the challenge for the entire run. The best thing you can do is mash on the restart button until you get a tile-set that contains the letter you need for the challenge.
There is more that separates Spellspire from its competition than just the challenges and tile-set configuration though. The other big difference is the weakness and resistance system that all enemies employ. There are four main damage types in the game: fire, frost, poison, and death. Every enemy in the game is weak to at least one of the damage types, and most are also resistant to one or more damage types. Fortunately, your character has a wide array of wands available to them throughout the game, and besides the first and last wands in the game, all deal one of the four main types of damage.
This system requires you to make some interesting choices throughout the game. In a level where half the enemies are weak to a damage type, and the other half are resistant, what type of wand should you use? Do you bring a wand that will deal more damage to half and struggle with the others, or do you bring a neutral wand that won’t give an advantage or disadvantage against any of the enemies? These difficult choices don’t get easier when it comes to choosing what to spend your money on in the shop.
The shop has a plethora of different options to spend your money on, whether it’s passive health or damage bonuses, or a multitude of wands, robes, and hats. Each option is interesting in its own way, but you’ll need to choose wisely, as there are limited options to get boosts of gold without having to grind.
The passive health and damage boosts are nice because they stick around if you switch up equipment, but by themselves they don’t add a lot. Heavily upgrading a single wand will deal a lot of damage, but if you run into a level that is resistance to your wand’s damage type, you’ll be in for a tough fight. The robes all give nice little passive bonuses, along with the biggest health boosts, but if you want to beat the challenges for stars, you need to avoid getting hit anyway, so health doesn’t matter too much. And the hats are a mix of health, damage, and their own unique brand of passive bonuses. Overall there’s quite a bit of content and decision-making to be had in the shop.
The only place where Spellspire feels like it’s really lacking content is in the variety of enemies and bosses. Throughout the entire game, spanning hundreds of levels, there are only 23 different enemies. And by “different”, I mean one is a giant red eye, one is the same giant eye but coloured blue, and a third is both of those giant eyes put together. The bosses aren’t much better either, as they are pretty much the definition of meat bags. The bosses don’t have any unique gameplay mechanics or anything that sets them apart from normal enemies other than higher than average health pools. In fact, after you beat the bosses they become enemies with normal health totals a few levels later.
A lot of the redundancies and multitude of levels can be chalked up to the fact that Spellspire is a mobile port. It plays much better than a lot of mobile ports out there, but there are still some telltale signs. One of the most obvious signs of a mobile port is a pause button in-game on a console where it can’t possibly be pressed. The art, music, and sound effect variety is another of the big indicators of a mobile port, since all of those assets take up a lot of memory, which must be kept to a minimum on the mobile platform. The art direction in Spellspire, though repetitive, is pretty well done. It has a style similar to Letter Quest, which includes simpler looking enemies with rather basic animations. The soundtrack is really nice for a casual word game like this, and definitely fits the theme.
There are a couple of final points to make about Spellspire for the word game fans out there hoping for a new gem. A lot of casual players enjoy a less stressful experience where they can take their time to try to find the best words possible. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an option in this game to turn off the timer or reduce the difficulty in any way, so if you’re looking for a slower-paced game then you’ll have to keep looking. The price tag on Spellspire is also a little steep for the variety of content available. Letter Quest is arguably one of the best word games out there, and it sells for a full two dollars cheaper than Spellspire’s $10 price tag. Not to mention some people will have an issue dropping a crisp ten-dollar bill on a game they can download for free on mobile platforms.
All of this being said, Spellspire still offers a truly fun and unique experience to the word game genre. It’s a clean little package with some chuckles here and there in the weapon and enemy descriptions. If you’re looking for a new word game, or just something to keep you entertained for hours on end, then Spellspire will be well worth your investment.