We’re loving The Last Spell, but by god, it’s a huge kick in the teeth when your run comes to an end.
This roguelite tactical RPG will quickly get its talons in you with its enticing mix of turn-based combat, tower defence and town-building. By day in The Last Spell, you’ll spend your gold and make use of your building materials to restore your town and prepare it for the oncoming onslaught. By night, you’ll battle against a huge wave of foes, trying to hold them back from getting into your town.
The Last Spell is exhilarating: starting out with three members in your battle party, you’ll have a mixture of skills. One might specialise in hard-hitting melee attacks. Another might be adept with a crossbow while the third is a magic-caster. Those long-range hits are important, because with dozens of enemies swarming your screen at once, with more appearing each turn, keeping a distance is key. You’ll need to strategise well, especially if you’ve got enemies coming in from multiple directions at once.
Your goal, along with wiping out every enemy each night, is to protect a magical fountain in the centre of your town. It’s game over if that fountain gets destroyed – and if enemies get close enough to attack it, it won’t take long to go down. Making sure they can’t get near it, then, is key to your survival each night.
It’s long-winded, though. Each battle can take a good half hour or so as you plan out every attack and consider all your options. As it’s turn-based, you can move each character a certain number of spaces and carry out a number of attacks depending on how much energy you have available to you. And so you’ll need to weigh up your options each time. A melee character might be able to move towards the crowd to do some heavy damage, but if you’re unable to move them back away to safety, is it worth the risk?
Once you’ve survived a night, you’ll have time to spend any skill points earned for your team, and make any changes to your town. You’ll unlock new buildings, such as a mine which passively earns you coins, or an inn, where new team members can be recruited (and fallen ones replaced). There are also magical wells, which let you heal teammates or replenish MP. It’ll cost you to fully replenish your team, though, so choosing who to heal and when is another area you’ll need to employ some strategy.
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After surviving several nights of ever-increasing onslaught, you’ll need to face a boss: an extra-tough battle which throws additional obstacles in the way. Not only is the wave of enemies truly never-ending, you’ll have the addition of huge beasts to face off against. The boss also has the ability to buff your enemies and debuff your party, putting you at a huge disadvantage.
Suffice to say, we haven’t yet survived the boss. And judging by the trophy progress percentages we can see on PlayStation, not many other people have, either. Doing so will unlock a new area, and a new town to start in, with each town having greater challenges – and, presumably, even greater boss battles. But seeing all that means getting past the seemingly insurmountable challenge of taking down the first boss.
Getting a “game over” screen at that point in The Last Spell feels like a huge slap in the face. You’ll have undoubtedly put three or four hours into the game, building up your town and levelling up your team. You’ve probably spent money on new weapons and equipment for your fighters, and you’ll have fortified your town as much as possible. But fall in battle, and it’s game over. You’ve no choice but to start again from scratch.
Not all is lost, fortunately. There are permanent upgrades to earn in The Last Spell: new buildings you unlock will stay forever, as will new weapon types that have become available. You’ll also likely have a number of permanent perks for your team, like improved damage or increased defences. It means that future runs will be slightly easier, as you’ll be a little more hardy each time. But in terms of your character level and the state of the town, you’re still going right back to square one.
Roguelite games work best when they’re fast-paced. The Last Spell requires a substantial time commitment, and that makes it so each death, each failure, hits hard. That’s not to say you won’t want to jump back in: you’ll likely enjoy the loop of combat and preparation so much that you’ll be drawn back in, eventually. But there’s the key word: eventually. For us, the best roguelite games are those that suck you back in instantly, trying again and again. That’s not The Last Spell. Perhaps it would have been more enjoyable as a straightforward, linear strategy game. But then: would it be the same without the threat of permanent game over hanging over your head?
The answer is probably not. And so, as big a knock that dying in The Last Spell is, we’re going to keep playing. And eventually, we are going to beat that damned boss. It might be tough as nails, but it keeps us going back – even if we need a day or two’s rest between each run.
The Last Spell is available now on PS4, PS5, Switch and PC.