I have a problem. No matter the genre, games that adopt roguelite mechanics hold the reward circuit of my brain hostage like robbers armed with dopamine. Card-based Slay the Spire, action platformer Dead Cells, action RPG Hades, third-person shooter Risk of Rain 2, rhythm-based Cadence of Hyrule — the genre doesn’t matter. Once I’m in, I can’t get out for weeks or sometimes even months.
Ishtar Games’ The Last Spell magicked itself out of early access this month, and I made the dire mistake of booting it up on Steam. From the tutorial I knew the tactical, almost puzzle-like take on the genre would captivate me like many had before it. The question now is whether I’m going to play for 40 hours or 400 because the developers packed an impressive amount of mechanics into the dark fantasy world that walks a thin, pixelated line between tedious management and addictive strategy.
From the tutorial, I knew I was in trouble as it thoughtfully explained mechanic after mechanic.
I learned there were two phases, day and night. Easy. During the day, I had to build up defenses for my town. At night, undead hordes attacked from one (and later, more than one) direction, requiring me to place three heroes — a fighter, archer, and a mage — to stop them. Each hero had three random attributes, positive and negative, like Hardy, which made them more robust, or Nudist, which meant they couldn’t equip armor.
At this point, I followed and mostly ignored the 18 other secondary stats in the character window for my own sanity. Equipment slots for head, body, legs, two weapons, two trinkets, bag slots, and so on. I was still following. Randomized stat increases to choose from upon level up with different rarities. Six columns and five rows of perks to also select. Weapons with different skill sets. Enemies with different amounts of armor, health, and attacks. Managing health and mana by building wells and temples, assigning workers to them, and constructing other buildings besides. Mysterious beings from beyond that rewarded me based on how well I did, granting me bonuses that carried over between runs and unlocking weapons with different skills.
On and on it went, with the depth of each of these revealing themselves as I continued to play. More is not always merrier in games like these, but if done right, all these systems could add to hours upon hours of addictive gameplay — or put up an insurmountable wall of tedium. If balanced well, The Last Spell has a chance of being one of my most played games of 2023 by encapsulating the irresistible pull of “just one more round.” I already feel it. But I also dread when the nighttime battle ends and I’m immediately greeted with pop-ups and things to manage during the day.
Slay the Spire, for example, nailed that “just one more run” by making it super simple to jump back in. I didn’t have to think much beyond which of the four characters to choose and at which Ascension level. The more important choices of cards and paths to take would come later, and I put nearly 1,000 hours into the card-based roguelite. Into the Breach, on the other hand, with its plentiful squads with high learning curves, lost me after only a dozen hours.
With The Last Spell, a bevy of choices occur every cycle, and as each night battle against the zombie hordes last no longer than 10 minutes, I worry I will lose interest in upgrading towns and assigning workers to clean up piles of undead remains to eek out some resources — of which there are several to manage.
At the same time, I feel the pull of The Last Spell while I finish up other games in my backlog. Whether collecting the last few heroes in Octopath Traveller II, clearing the last few missions in Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, or completing my ill-advised Maddening run in Fire Emblem Engage, fighting those undead hordes over and over to some crunchy guitar riffs, learning myriad and intricate systems, and failing and doing it all over again has me entranced. I’m going to have to put in a few dozen more hours before I find out how strong of a hold The Last Spell truly has on me — at least until another roguelite drops and steals my attention away.