Even in a magical fantasy setting, nothing good comes from war. The Last Spell, a roguelite that mixes tactical RPG and tower defense elements, is set in a world that has already been destroyed by mankind’s thirst for destruction. With this unique blend of genres, the game offers up some fun and engaging gameplay mechanics, but despite its pixel art style, the Switch port is certainly not without its issues.
In The Last Spell, the action starts after a powerful group of mages have unleashed total annihilation upon the world, releasing swarms of demons that have reduced humanity to a handful of small havens. Every night, a few heroes defend these cities as the remaining mages attempt to undo the evil they have wrought by banishing all magic from the world. It isn’t an overly complex setup and the actual gameplay doesn’t feel nearly as dark as the opening cutscene makes it out to be, but the premise is a solid one.
Gameplay consists of two distinct phases. During the day, you handle the Production Phase. This is where you can spend gold and resources to construct buildings, heal your heroes, and build defenses for the town. During your first few runs, you're limited to a few basic structures, but as you progress you’ll unlock more options to defend yourself with. The rate of progress is well balanced; for most runs, we had at least one or two new toys to play with during our playthrough, which helped keep The Last Spell from feeling like a grind.
As you’d expect, night is when evil comes out to play. In the mists that surround your haven lurk countless creatures all vying for your magic circle. Each Combat Phase consists of several turns where wave after wave of creatures will advance on your city. Your heroes run around on a grid-patterned map, using their special abilities to deal damage or buff their allies. Combat isn’t finished until the last monster is slain, your last hero is killed, or the monsters manage to destroy your magic circle and prevent your mages from saving humanity.
The structure is simple to get your head around but there are plenty of opportunities for customisation, and creating a balanced party of heroes is vital to survival. Fortunately, you can build each hero into almost anything depending on what weapons and spells you manage to get. Everything is randomised, from the items in the shops to the traits the heroes get as they level up, so you’ll have to adapt your build strategy as you go. Fortunately, most of the options you’ll get are decent enough that you won’t feel betrayed by the RNG gods if you get a few bad rolls.
Being a roguelite, The Last Spell isn’t afraid to be challenging, either. Most of your runs will end in defeat and you’ll have to go right back to the start of your current city. Any equipment or resources you’ve acquired will be lost and you’ll be given a random assortment of new heroes, but anything you’ve unlocked will be available to purchase again. The game’s balance is such that it is rare you’ll do worse than a previous run unless you make some very silly mistakes or have the worst possible luck. You’ll generally be able to continue your march toward victory, slowly but surely.
The campaign will probably take you several dozen hours to complete, though that can be reduced by using Boundless Mode, which lets you control the difficulty by managing the number of monsters and how much health they have. We would highly recommend using it for the first several runs while you get used to the game and only upping the difficulty when you’re comfortable. Honestly, the game is difficult enough that we expect most players will play The Last Spell on Boundless Mode exclusively unless they are desperate for a long grind.
If we had any complaints about The Last Spell, it would be that each run takes a touch too long to complete. This is exacerbated by the controls on Switch, which feel a bit clumsy in their implementation. Particularly in Production Phases, you have to hit the '–' button each time you want to access parts of the screen. You’ll find yourself backtracking through the menu or going back through the same menu repeatedly each turn, which is a frustrating mechanic.
The issue is less prevalent in combat, but we always felt like we were fighting the controls as much as the monster hoards. Nothing feels intuitive and ten hours in, we were still making the same mistakes that we made during the tutorial run because of the controls. It makes The Last Spell feel like a PC game that was hastily ported to Switch close to the end of development.
This game benefits greatly from playing in docked mode where the pixel art gets a chance to shine. It looks good in handheld mode, but the text looks a bit too small, especially when you’re trying to wrap your head around a new character’s abilities. This doesn’t make the game unplayable but certainly detracts from the positive points.
The graphics are simple but effective and the music is perfect for this kind of game. It feels similar to Crypt of the NecroDancer, which is a huge plus in our book. The writing has some fun tongue-in-cheek moments that cut through the tension of watching your town be overrun for the fourth time. Another few months of polishing the controls (developer Ishtar Games is working on a patch to implement d-pad navigation in menus) and streamlining the Production Phase would have made the game far more fun.
It is difficult to score The Last Spell, because it's a game that does so much so well, from the music to the game balance to charming writing. If you can wrap your head around the counter-intuitive controls — which an eventual patch will hopefully sort out — there is plenty for tactical RPG fans to sink their teeth into. We enjoyed our time with the game, but the hasty feel of the Switch port keeps the game from reaching its full potential, though.