With Blazing Beaks just around the corner, it seemed appropriate to tackle another of the Switch’s cheap and cheerful twin stick rogue-lites: Mana Spark. There are also big names like Enter the Gungeon and Nuclear Throne to compete with, but this one has a few quirks that sets it apart from similar titles. Precision is far more important thanks to the medieval weapons and the progression systems also handle a little differently.
As you’d expect from your typical rogue-lite, the dungeons in Mana Spark are randomly generated, though you will be seeing a lot of familiar rooms. The first few floors are small and cramped, with just a couple of rooms that only house a handful of enemies; though you’ll still do most of your fighting in tight corridors and rooms, plus floors will get much larger as you progress, largely to accommodate the new enemies and dangerous traps you’ll encounter. Traps play a key role in Mana Spark’s combat, as many enemies have shields or enormous health bars. To counteract this, you can lead them into spike traps, acid pools, and other dangers to help whittle away at their health.
Most floors also contain an altar, which provides the player with an attribute or buff, much like chests from similar titles. You don’t have to worry about finding keys to open locked containers or doors, here, the only collectibles are gold coins and mana runes, both of which are used at Peculiar Rooms; Mana Spark‘s take on merchants or rest floors. Coins are used to purchase attributes and items, while runes are banked for later use. Between runs, the runes you’ve collected can be spent to upgrade your encampment. At first, these are spent adding new faces such as the cook, blacksmith, and scholar.
Later on, though, you’ll be able to spend runes at these merchants to select and upgrade an item to take into battle with you, a meal that increases stats, or weaken certain foes. The more runes you spend, the more powerful these items, buffs, and debuffs will become, but you can only have 1 of each type active per run, so choose wisely. Peculiar Rooms also allow you to create a save point if you want to take a break and return to your run later, on top of the items available for purchase with that run’s coins.
Once you’ve progressed into the deeper layers of the dungeon, you’ll also find new items and different attributes, which then be available in later runs. I found the progression systems of Mana Spark to be its strongest draws, constantly enticing me to keep playing in order to unlock that next meal or improve my gear. It’s a shame, though, that the combat was counterintuitive to this, steadily getting more frustrating as I kept playing.
You start off with Ellis, the hunter, who wields a slow-firing bow and can perform a slow, cumbersome roll. After defeating a boss, however, a new playable character will be unlocked, the first of which is Jasika, the guard. Her crossbow has a faster rate of fire and instead of a roll, she has a quicker dash that holds 3 replenishing charges. These are meant to offset her downsides: her reduced health and her crossbow bolts that do less damage. I understand the desire to give different characters discernible strengths and weaknesses, but I find Mana Spark‘s approach to this a little disappointing.
Compared to Jasika, Ellis feels clunky and awkward; rather than choosing between the damage and health of Ellis or the rate of fire of Jasika, it felt like I had to decide between playing a well-made, enjoyable character or one that can survive more than a single hit. I get it, rogue-lites are meant to be difficult, and Mana Spark certainly doesn’t hold any punches, but it’s a real shame Ellis is so cumbersome to use. The extremely short window of opportunity that you have to hit some enemies only exacerbates this issue, though it’s often worse with Jasika, as enemies and bosses on deeper floors become bullet… bolt-sponges if you aren’t lucky enough to find damage increasing attributes.
Mana Spark’s visuals and audio don’t do it many favours, either, as they’re fairly forgettable, neither offering anything particularly unique or ground-breaking. The pixelated art style isn’t really clean enough to have that simplistic appeal, nor is it detailed enough to draw attention to it, while the performance was steady except for the occasional visual glitch that would rectify itself soon after. At release, there were reports of game-breaking bugs that prevented progression, so it’s good to see these have been squashed.
Ultimately, the enjoyment you receive from Mana Spark will be tied to whether you like difficult games that require lots of repetition. I’m all for a challenge, but I found the repetition and cumbersome controls got the better of me in the end. It’s not a particularly long title, and you could finish it within 10 hours if you get that lucky run where you find the perfect attributes. I still greatly prefer Mana Spark’s style of progression over titles like Enter the Gungeon, as you feel rewarded for consecutive playthroughs beyond the typical “you improve by learning enemy attacks and weaknesses” trope, which only pushes casual fans away from the genre. That doesn’t make up for the gameplay frustrations, however, so unless you’re looking for a short, cheap rogue-lite and you’ve played all the other options available on the Switch, I’d recommend looking elsewhere.
REVIEW CODE: A FREE Nintendo Switch code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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