With titles such as Super Meat Boy, Undertale, and Broforce becoming instant hits, the creative charm of indie games is hardly disputable. It’s difficult to find innovation across games, as developers seem to remain faithful to tried and tested formulas. Games that do explore with innovation often risk alienating players because of their deviation from familiarity. Being able to manage a product that captures the comfort of convention and the freshness of innovation is a tough development accomplishment that seems too absent from the market. LastNameGames’s Spellcaster creates a unique adventure by focusing on its innovative setting and mechanics while not straying too far from established principles.
Spellcaster revolves around the exploits of an eponymous hero who is infamous for his fearsome magical abilities. Unbeknownst to all, the spellcaster’s magical powers are actually slight-of-hand tricks. In fact, this fantasy world is entirely devoid of magic, grounding all of its mysticism to acts of deception and skill. This theme of deception is reinforced by the player, who tells of his embellished explorations in a tavern. By hopping onto a stool, players can choose to play through a list of adventures that span as far as China. This same level playfully drops the player into a location where the mystic is indiscernible from the truth. Self-healing demons and terrifying dragons are the lords of this land. However, as the adventure progresses, things become less fantastic. These threats are soon revealed to be nothing more than ordinary men wearing disguises. The amusing thing about Spellcaster is that the game’s trickery is not only for the player. The spellcaster is only a member of a reality in which deception, and not force alone, is crucial to victory.
Tricks are fun in Spellcaster,, and the animations make a point of clarifying this. Whereas many similar games would use highly detailed character and world models, Spellcaster’s designs are juvenile and whimsical. Characters are mostly globular with little to no facial expression, save for the occasional pained look under their dotted eyes. These stumped fighters bob sideways across the screen in mayhem. The visual effects of their attacks are much more exciting. The spellcaster’s multiple bomb and mine types create satisfying eruptions of flames, jagged stones, and purple smoke as they are lobbed at surrounding enemies. His evasive smoke bomb is responsive, whisking him several feet away from foes in an instant, smoke-trailed flash. Enemies create the same visual cheer as they perform actions from wilting over in defeat to glowing in mystic radiance as they self-heal.
Though there is no magic behind the spellcaster’s arsenal of tricks, a certain fantastic feeling is created through a clever combat system. Enemies can be defeated by continuously bombarding them with the spellcaster’s explosive tricks. Each trick has distinct strengths and complements, with stone bombs that do hazardous damage, fire bombs that ignite enemies to make them vulnerable to other attacks, and stun bombs that immobilize and silence enemies. The character is able to make use of the spellcaster’s smoke bombs as a means to dodge incoming attacks or to navigate rapidly across the field. A hooking mechanism is also available, and this gives you an abliity that pulls enemies and obstacles within the player’s range.
With such a limited pool of actions, it quickly becomes apparent what attack patterns are most useful or devastating. If this were any other game, one could simply spam their favorite attack or combo. However, Spellcaster’s “spectacle” feature accounts for this by penalizing repetition. In place of a set amount of hit points and health power-ups, Spellcaster provides the player with a number that indicates how many hits they are capable of receiving. Should this number be depleted, the spellcaster is defeated. Repeating the same action too often will warn the player and decrease this value. The only way to replenish or increase this number is by stringing together different attacks and movements. While this might seem daunting or annoying at first, it encourages players to become familiar with each one of the spellcaster’s tricks. Before long the battlefield becomes a mad frenzy of continuous and diverse attacks that brings the magical illusion of Spellcaster to life.
Spellcaster‘s fantasy inspired soundtrack only further intensifies this action. The sounds of stringed instruments plucking a playful tune serve to highlight the spellcaster’s dance-like movements and attacks. The game provides further incentive by scoring each enemy encounter based on battle criteria, such as the speed of their attacks, the diversity of these actions, and whether or not players were successful at dodging attacks. Though this system does not provide much reward over the “spectacle” mechanic, it does create a sense that creativity and skill are equal components of Spellcaster.The only drawback to such a system is that it is not always possible to be as creative as Spellcaster desires. Dodging enemy attacks can often disrupt the flow of battle, triggering an instinctive reliance on a specific trick. The lenience given on deciding if a trick is over-used is generous, but this penalty can become crippling if a player makes one too many mistakes. This creates a moment of inaction where the player can only dodge attacks, waiting for their cooldowns to take effect. This is inevitably punished through defeat or, even worse, a disappointing and accidental after-battle score card.
Spellcaster is a beautiful example of the success that some ingenuity and creativity can provide. While it borrows elements from traditional beat-em-ups and retro-fantasy games, Spellcaster introduces a system that belongs only to itself. The clever focus of using its visual and audio elements to build upon its original setting is a thrilling joy to experience. There is still much work to be done for Spellcaster, but the unique qualities of this game are apparent and worthwhile, even in its early state.
Spellcaster was previewed on PC via itch.io with a build provided by the developers.