Strategy RPGs and roguelikes. We don’t often see the combination together because they’re both inherently complex and rely on several systems to work. Roguelikes rely on procedural generation, permadeath, and generous randomization, while SRPGs rely on turn-based hex- or grid-based movement, robust customization, and carefully considered weighing of pros and cons by evaluating the landscape and enemies. To combine these two styles authentically would be a feat bordering on impossible. Surely, even attempting to scale this mountain would require extraordinary balance and mastering the art of game design.
Yet that’s exactly what Ishtar Games have done. Undoubtedly, The Last Spell is one of the most demanding, exhausting, stressful, and brilliantly designed games I’ve played in a long time. The sheer quantity of variables at play here that make every battle feel like it’s teetering on the brink of disaster is impressive when it isn’t accelerating my cortisol production.
In the world of The Last Spell, a hermit wizard living in this medieval-fantasy land devises a spell-based nuke that can obliterate entire towns and kingdoms. While testing his discovery on a hamlet, a king’s family gets caught in the blast while on holiday. Ravaged by grief, the king orders his royal magicians to research and uncover how to create the spell. In doing so, he blasts neighboring kingdoms; his mind addled with loss. These same kingdoms unlock the secrets to the spell and do the same. It’s the fantasy version of DEFCON 1.
A few lonely villages remain, unscathed by war but well aware of what has happened and the need to stop it. They urge their local wizards to end all magic, ensuring this chaos never happens again. And so, we begin our game because while the spellcasters channel their spell to close the seal that allows magic to thrive throughout the world, an army of undead looks to breach the walls and halt the ritual.
Channeling the spell takes a few days and nights, so while the spellcasters flail their arms up and down in hooded robes, staring at an oppressively bright globe, we have to rebuild the town and defend its walls from the skeletons, ghouls, and fleshy monstrosities that magic has wrought. During the day, players spend gold and ore to purchase upgrades and build defenses. Workers in the village are employed to serve other tasks, while players also level up characters, spend taint (for permanent buffs and unlocks), and unlock achievements.
Players can spend gold on constructing buildings including homes for more villagers to put to work, an inn to hire more mercenaries, and a temple to heal or raise the maximum health of the mercenaries. Initially, players spend materials on wooden fences but eventually can construct stone walls, ballistas, warp gates, and a few other tricks. Workers can excavate materials from mines for bonus gold, build additional equipment, and scavenge the corpses of enemies laid bare on the field for gold, materials, items, and taint.
Players can upgrade the mercenaries through equipment, level-up stat buffs, and perks with three or so starting units. Leveling up is a joyous, rewarding affair because players get a random assortment of stats to improve out of five. Don’t like what you rolled? You get two rerolls per level, but your choices diminish with each roll. Rolling occurs twice per level. Every level-up also has a perk that lets players assign a special ability to buff units on a separate menu. Each character has a different set of perks, though players will soon see repeats across mercenaries as they play. The perk “tree” has five levels, though I’d actually call this perk rows. Fill up enough perks in a row, and players can access the next. While the stats go a bit beyond strength, agility, wisdom, etc.—instead featuring percentage buffs to damage, damage bonuses for killing enemies in isolation, and extra damage blocking when attacked—the perks add a good bit of flavor. Perks host a variety of opportunities, such as adding an ability to outright execute a low-health enemy without using an action point, increased damage dependent on mana, and improved range and accuracy if the unit hasn’t moved on its turn.
Each unit has different abilities depending on the weapon type equipped, and The Last Spell has many weapons players can choose from. Spears, pistols, two-handed axes, swords, bows, magic orbs—you name it, the game likely has it. Every weapon is highly distinct from others in a few ways. First, players get around six action points to start each turn, and some actions take multiple action points. Abilities feature different ranges, areas, debuffs, buffs, or even may move the player after or before the attack—the list goes on and on. Aside from weapons, the armor adds a variety of buffs that impact how players may position their units. If you have a perk that gives a character action points depending on if they dodged an attack, you may want to get a little cute and put them in the line of fire with high dodging equipment. Equipment also comes with rarities, which improve the number of buffs (or debuffs) on a suit of armor, helmet, or trinket.
Once the day phase ends, the night phase begins, which requires players to defend their home from four different sides in an isometric fashion. During the day phase, the game states which directions the enemy will come from—and how fierce they will be, as depicted with skulls—so players can set their units up accordingly before the battle begins; eventually, battles will demand players to defend from three or even four sides, but hopefully you’ve used your inn to recruit more units by this time. Then, intimidation begins in the form of a veritable deluge of undead.
Unlike most other strategy RPGs, The Last Spell throws dozens of enemies at you to start and then hundreds; the flow of enemies genuinely feels endless, but rest assured that there is an end (and it’s not always your death!) Fortunately, these mobs are easily thwarted for the most part. Most small enemies can be killed with an attack or two, while big boys don’t come in vast quantities. Also, enemies tend to clump, so get your area-of-effect abilities armed and ready.
You and the enemies take turns. Positioning units well is crucial because heroes can die quickly if left unprotected or out in the open near the enemy front. As such, players need to pay close attention to their movement points so that melee characters can safely walk in and back out. This is where perks that improve movement points and outfitting characters with consumables, such as movement increase potions, are beneficial.
Enemies eventually come with abilities: some have armor bars that act as a second health bar that replenishes, and mercenaries get weaker as they get wounded, all complicating battles. Spending loads of mana on characters’ most powerful abilities is tempting, as well, since that can negate the enemy assault, but after the night is over, characters do not regain all of their health and mana; each character has its own daily health and mana regeneration that varies depending on the character. Buildings like temples are helpful, as they can assist with health and mana regen.
Okay, I’ve sufficiently explained the nuts and bolts of the game. How does it play? Well, I tipped my hand earlier: this game is demanding! Being a roguelite (not roguelike), players get stronger over time by unlocking in-game achievements and spending taint, a finite resource earned through playing. Achievements often unlock weapons better than the rusty blades players start with. The player can use taint to unlock inherent character buffs, new weapon types, and omens that players can use before beginning a mission to enhance the game the way they want to. So, if you want to take it easy-breezy and not worry about dying, you can get stronger by virtue of permanent upgrades.
However, you may want to enjoy the game for what it’s intended to be: a constant battle of calculation, efficiency, risk-reward, and armchair general prowess. In that case, there is no better game. I know this game has been in development for years, but I still can’t believe just how meticulously constructed it is. The entire game is only a handful of maps, but each map will take about ten hours, assuming you beat it on your first try. Each day and night phase can take up to or over an hour, with some maps demanding ten nights and days. Got the game figured out? Players can raise the Apocalypse level of each town and go at it again with increased enemy health and movement, increased gold and material costs, and so on. No one is going to find this game lacking in quantity, and I can assure you that the developers have gone through great pains to ensure the game maintains a state of flow in the player without coming off as unfair.
I find boss battles in The Last Spell to be unnecessary surprises. I can go through several battles and feel great about the tension, but bosses can come off as “aha, gotcha!” affairs that irritate. An entire meticulously strategized course can go out the window because players didn’t expect the gimmick the boss was going to throw at them. So, start again, right? You’ve gotten stronger, haven’t you? Well, that’s the roguelite aspect to it, but after spending over ten hours on the village, picking the pieces back up and going again feels daunting.
In terms of presentation, the music suits its purpose without getting in the way; honestly, I’m not sure I could appreciate high-production quality music while being so focused on the actual game. Sound effects complement play with adequate scratching, slashing, and squishing. While the art style isn’t quite my jam, the sprite work is respectable and suits the atmosphere well.
As fun and impressive as The Last Spell is, I almost feel like it’s aged me. I am the type of person who goes in for long, heavy board games, loves to lose so that I can go again bolder and wiser, and relishes gnawing on two or more game-changing possibilities. Yet, I turned away from The Last Spell more than once because I couldn’t bear the idea of going through the stress again. In the right mood, The Last Spell is a gift and treasure. Still, you must not only be the kind of person who wants the densest strategy RPG experience ever created, but you also need to be in the mood to weigh twenty or so variables with each action, lest the house of cards you’ve constructed topple down.