Sparking My Interest

I’ve finally gotten around to trying all the free QubicGames titles I picked up in December. Most of them I bounced off pretty quickly as not the kind of gameplay I’m interested in, but one surprised me: Mana Spark.

Mana Spark is a roguelike. I never get into roguelikes, but I figured I should give it a fair shot. I played it until my first death and then put it down.

The next day, I found myself thinking about it again. The combat had felt great and the music, sound, and art were excellent. I played another session, enjoyed the atmosphere and game feel, and thought it was a shame the game was a roguelike and I’d never be able to get into it. After a few more deaths I put the game back down.

About an hour later, I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the game and I picked it right back up and went on to play it obsessively for days.

I’ve thought a lot about why this happened. It actually reminds me of my experience with SteamWorld Dig 2.

Metroidvanias are all about remembering what’s where and how to get back to it, so my terrible sense of direction renders most of them borderline unplayable. But SteamWorld Dig 2 has a fantastic map and generous fast travel. It fully solved my problem with Metroidvanias, allowing me to enjoy what’s good about the genre.

Before, when I’d seen someone talk about how satisfying it was to bring a new tool back to an old area to conquer a previously-encountered obstacle, or to figure out how to skillfully use your tools to sequence-break and get somewhere early, I’d roll my eyes at this bizarre celebration of backtracking and subversion of carefully-designed pacing. But now I finally understood it! That stuff was fun, now that my poor sense of direction was no longer getting in the way. What I disliked was frustration and wasted time finding my way around with sub-par navigational aides - not Metroidvanias themselves, which it turned out I actually liked a lot!

Mana Spark provided a similar entry point into the roguelike genre. What I dislike about roguelikes is their permadeath punishment and their random layouts, and how those factors combine to create exactly the wrong kind of repetitiveness for me. Starting over each run from the beginning means you replay the early content long after it’s ceased to be an interesting challenge, and if you die to a late-game challenge the randomized layouts/upgrade/enemies prevent you from practicing or retrying that challenge even once you get back through the early content again.

Given my reliance on novel challenges, it’s unsurprising that I’d be turned off by roguelikes. When I fail, what I want to do is try again on the specific challenge I failed, to learn how to handle it. The last thing I want to do is be forced to make my way through the early levels that are no longer novel or challenging.

But Mana Spark has combat unlike any other roguelike I’ve played. Its deliberate pace and varied enemies requiring different tactics made for a high skill ceiling and kept even the early areas' combat engaging for me for quite a while - long enough for me to get hooked. With that problem solved, I could finally enjoy the things I’d heard people say they liked about roguelikes - experimenting with different upgrades, finding effective builds, having great runs that take you farther than ever before. And so Mana Spark showed me that it really is that reliance on novelty and learning, not the core structure of roguelikes, that causes my dislike of the genre.

More and more, I find myself thinking that most of the analysis we write about games is really about justifying automatic emotional responses that we’re not even aware of and which vary widely between players.

For a while, I thought Mana Spark might be the first roguelike I’d actually finish. It’s looking unlikely, though, because the novelty problem gets worse the further into a roguelike you get. By now I’m consistently able to get past the second boss and into the third and final area where the game’s strongest enemies appear. It’s taking me a while to learn to fight them effectively, and every time they kill me I have to get through the first two areas and first two boss fights before I can try again. And by now I’ve seen all the upgrades, and there’s basically nothing new going on in those first areas - it feels like a run doesn’t even really start until I get past the second boss, and it takes a while to do that.

If I could spend some in-game resources to restart a floor when I die, without starting completely over - or to skip the gameplay up through the last boss I beat, getting the random upgrades I’d have gotten along the way - I’d probably still be hooked, and would expect to finish the game. As it is, too high a percentage of my time is now spent on non-novel gameplay and I’m losing interest.

It’s a shame that Mana Spark couldn’t permanently solve my problems the way SteamWorld Dig 2 did. But I still had a good time with it for a while and am glad that I can now understand the appeal of its genre.