Capsule Review: Mana Spark

A short roguelike with great atmosphere and game feel for its tactical twin-stick shooter combat.

A short roguelike dungeon-crawler with smoothly-animated pixel art, a beautiful moody soundtrack, and twin-stick shooter combat. There are only a few areas and bosses, but the three playable characters all work differently and there are a variety of builds available through semi-random upgrades per run, helping keep gameplay fresh along the way - and the atmosphere and game feel are polished to a shine.

Fight your way through a series of floors, each of which is made of a number of randomly-arranged rooms which feature random enemy layouts. Enemies can drop health-restoring food, coins (used to purchase upgrades during a run), or runes (used to purchase permanent upgrades between runs), and you can also find upgrade altars and a few optional high-risk, high-reward challenges. There are three areas, each with a few normal combat floors, a “peculiar room” that allows you to purchase an upgrade with coins and bank the runes you are carrying, and a boss fight floor at the end.

Combat is real-time and and played as a twin-stick shooter, but is thoughtful and tactical - you run into various mixes of enemies with different abilities and strategies, and having a good plan is at least as important as being able to time and aim your shots properly. To support this, the view is zoomed-out to show you large areas at once, and even at their small size people and objects are quite readable, as are enemy telegraphs. The excellent animations and sound design also help make it clear what’s happening and make your shots and kills even more satisfying.

Honestly, I don’t normally like roguelikes, due to the need to replay the early content over and over. But Mana Spark’s combat was so engaging with such a high skill ceiling, and its atmosphere so compelling due to the art, animation, sound, and music, that for a long time I didn’t mind at all and I fell into the “just one more run” trap repeatedly. It also helped that the game has a lot of little touches to improve playability - for example, when you enter a room with enemies, the minimap shows the room layout and enemy placements. Once you defeat all enemies, the minimap zooms back out to show the floor layout, with helpful icons in each room showing where there’s food, coins, or runes you haven’t picked up yet or switches you need to flip to unlock the exit.

People who normally love roguelikes might be disappointed by the short length, but players like me who usually get bored by early areas rapidly becoming dull might find this to be an excellent gateway game, provided that they enjoy deliberately-paced and highly tactical twin-stick shooting.

I Stopped Playing When: Once I was consistently able to get past the second boss into the third area, I encountered the game’s deadliest enemies. The process of learning to fight them effectively was tremendously slowed by the fact that every time I died I had to make my way through the first two areas and boss fights again to get another try. By this point, those earlier areas were finally no longer particularly engaging and held no surprises, so I got bored and put the game down. But I’d had a blast along the way and did not regret the time spent at all.

Docprof's Rating:

Three Stars: Good. I liked the game enough to finish it (or just play it a bunch, for games that don't end). I recommend it to most genre fans.

You can get it or learn more here.