Release date: November 9, 2023
Developer: Alchemist Interactive
Publisher: Merge Games
Roguelikes and roguelites are an interesting genre of games, being predicated as they are on doing the same content repeatedly with incremental progress, in a way that would be extremely frustrating and tedious in just about any other circumstances. It takes a special kind of game to get that balance just right, to make each death feel more like a minor setback than a crushing defeat, and inspire you to venture forth into its murky depths for “just one more run” until you finally succeed. Spells & Secrets., developed by Alchemist Interactive, has some interesting ideas to contribute to the genre, but unfortunately it fails to capture any kind of real magic.
Spells & Secrets starts off on very strong footing, thrusting you headfirst into quite a robust character creation process that lets you choose from a wide variety of options that make it very easy for you to create a custom character to your liking, and I was pleasantly surprised by just how much effort had clearly been put into this aspect of the game. Outfit selection is sparse, but you can unlock additional items of clothing as you progress and, considering your status as a new student, a bland uniform feels appropriate to start. Once you’ve done this, you are on your way to fulfill your dream at the Academy of Greifenstein, a school for magic.
You’re greeted by the first year teacher and the school patron, a griffin named Murlein, but your first night proves to be an eventful one as the school’s magic defenses activate and you are driven from the building. Your character, a first year with no experience, is unfortunately the only one who has been afforded the necessary magical protection to safely traverse the area by Murlein, so it’s up to you to venture into the school and rescue the students still trapped inside, locate the missing faculty members and find out exactly what is going on and who the people responsible for these events are, and what they’re after.
Despite the promise of an intriguing mystery, Spells & Secrets never really goes anywhere with its setup. I found this especially disappointing because quite a lot of thought had clearly been put into establishing it, with in–universe justifications for genre conventions that you’re normally expected to take at face value making it a far more engaging title from the beginning than many of its peers, which typically don’t bother to provide such a robust explanation for the state of the game world. The randomized nature of the school, for example, is explained as the magical defense mechanism constantly rearranging areas to throw you off balance; it’s unnatural, and the game makes a note of it and makes sure you’re aware that this is not how things are supposed to be. It’s all very cleverly set up and pulls you in from the beginning, but fails to deliver on that promise, and the story takes a familiar back seat as all focus is given to the gameplay.
Gameplay in Spells & Secrets is standard for the roguelite genre: you’ll move through a series of randomly generated areas, defeating enemies and gathering items, money, and experience along the way, fight a boss at the end, and progress to the next area. Death returns you to the hub area where you can interact with NPCs and spend experience you’ve gained on permanent upgrades, so you’ll be stronger the next time that you venture into the school. There’s nothing here that will surprise genre veterans, although this is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. If you’re not a fan of the roguelite genre however, Spells & Secrets won’t do anything to change your mind.
The game attempts to differentiate itself from its peers by being notably slower and more methodical with its combat, which plays almost like a twin-stick shooter as you control your character with the right analogue stick and aim your wand with the left, and makes movement feel quite fluid. Enemies are typically sluggish, encouraging you to exploit their weaknesses or spend a frustratingly long time chipping away at their health, as with this lack of speed comes an exaggerated bulk that can turn regular encounters into tiresome wars of attrition. There are never more than a handful of enemies in each area, which is fortunate because you need to eliminate all of them before you can advance to the next room. Although you can move around freely, your other actions are tied to a stamina wheel, meaning you’ll be unable to attack with reckless abandon.
The ways you can utilize spells can get quite creative because although spells are divided into Offensive and Utility categories, you can use Utility spells in offensive ways: Telekinesis can be used to pick up environmental objects and throw them into your foes, you pick them up with Levitate to immobilize them and leave them vulnerable to more offensive spells, knock them back with Jostle for additional damage, and so on. Your initial selection of spells is quite limited, but as you venture deeper into the school and find the other teachers, you’ll unlock additional spells, and the final selection offers a robust number of different options. Spells are grouped by “years” and you’re required to purchase all of the previous year before you can purchase the following year (and there is not an increased level of strength or usefulness in later year that this decision would imply) but this is one of the many long-term goals that the game gives you to work towards.
Unfortunately, the amount of content and the level of difficulty present in Spells & Secrets doesn’t really match up with the roguelite idea of long-term progression and play, and you’ll likely see all that the game has to offer long before you’ve unlocked everything. I actually managed to finish the game on my third run through the school and found little to entice me to continue playing once I had seen all the game had to offer. Even by roguelite standards character growth and progression is extremely slow as you’ll gain a few hundred experience per run to be spent on permanent stat boons, spell acquisition, and spell upgrades that cost several thousand, and offer negligible gains when upgraded. The whole process feels quite unrewarding and entirely unnecessary, given the relative lack of challenge present in the school environments.
The game also features four Student Factions, color-coded in a very familiar manner that fans of a certain other wizarding franchise will recognize immediately that you can undertake small side quests for to improve your reputation and unlock additional apparel and other perks. Completing these will happen naturally as you play (facing off against different bosses improves your reputation with Fireblade, for example) but is similarly slow, and with lackluster rewards that don’t have a noticeable impact upon your sense of progression. Like many other aspects of the game’s systems it feels like a waste of time to actively engage with it, as it doesn’t provide any long-term tangible benefits.
The lack of tangible reward makes Spells & Secrets difficult to play for extended periods of time, and it does little to entice the player to keep coming back. Environments are bland and repetitive, and it can be difficult to distinguish one room from the next a lot of the time, which is further hindered by the small and unhelpful minimap. There is also a notable lack of variety in enemy types with many being reused between the game’s four areas, and although bosses each have their own set of attacks, they lack a sense of identity due to sharing the same design, and are all easily evaded simply by strafing around them. While Spells & Secrets encourages creativity by offering a plethora of different options with its numerous spells, it lacks the challenge to warrant such experimentation, opting instead to make enemies damage sponges that take an extremely long time to chip away at: given that you only have three hearts to start with, death is more likely to come from attrition than it is error, as attacks are clearly telegraphed and would be easily evaded if not for the severe performance issues.
Spells & Secrets is not helped at all by its presentation on the Switch, which makes just playing it a struggle at the best of times. At time of writing this is a game in dire need of a patch, with frame rates dropping into single digits in combat and while traversing rooms, and some visual glitches that could actually be dangerous if you’re vulnerable to flashing lights; in the first boss room I experienced flashing black lines along half the floor of the room, which was extremely jarring. The game is also noticeably slower in the hub area, with frequent stuttering as you’re moving around.
It is also poorly optimized for Switch, featuring a clunky pointer menu clearly ported straight over from the PC version of the game, and I had to frequently exit and re-enter the menu several times to get rid of the pointer, lest I be stuck with it on-screen while I was playing the game. This also makes menu navigation a slow and tedious process, as the cursor seems to actively fight player input. Loading times can be upwards of thirty seconds at times, and loading can also result in audio glitches that cause it to cut out entirely. A patch has been promised by the developers, but there is a lot to be done to make this game presentable, let alone playable, on the system.
Spells & Secrets has its heart in the right place, but it fails to capitalize on its more interesting elements to be truly rewarding or even enjoyable much of the time. Its slower, more methodical combat lacks the necessary bite to warrant the experimentation it is clearly trying to encourage with its plethora of spells. Progression is slow even by roguelite standards, and the lack of variety in locations and enemy designs begins to wear thin after just a couple of runs. When factoring in the truly terrible state it has launched in on Switch, it’s difficult to give this game a casual recommendation to even the most hardcore fans of the genre.