When I see ‘mana’ in a game title, I immediately assume it to be a JRPG and most likely retro. The word ‘mana’ in game terms is your magical ability, so yeah, a JRPG isn’t too far off, but the games I played growing up were influential to this. Secret of Mana comes to mind. Interestingly, the trilogy is now available on the Switch, at a bit of a premium, unfortunately. Anyhoo, Mana Spark is the title of interest today, so let’s take a look. Mana Spark, published by Qubic Games, is a rogue-like game rather than a JRPG with pixel art graphics, and it’s a title you can pick up on the Nintendo eShop for pennies. For the cost and the time it takes to install, I wouldn’t lose any sleep if it turned out bad, so I was pleasantly surprised with how long I stuck with it.
You begin with an archer (later you can unlock other characters, such as one that wields a crossbow and another that’s a melee tank sporting a sword), and you must explore the woods in which you awaken. Story-wise, humanity has been enslaved, and it’s all to do with those who wield mana. Your first character is the Neo of the story and rises to fight the power and establish a friendly little community. Armed with your bow, at first, you enter procedurally generated maps and clear out the NPCs one by one. Killing enemies warrants a drop – be it an ability, gold or runes that are used to make your experience more pleasant by upgrading your character.
The abilities can be quite decent and ensure you get through to the next area unscathed, but should you die, which you will, you’ll lose this ability, as well as anything else you’ve unlocked. There is a slight lifeline thrown out as every couple of levels you will go to the ‘peculiar room’. There’s nothing peculiar about it at all, just an area you can purchase additional abilities and store the runes you’ve accumulated so far. Runes help you permanently increase your stats, so it is advisable to save these if you can.
When you start the game, it’s just you and an NPC named Li Wei – I can’t recall his role, but he has a carriage and goes out to recruit new dwellers for the encampment you unlock early in the game. Introducing extra dwellers provides new options for improvements. If you have successfully saved some runes, you can use these to purchase from the dwellers’ items or abilities. In my case, I upgraded my stats – first for movement speed, later for health. Instead of three hearts, I would then have four hearts, and so on.
Like most procedurally generated maps, while they are unique in structure, aesthetically they are all the same, and Mana Spark is only limited to three environments, with each level being very similar to the other. There’s a good range of enemies, but the difficulty takes a jump when inside dungeons. And these enemies are a little too overpowered. This was the turning point for me as I would die and lose what I had collected thus far. Sure, you can level up, but ideally, you need to keep progressing just that little bit further before you save the runes in the peculiar room.
We can skip past the presentation of the game relatively quickly. Not to be dismissive, but the pixel art style is straightforward, with no detail on the characters. The Darkside Detective had the same emotionless approach, but the palette was so much more alive, both visually and in the overall ‘feel’. Mana Spark is quite reserved, but the graphics serve their purpose. The sound effects replicate this and are perfectly fine but are also not a talking point. Neither is the soundtrack, which I found slightly melancholy.
The critical focus then would be on both the controls and difficulty. Starting with the former, I quite liked the feel of the controls, and they were relatively smooth in my experience. You can’t choose any other character from the start, so you’re stuck with the archer, and that will be the decider if you stick with the game. Why does that impact play? It’s to do with the camera configuration.
The left analogue stick controls your character, and the right stick will be your focus to where you shoot. Instead of the camera locking on your person, it jumps to the reticle for the bow. I understand a lot of people didn’t get on with this. I was okay with it, and I enjoyed how intuitive it was, and it made feel a little like Legolas. You know him, that long-eared chap from The Lord of the Rings. However, I was using a pro-controller. When I switched to handheld mode, I didn’t have the same luck with the Joy-Cons and lost a lot of interest.
Controls are a matter of opinion. I’m pretty easy going with most controls and won’t throw my toys out of the cot if invert is on or off or button configurations are faffed about with, but I appreciate that this setup will deter some; however, there is the option to turn this off. I didn’t check it at first but can confirm it’s there. That leaves the difficulty. When in the forest, it’s pretty easy, and you rarely lose any health, but once you go into a new environment, the enemies hit harder. Also, the traps are trickier to steer around as there are lots of corridors/hallways to navigate. Also, loading times are quite weak, especially considering that this game doesn’t have the most intensive of graphics. Alternating between levels will bring up a black loading screen. It’s not the end of the world but a tad frustrating nonetheless.
I bought this on the eShop for less than a £1, and there is no argument that it was good value, whether you could handle the flaws or not. Will I come back to this in a few months? Yes and no. Yes: It’s quick to pick up and play and has a save feature every few levels. No: I have too many games on the go, and this isn’t on the top of the pile. For a better rogue-like/lite alternative, try Streets of Rogue.
Developer: BEHEMUTT, Kishimoto Studios
Platform: PC, Switch
Release Date: 22nd December 2018