Mana Spark is a lovely little dungeon-crawling roguelike. The adventure takes place in a world where humanity is enslaved, its strength inferior to that of its captors due to the lack of Mana in human bodies. Mana is power itself, and whoever wields it grows stronger. But what if a band of rebels formed a hidden encampment in the woods, and cooperated to gather Mana over time so that one of their fighters might one day grow powerful enough to win the day and enable their freedom?
This is where you come in as the player-character, taking risky walks into the woods with your trusty bow and arrows. Your overarching goal is to defeat the mysterious final boss, but until you are mighty enough to get there, your mission is to collect Mana runes, which have a chance of dropping each time you kill an enemy. Every time you plunge into the woods, you are hoping to collect as many runes as you can before you have to die and try again.
Ah, but there is one catch: In order for collected runes to 'count,' you must deposit them in a Peculiar Room before you die. The gameplay loop of Mana Spark relies on this tension, the desperate survival-struggle of making it to the next deposit box before your foes, whose varieties are growing more difficult with each level you advance, are able to take you down.
You will need to conquer two forest stages of procedurally-generated rooms to reach the first Peculiar checkpoint. Then onto the more dungeon-like areas proper for one floor, then the first boss, then one more dungeon floor, then the next Peculiar Room. Then one more dungeon floor, a second boss, discovering the third area-type for a floor, and – well, if you can make it a little farther, you get a crack at the endgame. There are only three boss characters and three kinds of environment in the whole game.
You may encounter terms like “massive” or “sprawling” to describe some games, but this is not one of them. Do not fear, however – unless you are a supernaturally gifted gamer, you will likely get several hours out of Mana Spark. You will die often, and because you are not guaranteed to keep the runes you find, some trips into the hostile territory will be much more fruitful than others. Even for a shorter game, this is where Mana Spark can feel grindy at times.
The 'get good' journey is a pretty one, though. This game asserts itself as another title with pleasant pixel art, crafted in a style that is somehow both minimalist (your character has a blank, featureless blocky face) yet detailed (torches on walls can be shot out, affecting room lighting). The fantasy world is cast alongside a melancholy soundtrack, its forlorn keystrokes offering a gloomy presentation that keeps the mood of humanity's desperation at the heart of the narrative, never letting the player feel a real triumph until the very end.
Hope for victory lies in the encampment, where every new life begins and where the player's allies offer their assistance. When the game begins, your sole companion is Li Wei, a character who can recruit another friend in exchange for two runes. Then you will unlock someone who offers 'recipes' that give permanent bonuses, such as to attack power and/or speed, in exchange for runes. Someone else can weaken one enemy type at a time, provided you have killed that enemy once before. Once you have beaten the first boss to unlock a second character, the encampment is where you can switch between Ellis the hunter (who has three hearts of health and a trusty bow) and Jasika the crossbow guard (who only has two health but needs less time between each – albeit weaker – shot). A third character may be found in the dungeon, too, a four-health tanky swordsman.
There is also a blacksmith, who offers a choice of secondary attacks with a cooldown. You begin with a bear trap you can lay down, which hurts any enemy that steps on it. Eventually it is possible to have several options, ranging from a simple rapid-fire for two seconds, to a net that slows any creatures that enter its area, to a weapon that can paralyze, and others. However, you can also upgrade each secondary attack individually, and you might just find yourself playing through the whole game with the strengthened bear trap.
There are no other weapons, or really any sort of fuss with items of any kind. The one random element that helps keep things interesting is that temporary upgrades to the character may be found in a room, or bought for coins (which, like runes, are sometimes dropped from felled foes) in the Peculiar Room checkpoints. You may get an upgrade that increases your health by one, for example, or increases your attack strength. You can also purchase a different secondary attack, if you would like, for the duration of your run; and, by doing so, unlock it with the blacksmith back at the encampment if you want to stick with it on a future run. Your success will, by some measure, depend on your ability to stack these upgrades during your run in order to be a truly formidable hero by the time you reach the final boss.
Notably, the bosses are not as difficult as some of the basic enemy types that may be encountered. In fact, Mana Spark seems to acknowledge this in how the stage progression is laid out; despite bosses dropping lots more runes than other characters, you do not get to deposit the runes into a Peculiar Room immediately afterwards but have to fight through one more dungeon level instead.
And this, at its heart, is the appeal of Mana Spark: The combat is tightly designed to be twitchy, risky and challenging. The interplay between possible room layouts and enemy designs provides a beautiful dance of combat. Different enemy-types may ride each other, and you can trick others into taking friendly fire. You will definitely need to learn their patterns, their behaviour. Mana Spark is at its best in that breath-of-relief moment after needing to make a dozen snap tactical decisions in a row just to survive conflict, when your education in violence pays off.
On the other side of the coin, this game does have one notable flaw: the camera. Whereas other games would centre the point of view on the player-character, Mana Spark centres the camera on the aiming cursor. This means that, as you whip your aim back and forth, the entire scenery is yanked around with it. This can literally be nauseating and feels like a design oversight. Even once you sorta get used to it, one might wonder how much smoother the game would feel if you didn't need to train your mind to account for the entire screen jostling around as you manoeuvre and fire.
Would it be fair to call this game Titan Souls Lite? How much does the phrase “twin-stick shooter dungeon roguelike” intrigue you? Honestly, the price is probably a fair bet for providing several hours of solid, challenging combat mechanics. Just beware that the drip-feed progression can feel grindy, even for a shorter game – and that choice of camera takes something away from the whole experience, in this reviewer's opinion. Mana Spark is a game that shines brightly in certain areas, enough to perhaps hide the shortcomings it has as well.