Put down those pens; when it comes to traversing dangerous towers it's the wand that's mightier than the sword. Blending together Scrabble and sorcery, Spellspire is the latest title from prolific indie developer 10tons. Light on story and setup, it relies on its central concept to hook the player in for shorter play sessions that are ideal for a handheld. But is there enough magic here to make it last in the long run?
Whether you fancy yourself as a wordsmith or a wizard, there's a tower full of monsters to conquer across 100 different floors. Our brave hero totters from left to right, pausing in front of enemies to attack before moving on to the next. You never assume direct control of the little guy, rather you get an overall view of the floor and a bundle of ten random letters to the bottom right of the screen. Your job is to select any of the available letters and form them into a word that's comprised of at least three, which is then cast as your attack. Enemies will only offer a brief window of opportunity before they retaliate, so you'll need to think on your feet and throw out as many words as possible within that time.
By defeating any monsters in your way you'll eventually make it through to the end of the floor, earning a chance to rest your weary brain before jumping into the next. In between levels you're also able to visit the shop, where gold pieces you earn from fallen enemies can be spent on upgrading your equipment or buying entirely new gear with different stats and abilities. There are stats determining your health, your attack rating, and even status ailments you can inflict by using certain wands. Enemies will also randomly drop usable items - such as health potions - but for the most part there isn't too much in the way of decision making before simply continuing on. Just equip your strongest gear and hope the letters land in your favour.
Similarly, there isn't really any thematic rhyme or reason to what you're doing or why - other than the fact that goblins and skeletons are just evil by default - so your journey to the top of the tower is fueled only by the simplistic gameplay itself. While things start off relatively easy, it quickly becomes apparent that replaying older levels is downright inevitable in order to grind for coins, as later gear becomes all the more necessary and all the more expensive. Thankfully this repetition is alleviated by extra challenges to complete, and the fact that your selection of letters is totally randomised every time you enter a floor.
Difficulty is also somewhat anchored around which random letters you receive. Things get pretty tricky, and while initially confident, later levels left us wondering if we could ever spell at all. Having a nice mix of vowels and consonants makes for a varied selection of words, but it's also possible to be stuck with three 'O's or too few vowels to work with. This can be a bit frustrating, especially against boss enemies which can easily kill you in one hit, so we're happy to report that you can use some not-so-nice words and they'll be recognised in-game. If you've ever wanted to shout abuse at a persistent enemy and have it do some actual damage, now's your chance.
All of this in practice makes for a bit of a grind, but there's a breezy interface that cuts down on loading and trims most of the fat. It's easy to revert back to word stems to jump around more complicated combinations. 'Door' for example can quckly be recalled and expanded into 'Doorway' if the letters fit, and the ever-adaptable letter 'S' comes in handy to squeeze a few more uses out of words with plurals. You'll need to pull tricks like this in order to survive, and opting to use the game's touchscreen controls while in portable mode can speed up your word-wrangling in a pinch. Traditional controls also work fine, though you'll need lightning reflexes to cope. At the end of a stage the game automatically tells you the longest word possible from the available letters, which is an exercise in learning dumb words you never knew existed. Like Jentacular.
Spellspire definitely works better in shorter bursts, given that each floor only lasts a couple of minutes, and you'll likely be replaying previous levels to gather coins. There are hours of content here but it's basically the same routine on a loop, with different enemy types and new gear to break the monotony. Clearing all 100 floors unlocks an additional mode to test your skills further, but learning to adapt and work with the 10 letters you're dealt is as far as the gameplay really goes. If you like word puzzles then this is great, and the fantasy setting lends a nice overlay to proceedings at the very least. The game runs smoothly, and the music sounds straight out of a spooky cartoon castle, which is perfect. If you definitely don't like word puzzles then this will likely fall short for you.
Spellspire is simple, unique, and will make you feel like your English skills are on par with a 10-year old. The fun blend of word puzzle and fantasy adventure is enough to flesh out hours of content, and the snappy interface makes it easy to jump in for a few floors of spellbinding action. Longer play sessions wear a bit thin due to the need to grind, and the inconsistent difficulty makes progression feel less satisfying than it really should. It's not out to impress with its story or visuals, but if you want something quick and easy to play in handheld mode then it's a pretty solid choice. At its current price we'd only really recommend it to players who enjoy word games in general, and maybe keep a dictionary close to hand...