The Last Spell answers a very specific question. What would you get if you crossed Final Fantasy Tactics with They Are Billions? Who asked such a question? I have no idea, but I’m glad someone did.
The Last Spell is a rogue-lite where you have to protect a small settlement from hoards of monsters. While there are certainly some tower defense elements, the vast majority of the monster-slaying is going to come from a handful of randomly generated, but customizable heroes. The catch is, the game is entirely turned-based.
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On paper that sounds like an excruciating experience akin to standing in line for a prostate exam. After all, no one wants to wait around for a hundred enemy units to take their turn.
However, The Last Spell executes the concept in such a manner that the line resembles a high-speed roller coaster where you’re also given a club, and you get to smash watermelons painted with the faces of various politicians as they fly by. It’s so fast and fun that you will forget about the fact that at the end of the ride, the game is still gonna stick its finger in your bum.
The Last Spell manages to capture the feel of a highly strategic and tactical game alongside the fast pace and satisfying nature of a hack and slasher as you lay waste to several dozen enemies in a single turn. It makes your heroes feel like incredible badasses. Yet, it also has no problem reminding you of just how fragile they really are.
|Gideon’s Bias||The Last Spell Information|
|Review Copy Used: No||Publisher: The Arcade Crew, Gamera Games|
|Hours Played: 70+||Platforms: PC, PlayStation 5, and Switch|
|Reviewed on: PC and PlayStation 5||Platforms: PC, PlayStation 5 and Switch|
|Fan of Genre: Yes||Genre: Rogue-lite, Turn-Based Tactics|
|Mode Played: A Variety||Platforms: PC, PlayStation 5, and Switch|
Heroes and Hordes
The Last Spell plays out over a series of stages. The layout and boss are set in stone for each stage, but everything else is semi-random. There are two phases of the game, a production phase where you build new structures, buy gear, and set up defenses, and then a battle phase where you watch all of that hard work get mercilessly crushed under the stampede of a hundred Clawers.
Clawers are the game’s take on zombies. They are humans and creatures that were transformed by the cataclysmic mist. The mist is essentially nuclear fallout, following a nuclear war but with magic. It involved finger blasting and wand waggling as opposed to bombs. There’s a huge variety of Clawers too. You have run-of-the-mill shamblers, ones with shields, towering behemoths, spellcasters, and incredibly annoying runners that will always bee-line for that single gap in your walls to crap on your pillow.
The horde moves like a singular entity. A tidal wave crashing against your defenses and the handful of poor saps unlucky enough to be called heroes. Despite the fact that some waves have well over a hundred individual units, you rarely have to wait long since the horde moves and acts at once.
Your heroes have random traits that range from being a heroic Knight to a Jester with a drinking problem. While traits affect various stats, you are free to mold your characters in any way you wish, including their names and appearances. That’s a feature I always like in these types of games. There’s a certain fun factor in naming the resident nudist after one of your friends and sending them out to cut down hordes of Clawers with a two-handed sword. Bonus points if they also have the floppy trait.
The weapons and armor you equip your heroes with determine the skills they have, and they each feature semi-randomized perk trees that you can choose from as they level up.
You have full control over the playstyles of your heroes and how they grow, and the system is quite deep. The trait system is important, but it serves to force you to adapt more than anything and helps prevent you from falling into familiar playstyle habits. It’s a nifty system, and I like it a lot. The leveling and trait system feels inspired by Battle Brothers, which is a solid inspiration to have.
Tac and Slash
The Last Spells’ pacing isn’t just contained within how the horde moves, but the way you control your own heroes. Each hero has a number of movement and action points per turn, and how you use them is completely free-form. You can move, perform an attack, then move and perform another attack, switch to another character and attack, then switch back to the first character and attack again for example.
This method of control accomplishes a number of things. Firstly, even though the game is turn-based, it feels fast-paced even though you can take as much time as you need to think.
Secondly, you can make multiple attacks with most weapons. This allows each hero to cut swathes into the horde every turn, and it feels impactful and badass. Thirdly, it allows you to set up gnarly combo plays using teamwork between your heroes.
The actiony feel actually amplifies the game’s strategical nature, it doesn’t detract from it. I really need to emphasize this, The Last Spell is a difficult game. The fact that you can wipe out dozens of enemies a turn can lull you into a false sense of security right before the game rips your arms off and beats you to death with them.
The freedom you have in controlling the conflict is essential to winning it. You have to think hard about how to set up attacks that will clear out the most enemies, pinpoint target big threats and slow the horde down. Sometimes killing enemies outright isn’t even the best move. If you can injure or weaken them, they can get in each other’s way, slow the horde down, and get them to bunch up so you can punch down with some large area of effect attacks.
The variety of enemies forces you to adapt as well, they have various types of defenses. For example, some are heavily armored. Physical melee weapons deal double damage to armor, while a few weapons can bypass it. A creature with high resistance might shrug off your strongest melee attacks, but magic can cut right through it.
Other enemies have abilities and behaviors you have to watch out for. The mindless horde will shamble toward your walls, but runners will find gaps in your defense, flyers will bypass your walls to attack your buildings, and others will go straight for your heroes.
There’s a lot of nuance to battling The Last Spells hordes that I wasn’t expecting. It’s not always about dealing the biggest numbers and the wide variety of weapons and abilities, and how they combo together makes it a thoughtful tactical experience that can be replayed over and over again.
As you succeed and fail runs, you will slowly unlock a variety of new weapons, buildings, and features. Some are unlocked by accomplishing specific feats, and others by spending the essence that you accumulate during each run. The game does a pretty good job of drip-feeding you new things, and even the small stuff makes a big difference. For example, you eventually get to a point where your initial heroes start with new varieties of gear. That can drastically change your early game.
You also unlock omens. Omens are boons you can choose before a mission, and each stage allows a certain number of omens. On that note, the game does have difficulty settings, but they aren’t traditional.
You unlock harder modes as you play, but the game’s easy mode is called boundless. Boundless mode removes the restriction on omens, allowing you to use as many as you want. It’s not something I personally use, I want a challenge. But the boundless mode is more customizable than a preset easy mode, and that’s pretty cool.
The production side of the game is just as important as the battle side. The buildings you create and the defenses you build have a large impact on your gameplay. For the most part, it’s as free from as the combat and the character progression. You have to make serious decisions about the type of weapon production buildings to make, whether or not you want to push back the mist with a Seer, or invest in more heroes.
Heroes only recover a portion of their mana and health after each night, so you also have to factor in how many buildings you need to replenish them, or where to put your workers. You can build walls, traps, catapults, and ballista to aid your heroes. You can build watchtowers for them to stand in, or teleporters to help them move between hot spots.
The only issue I have is during the early waves, there’s a pretty clear optimal choice. Houses. The more houses you build, the more workers you have to scavenge corpses and ruins for additional gold and supplies. It opens up more after a few waves, but you are pretty shoehorned into focusing on houses at first, and that’s a bit of a shame.
The Last Spell is a challenging game, and I love that. I can’t enjoy a game without being challenged, full stop. However, The Last Spell’s difficulty results in a series of painful spikes rather than a gradual curve. It’s a lot like learning to play piano, but once you wrap your head around what the hell a C minor scale is. You’re expected to play Moonlight Sonata. And your instructor breaks a finger whenever you get a note wrong. This coincidentally leads to more wrong notes and more broken fingers until you’re left with no choice but to ram your teary-eyed face into the keys again and again.
The first problem is that The Last Spell tends to snowball. You see, anytime your defenses are damaged, or a creature makes it inside your settlement. People panic, hoard toilet paper, but then refuse to wear a mask because making you smell their breath is a God-given right apparently. The higher the panic, the less gold and materials you’re granted for the next night.
This means that the very moment you have a bad night, you are more likely to fail again. Comebacks aren’t really a thing in The Last Spell. Once the crappy ball gets rolling, you get less stuff to put in’s path before it runs you over.
Next up are the boss fights. Every stage has a unique boss, and they are fantastic. Each one has a unique approach and forces you to plan for them in advance. The problem is, several times I have had a near-perfect run, my walls were barely touched, and I could clear waves without losing a shred of HP from a single hero. I would then proceed to get absolutely curb stomped by the boss wave. Each run in The Last Spell lasts hours, that’s fine, you can save at any time. But it felt really bad to do really well for hours and then get utterly stomped by the boss.
I don’t actually want the bosses to be easier. Instead, the later waves should really be more of a gradual curve up to the boss, so that you can gauge how prepared you are for the boss wave.
If I come out of the last couple of waves before the boss bloodied, I know I’m in trouble. But anytime I get to the boss looking shiny and new, it feels like I’m playing ping pong and got randomly tackled by Dave Bautista right before the game point. My will is broken, along with my spine.
Finally, we have the console and PC disparity. I started playing The Last Spell on my PlayStation 5. I spend so much time on my PC for work, that when given the option, I’ll kick back with a controller on the couch. The game controls great on PlayStation, but I ended up doubling up and playing on PC because there is a massive disparity between the two.
The console version is behind a few patches, and these updates radically change the game’s balance, and even how some weapons work. There’s even a whole enemy type I only encountered on the PC version. As I write this review, the console update is still on the way, but it’s been weeks.
While I love that consoles are getting more and more of these types of games, I’m fatigued from console players constantly being treated as second-rate customers. A game sold on any platform should have the same level of support as any other platform it’s sold on. The Last Spell is far from the only game guilty of this, but even when the console version is patched, it feels like this long wait will be the norm for any future updates going forward. It’s really a bummer.
The overall nature of the gameplay led The Last Spell to become one of my favorite games of the year. It’s such a great spin on the genre. It feels fast-paced but retains every ounce of tactical goodness you would come to expect. The freeform nature of progressing my heroes and controlling them in battle is fantastic, and the entire game just oozes a good time. Even the soundtrack is full of high-intensity beats that do a great job of setting the mood.
It captures the high-stakes vibes of games like X-COM and Battle Brothers with customizable heroes that can die permanently, and it has the same kind of replayability. As frustrated as I get with the difficulty spikes in boss battles, I still find myself trying again afterward. Seriously, the game counts how many runs you have played on each stage. It took me fifteen tries to beat the second stage. What I want you to take away from that statement, is that even now, I still want to continue playing.
As great as I think The Last Spell is, it’s going to fall just short of my Golden Shield award. Largely because of the disappointing disparity between the PC and Console versions, it’s simply not acceptable, and I can’t in good conscience grant that award knowing just had bad it is. Regardless, it’s still a game I can see myself playing for a long time.
- An exceptionally fun and unique tactical game
- Highly customizable heroes and playstyles
- Free Form turn-based combat works great
- Strong progression system
- Feel fast-paced, while being turn-based
- Awesome boss fights
- High Replay Value
- Customizable difficulty settings
- The console version is behind in updates compared to the PC version and updates come slowly for the console version. The differences are substantial (at the time of writing)
- There is a snowball effect where a single poor night will make it almost impossible to salvage a run
- The production phase has a pretty obvious optimal build order for the first few waves
- The difficulty has a severe spike during boss battles that don’t follow a curve from the previous waves