“Zelda is a good game” may well be the most overused opening argument in game journalism since the dawn of time. Sparklite apes Zelda’s style but with a twist: it’s procedurally generated. On first impressions, I wasn’t too turned off by the game’s looks. The controls however were a red flag from the minute one. On the PC, there’s this weird lag and insane need to aim your wrench attacks instead of just hitting in the direction you’re looking. So I grabbed a controller pretty quick and things got a little better.
It seemed to be doing the ‘Zelda by way of Dark Souls’ thing at first. Minimalistic tutorial, show of enemies, and you even get to talk to young, bald André of Astora. ‘Fair enough,’ I was thinking, as the game gave me Zelda and Tomba vibes. The first kick to the netherregion came pretty fast, however, when I was shown a hopeless boss fight. Being the hardcore gamer that I am, and having some speedrun world records in games nobody cares about, I took it as the usual “it’s time to git gud” sign and just prepared to die a couple times. It didn’t take too long for me to beat it once. I say once, because it refused to die during its second encounter.
The hopeless boss fight just beats your ass! I was so aggravated by this. Every time I had to quit to retry I was treated to the same unskippable borderline cutscene development where Boris The Tunneling Titan gets introduced like a Borderlands character. On second kill I can absolutely confirm the bastard is just plain invincible until your second encounter with him. This, accompanied by the atmosphere, turned me off the game in record time.
I usually make a point of completing the games I review. Try as I did I just could not stick to Sparklite for more than 4 hours. Here’s where we get into the meat and potatoes of the game, and where it takes off its mask to reveal that it only apes Zelda’s general aesthetic but not feeling. It’s just like The Binding of Isaac, but you’re stuck to melee. You see, in a procedurally generated die-a-ton top-down game, you usually want to give your player several characters to pick from. It might apply to all 2D action games, since you can only cram so many actions into one character. Start off with an easy one, then maybe unlock more difficult ones as you progress. In this situation melee needs to be powerful but risky, and ranged can be weaker but easier to handle.
Procedurally generated drops and a frankly unrewarding currency system ensure you can’t build what you want, and you’re more often stuck with what you’ve got than what you’d like. I found two ranged weapons and both required the character to stand still, take aim and fire. And they consumed energy that grew back. The enemies don’t really have time for your plinking-from-afar nonsense and will easily stomp you if you even try. Ada’s character feels a little half-baked. Her melee feels cohesive, but whatever gadget you choose to bring generally feels tacked on. At best, they are solutions to one highly situational problem, and at worst they are an excuse for an enemy to take a free swing at you. All the combat upgrades I could find merely improved damage, and were decidedly nothing fun.
You have a dash, but it doesn’t cover much ground and doesn’t seem to have any invincibility frames. It makes for a very slow, methodical approach to combat which directly contradicts the ‘die, die, die, again’ approach. I kept grinding for a fair bit. I was sure I’d find something cool, like a parry ability or a bigger dash… but all I got was flat damage and defense upgrades. So, coupled with the clunky controls, the gameplay just stays at that slow-paced, plodding combat you met the very first minute. Hey, at least it was honest about getting fat and ugly early into the relationship.
By the time I found out the overworld being super duper huge and with no way back to base without dying, I was completely turned off. The thing that finally got me was there was co-operative. After beating the first boss, for realsies, at least, since the other two didn’t count, I unlocked a robot buddy. I was very much looking forward to playing this with someone, but then I found out it’s local only AND the second player is limited to playing the robot.
There’s one reality that we’ve all admitted about ye olden Final Fantasy games: trodding through a humoungous, landmarkless field of green is dumb. That’s what the procedurally generated map is. I understand, I do. It cuts development time like nobody’s business, but when you ape old Nintendo RPGs, people are at least expecting a handcrafted one. Believe me. You can’t just have retro aesthetics, one weapon, one playstyle, and a huge random map. It doesn’t gel. Sparklite is plagued by odd, sometimes incomprehensible design choices.
From what I gather about the plot, it’s pretty damn bleak too, but not as in ‘completely hopeless, fantasy world is dying, eat all the souls’ bleak. Just very realistic environmentalist message where the world is dying and you can totally fix it! Fairly preachy and on-the-nose about it too. All the bad guys look like red eyed demons and love mining operations that give them MOAR POWAR, and all the good guys look like supe-science-y, young, hip people with anime haircuts who just want to save the world, mannnn. It’s simultaneously overly ambitious and insanely twee, and it just gave me mood whiplash every ten seconds. It starts off with your robot buddy commiting a heroic sacrifice, and not ten minutes later you’ll be simultaneously very focused on getting it back AND using it for slapstick bits.
If you’re desperately looking for something akin to The Binding of Isaac, Sparklite may be your cup of tea. It does cut the permadeath aspect out, and you can use gimmicks to counter the more annoying bits (eg.g upgrade slots to equip a radar). If you have an absolute addiction to procedurally generated games and you can get over the disappointing unlocks and clunky controls, it might be just the thing for you. But I’m not confident that’s gonna please a really big sector of the public.
Review code supplied by Red Blue Games.