The Mana Game You Didn’t Know You Wanted
Mana Spark is an action RPG that carries a high difficulty, especially when first starting the quest, but ultimately winds up being a highly rewarding and unexpected gameplay experience.
Although “Mana” is in the title, it has nothing in common with fan-favorite Secret of Mana other than the fact both are action RPGs. Mana Spark makes a name for itself by revolving around rogue-like gameplay features and procedural generated environments. From an overhead view, the player takes control of a hunter and the entire game is created in fluid 2D pixel art. Essentially playing like a twin-stick shooter as one analog stick controls movement and the other aims bow shots, Mana Spark is a slower paced, deliberate action game. Running into combat will pretty much guarantee a quick death. Instead, the player must take it slow, be mindful of the enemy, and call specific shots as using the ranged arrows takes time to shoot and reload.
This might carry negative connotations on paper but actually plays wonderfully. The tough-but-fair difficultly makes each encounter a challenge, rewarding, and provides a just-one-more-try style of gameplay after each death. Here, the player learns from each encounter and becomes wiser for it, like a Souls game.
Playing for about an hour will reveal how the game fully works as each life follows the same footsteps but down a different path. After each death, the player wakes in a forest to try again. Navigating through this forest only takes a couple minutes but will provide the player with just a couple coins in which to purchase a random perk when the player eventually makes it back to the town. In time, the town will grow with villagers that will aid the player with permanent, passive, and one-time perks in which to venture further in the dungeon. After activating an optional perk, the player will then try to make it through the dungeon, but will eventually die, and the process will repeat. It might sound frustrating to repeat this formula throughout the entire experience but there is always an unlock just another playthrough away. Dangling that carrot is what provides the incentive to the player to keep playing and is quite addicting. Even though everything resets upon death, the permanent drip-feed of unlocks make the player slightly more powerful with each playthrough and will grow in time. Also, skilled players will eventually unlock new playable characters, each with a set of strengths and weaknesses to provide more replay value.
Visually, the 2D pixel art is a treat. Despite only being made from a few blocky pixels, each character, both friend and foe, moves with a shocking amount of fluidity and flare. There is something special to be said when you can watch an arrow skim over water puddles, lights that can be doused with a well placed arrow, or a distant switch can be triggered with careful aim. It is possible the player might never experience small details like these but it really provides that unexpected charm. Enemies are also impressively intelligent. Instead of mindlessly charging the player, they will be mindful of traps, the environment, and even other enemies. It is this thoughtful enemy AI that brings a fair and welcomed challenge to each and every encounter as the player will learn how to outsmart a smart enemy. Even though combat is little more than using twin-stick controls, it is rewarding as there are moments of high action, stealth, and large boss battles.
Even though Mana Spark is a good looking game, the soundtrack is the standout. The hauntingly good soundtrack is really what inspires the gameplay and makes it all come together. In all honesty, for a $10 eShop download, there is no reason for the soundtrack to be this good. Unfortunately, the biggest flaw with Mana Spark comes from long load times. Each screen transition can take what feels like minutes to load. Coupled with 2D art, it is a wonder why this game has to load so much and so often. The only saving grace of these ridiculously long load times is the exceptional soundtrack. Since each musical track has been crafted with such care, it lessens the annoyance of the frequently loading. The early forest segments, for example, can yield a longer loading screen than gameplay time.
Mana Spark will probably be overshadowed by the dozens of Switch eShop releases that come out every week. Because of this, this digital download will mostly wind up as a sleeper hit as it is a new IP, there has been little to no marketing behind it, but provides a rather entertaining experience. It is a shame the load times drag down the entire experience but the addictive gameplay, charming visuals, and amazing soundtrack round out this package into something unexpectedly special.
Also Try: Quest of Dungeons
Not As Demonic As: Diablo III
Wait For It: The Secret of Mana Collection to be translated for the American audience