Word-based puzzle games are still a rarity on consoles. The enjoyable Letter Quest is one notable exception, even if it was in many ways a reskin of the classic Bookworm Adventures instead of a truly original development of the genre. However, now we have SpellSpire entering the fray, adding a dungeon crawling aspect to the mix. Does it succeed? Let me try and spell it out for you.
You’re quickly greeted by a cartoony graphical style that is nice enough, but won’t be winning any accolades or awards. There is little in the way of animation and the character models are simplistic and begin to feel repetitive once the lack of enemy variety becomes clear. Given the potential for a myriad of monstrous opponents, it’s unfortunate that so many are little more than reskins of others. Whilst there are some small attempts to mix things up, this largely goes no further than sticking a crown on a sprite to signify it being a more powerful version.
The basic gameplay mechanic is to take the randomised selection of 10 letters and spell out as many different words as you can in order to inflict damage on the aforementioned enemies. The longer the word, the more damage it will cause. The PC version has the clear advantage of letting you type on a keyboard, with having to do this on a gamepad and being quick enough turning into the main obstacle to success.
One key design decision in Spellspire’s favour, however, is the ability to repeat a word using the circle button. This enables stem words to be recalled instantly so that other letters can be added on. Identifying these words (those after which s or d could be added most commonly) is the key to damaging the bosses that appear every ten levels.
Spellspire sees you attempting to scale the 100 floors of a tower in order to prove yourself as a fledgling word wizard. As you progress up the tower, the enemies you face become more numerous and/or more powerful. In order to combat these increases, every floor you clear rewards you with gold that you can spend in the in-game store to buy more powerful wands and armour. The wands come in a variety of spelltypes featuring elemental characteristics such as fire, ice, poison and death, against which different enemies are either weaker or stronger. This dynamic brings a welcome aspect of strategy to the game, but since you can’t change wands mid-level, it often means that your success is dependent upon having chosen the correct wand beforehand. The levels do show you which monsters you will face, but it is only upon meeting them for the first time that the bestiary (which you must buy) fills in.
The various armour types you can buy – robe and hat – either offer combat bonuses or increased elemental protection. There are a wide range of these to purchase, but I found most to be of limited value. For most of the game I alternated between a hat that took 15% off monsters’ starting health and one that gave extra time before the first attack – the latter of these for the single boss fights.
The amount of gold required to buy upgrades adds an unwelcome element of grinding to the game. As there is so little variety to the gameplay, the only way to earn more money is to repeat levels and I found this to be necessary several times in order to combat spikes in difficulty. This repetition is intrinsic to the game, so to force more upon the player is a shame. The randomised letter choices do mean that you can’t simply repeat the same words when replaying a level, but it still feels a little cheap.
Upon scaling the tower and defeating the boss at the top, you are rewarded with an endless dungeon mode in which you progress by carrying out a series of specific challenges. This felt like the mode with the most potential, but the majority of the challenges are unimaginative, such as collecting a certain amount of gold or defeating a number of monsters.
Having played through the main game on the PS4, it was here that I found myself most lamenting the fact that, while the game features Cross-Buy on PlayStation, it lacks Cross-Play. This seems an odd choice for a game that relies so much on a combination of quick plays and grinding for loot, making it great for the odd bus ride or when doing the school run. In the end, I played on my Vita via Remote Play when the TV was in use, as this is not a game that I’d contemplate restarting, not least because of the relatively generous end game content.
Perhaps most frustrating, however, is the random letter mechanic. I have yet to find a 10 letter word (for which there is a trophy) due to this feature and I have completed the main game and made a significant dent into the dungeon. I even resorted to pausing and using an online anagram finder to test how long this might take. After an hour of restarting levels, I still had not been given one board that enabled a ten letter word to be found. In this case, emphasising the puzzle element by having designed boards would have meant that every level had the internal challenge of finding the anagram. As it stands, there is often little incentive to look for longer words as it is more efficient to use several smaller ones.
Whilst Spellspire is not a bad attempt at a word game, adding in the interesting layer of dungeon crawling gameplay on top, but it seems somewhat ill-suited to consoles. The central typing mechanic of the PC version is lost and the clumsiness of navigating an onscreen keyboard causes frustration.
Version Tested: PS4