So I've been a fan of top-down adventure games for as long as I can remember. Initially hooked by an obscure-ish Master System title called "Golden Axe Warrior", this quickly led to a lifelong love of the genre, and the Legend of Zelda series in particular. I loved Link to the Past on my SNES, and Link’s Awakening on Gameboy, playing the latter’s original release 25 years ago, as well as the recent Switch incarnation, and loving every second of them. And it was that love that drew me to the game I'll be looking at today.
Recently released on all the major systems, Sparklite is an obvious love letter to the Zelda style genre and includes the simple but satisfying combat, gadgets that allow access to new areas, fights with large bosses, and a colourful pixel art style that'll be instantly recognisable to anyone who's played the Nintendo classics. There is a little addition to the formula however and that's because Sparklite includes a gameplay mechanic that's become increasingly popular lately.
You see, each death that occurs will cause the world to reshuffle, changing the locations of important areas and introducing, or removing, rooms with secrets to seek out. This gives you a reason to search already completed areas, as new power-up locations are revealed and reachable as you find the relevant gadgets. It's a formula that just seems to work, it's easy to pick up and get to grips with, as you always feel like you've made a little progress and overall it has that "one more shot" feel that makes putting it down rather difficult.
But before we get any deeper into the gameplay, let's get the basic set-up out of the way first, shall we? Our adventure takes place in the world of Geodia, a whimsical and ever changing land, whose inhabitants enjoyed peace and prosperity due to one thing.
This glowing crystal is incredibly abundant in their world and the locals have learned that, as a source of near unlimited energy, it could be used to build and power amazing pieces of technology. Things were great for a while, with Sparklite making life easier for everyone, until the self-appointed "Baron" arrived that is. Deciding to seize all the energy for himself, he devises a plan to mine the solid Sparklite core of the planet, and use the resulting energy to power his immense army of war machines. Mining these massive amounts of Sparklite however has caused a major problem, as the resulting pollution has mutated the wildlife into violent and hideous monsters, and caused the environment to begin to rot away.
And it is here that we, playing as the heroine of the piece, find ourselves. Taking the role of a plucky and intelligent engineer called Ada, the action opens with her, and her robot sidekick Wingnut, flying high above the land in an airship of Ada's design. Unfortunately though, not even this amazing piece of technology is immune from the rot, and after finding the ship infested, they have no choice but to abandon it and leap towards the earth before the ship falls apart in midair. Waking up on the ground, Ada, upon realising that she is separated from Wingnut, heads off to search the area and quickly stumbles upon a ruin that can only opened with a mysterious amulet passed down her family line. Inside we find not only Wingnut, but a giant robot too. This is one of the Barons henchmen and, even though they fight valiantly, Wingnut is swallowed and Ada knocked unconscious. Just as things seem darkest however, Ada is rescued when a mechanical claw breaks through the ceiling and grabs her, pulling her high into the sky.
From here, we get into the game proper as we find ourselves in the Refuge, a floating island where the survivors have created an area of safety. This location functions as a hub world and you'll return here after every death, or when you defeat one of the bosses that guard the 5 different biomes you'll need to explore. The story begins to become less prominent now, and although it isn't Shakespeare, it doesn't need to be. Instead it simply serves as a means to drive you through the biomes and for that, it does its job fine but doesn't really impress.
What did impress though was the basic gameplay. I quickly found myself immersed in the experience and found that exploring the world while gathering the various resources was a lot of fun. There are a few different things to find but the most prominent, and most useful, are the Sparklite crystals themselves. Reminiscent of Zelda's rupees, these small gems function as the games currency and are found by defeating enemies, smashing barrels, hitting plants and a myriad of other ways too. You can spend these at the Refuge to open and upgrade various stores with different functions, as well as buy and upgrade the gadgets, consumables and most usefully, the stat boosting "patches" too. These patches plug into Ada's wrench, her main weapon, and are used to increase her effectiveness. They come in all types, with different functions, and require a certain amount of slots to equip. So for instance a bronze weapon booster will increase your wrenches damage output but requires 4 empty slots to put it in. A bronze heart piece on the other hand, will add a measly quarter heart to your health but only requires one slot to be active. With only a finite amount of slots available, managing which ones you'll apply becomes essential as they can only be changed in the hub, so choosing the wrong ones may make life difficult on the next run. As you upgrade the med-bay that applies these patches, you can not only increase the amount of slots available, but also unlock the ability to "fuse" them as well. Whenever you have two patches of the same type you can spend Sparklite to create a more effective version. Take the aforementioned bronze health patch. These give a quarter heart and take one slot each but by fusing 2 of them into a silver, you'll have a patch that grants half a heart but only takes up only one space to equip. The patches come in a large variety of types and include effects like boosting your health, increasing your weapon damage, its swing speed etc but also things like revealing the map for a certain biome or locating certain points of interest like boss locations or where gadgets can be found. It takes a little while, and quite a few runs, to collect enough patches but they're essential for increasing Ada's effectiveness and you'll amass them on a steady basis, each time you head out and begin your exploration of the surface.
Which is where you'll spend the vast amount of your time, and where the real gameplay takes place. As I mentioned earlier, Sparklite includes a roguelike mechanic that mixes up the rooms and points of interest located in each biome. The five individual areas do keep their general locations though, and must be tackled in a certain order. You'll always begin in the centre biome, The Vinelands, before next heading east to the Golden Woods, then south to the Acid Bogs and so on. These areas always stay in the same location, with the individual rooms located within being what changes each run. Although there are a few other things to discover, each area has two major points of interest that are needed to advance the story and increase your abilities. Firstly are the vaults, locked to anyone who doesn't have Ada's family heirloom. She is the only one who can enter these ancient structures and discover the treasure within. Located inside will be a powerful gadget of some type that will add new abilities to your repertoire. These include things like the Spark Slinger, a crossbow that fires energy, the Boom Balloon, a remote control airship with a bomb attached, the Shrinknator 5000 that lets you pass through conveniently placed pipes leading to otherwise inaccessible locations, as well as a few others that we'll leave you to discover on your own. Upon entering each vault, you'll be given that area's gadget and will have a few rooms with some minor tests to complete, that'll show you how that particular device works. When you complete these tests, which are really simple, you'll be granted a blueprint that you can use to build that device when you return to the Refuge. Each gadget is primarily used to unlock treasures you'll discover as you move through the biomes, and you'll be able to complete more of these as you obtain more of the gadgets. Some will require the crossbow to hit far away switches or navigate the Boom Balloon around a path to explode a target, but unfortunately they don't get much more complicated than that. I'd have liked to see some more involved, or hard to puzzle out, examples as everyone seemed to have the same simple solution that needed no more thought than "use item X here." The gadgets also aren't the most useful in combat either, causing very little damage and requiring a lot of energy to use. The power to activate your gadgets is recharged by attacking enemies with your wrench and ultimately this is a much more effective and efficient way of dealing with the various baddies you'll come across. While they do have their use in allowing access to various power-up patches, the gadgets aren't as useful or as memorable as say, the ones from Links various adventures, and some more interesting puzzles using them might have been a good inclusion.
Alongside the gadget Vaults, the other major point of interest in each area is the boss room itself. These don't have a dungeon associated with them, instead there's a room that leads straight to the boss battle. The Barons henchmen all drive or control some sort of massive machine and these fights are some of the best and most impressive looking in the game. Each boss is a huge sprite, and is well designed, with their defeat lying in your ability to recognise their attack patterns. Each fight is about watching how the enemy moves, avoiding damage and dodging their attacks, before jumping in and getting a few hits in when you get the chance. They all have unique attacks, as well as attack patterns, and are rather fun to fight. All the boss fights play out like this, they don't need to be puzzled out or have a certain gadget used to take them down and, as such, they aren't the most challenging, especially when you have the patterns down pat, but the dodging and attacking weakspots is still reasonably entertaining. Upon destruction the boss will grant an upgrade for your robotic partner Wingnut, the first being a mechanical claw that can pull up treasure and is required to open the path to the second area, where you'll begin the routine over again. Killing the boss will also return you to the Refuge, where you can spend your gathered Sparklite to upgrade your shops and equipment, build any blueprints you've acquired and equip, as well as fuse, any patches you think you'll need next run. This cycle is extremely satisfying to playthrough and even if you don't destroy the boss and end up dying, you'll still feel like progress has been made. You get to keep all the money, gadgets and patches you collected before death, and using these to upgrade before heading back out can usually be enough to make life easier next run. Now you can actually complete each biome rather quickly, around 20 minutes to see every room and take down the boss, but you'll find it extremely advantageous to explore already beaten areas as new rooms and opportunities appear. Scattered throughout the biomes are loads of secrets to discover and these all require a certain gadget, consumable or Wingnut upgrade to unlock. Bombs can be used to explode rocks, and if you're lucky, you'll discover a hidden chamber beneath where a chest might be located. Small holes in the ground can indicate a buried treasure and Wingnuts claw can dig these up. There are also NPCs to discover, like the twins Margo and Pogo who are explorers who keep getting lost, or Teddy, a huge warrior who has been captured by goblins. There's even a huge amount of creatures called "Beats", which are basically small birds, and much like the seashells in Links Awakening, they grant an upgrade whenever a certain amount are found. Remember that rooms change location on death, and not all rooms are included each time, so to discover everything in every biome will require numerous runs, even after you've killed the boss. This gives you a reason to re-explore already completed areas, especially after you've obtained a few new gadgets, and increases the playtime by a good amount.
Ultimately, when all was said and done, I really enjoyed my time in the land of Geodia and I'd definitely include it on any list of "Must Play" indie games. Its influences are fairly obvious but the randomised maps add a little something that makes the game stand out. The rate at which you receive gadgets and power-ups are well paced and there's plenty of reasons to re-search areas even after you've defeated that locations boss. Even though the gadgets do feel a little underutilized, the simple puzzles associated with each one provide reasons to keep exploring, with the currency and patches gained helping to provide a real feeling of progress. The colourful pixel artstyle has a lot of charm, and each environment has little details that differentiate them from each other. The weird fruit of the plants of Vineland, or the polluted swamps of the Acid Bogs for instance, not only provide items to interact with or avoid, but also give each their own unique style. This extends to the enemies too, as each design not only looks good, but has fluid animations that as well as being stylish, that telegraph their attacks, helping in combat. This applies to bosses even more, with the battles against their huge sprites being the highlight of each biome. Downsides are very few, with only a couple of very minor niggles jumping to mind. The various gadgets could have been used a little more, with their uses in both combat and in puzzles feeling a little underutilized, but as there are many secrets to unlock with them, the simplicity of each individual one isn't a major concern. A slightly more annoying thing, was the inability to return to the hub, except by dying or defeating a boss. There was one time in particular where, after collecting a large amount of currency and discovering a few powerful patches, that I wanted to return to the hub and upgrade before heading off for the boss battle. Again though, it's a very minor issue and as a death costs you nothing but a reshuffle of the world, it’s well worth making an attempt on the boss battle, even if you feel like you aren't the most prepared. In the end, the cycle of exploring an area, discovering and obtaining the gadget, and defeating the boss before returning to the hub and upgrading for the next one, is a very satisfying and enjoyable gameplay cycle. Being encouraged to re-explore beaten areas for secrets, and using them to gradually upgrade your abilities, gives not only some reason to explore again and extends the playtime, but also provides a feeling of constant progress as well. Definitely one for Zelda fans out there, it's relatively low price makes it one to seriously consider, and its satisfying gameplay loop ensures it's one you'll probably enjoy!
*Note: A copy of the title was provided for the purposes of the review
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10
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