Andrew Bado, head of Last Dimension, has a long history working with sprite games, even working with WayForward (creators of Shantae) and Gameloft. His latest release, the fantasy themed Mystik Belle, takes itself after old adventure game hybrids such as Slightly Magic and the long running Dizzy series from the UK. It’s a very strange title that doesn’t really seem to fit into a simple category in today’s market, not even in the diverse and experimental indie sectors. The best way it can be described to modern sensibilities is a Metroidvania formula plastered on a point and click adventure game, as progressing through the game is more about using the right items at the right points than skillfully fighting your way through.
The script, though, is very modern. The game has witch in training, Belle MacFae, make the Walpurgisnacht Brew, an important part of a yearly ritual at her school. However, she’s only doing it because she’s been framed by some unknown person who destroyed the original batch, and the witches’ council has already decided she must be guilty. Insert court systems joke here. And if that line seems out of place, do know the game’s humor is similar. Belle is frustrated with her task and makes sure everyone knows it, giving all sorts of sarcastic remarks and throwing shade on the old fashioned idiocy of her magic school. When it works, it gets a chuckle, but it starts to get a bit obnoxious at some points. The true ending (assuming you find all eight lore pieces) is easily the highlight. The final boss is a joke, but the entire concept of that fight is instantly amazing.
The game has you wandering around the massive school to find and collect whatever you can that isn’t nailed down, because it might be important later. By figuring out puzzles, you can open new paths, explore new areas, fight new monsters, and collect the three necessary ingredients for the brew. The developer outright states this isn’t supposed to be a Metroidvania, but an adventure game. It shows. The design fits much more with that style of game, with lots of big sprites with tons of color, item puzzles, and esoteric logic stretches. Some of the puzzles here are too old school for their own good, made more frustrating by the other half of the design process.
Point and click adventure games can get away with a lot of their more confusing puzzles because they have a very simple interface to work with. Even older titles in the genre, with their multitude of interaction options, eventually have a single solution for you to work with that you just have to pick out via trial and error. That’s true here, but now there’s also a greater focus on back tracking. The exploration elements are lacking a lot of polish, with a limited amount of mirror rooms to teleport around with, and you can’t collect a massive inventory either. Your inventory fills very quickly, so you eventually have to start dropping items around the castle and hope you can remember where you put them if they become necessary (though mirror rooms make good storage space). If you don’t have a guide with you, the constant back and forth becomes a chore, especially due to how spread out the map is and how so many rooms are their own little challenges to get through as it is. Even with a guide, most of your time spent is on backtracking to mirror rooms to find whatever item you stashed away to finally get past a puzzle. It gets tiring very quickly.
The added experience system also feels pointless. By killing monsters, you can go up levels and gain a new basic projectile. That’s nice and all, but the maxed level can be reached easily before the halfway point, and then killing monsters has no further reward besides getting an obstacle out of your way, assuming you can’t just easily dodge it (which you normally can). All your abilities will come from killing bosses, so there’s little point in focusing heavily on leveling up, especially when every single boss is much easier to beat with the lightning spell you earn in the Frankenstein boss fight early on. Bosses are pretty simple to boot, with limited and familiar patterns among all of them, not to mention almost unavoidable bullet spamming that’s only counteracted by having a large life bar from leveling up. Combat in this game can be rewarding in small bursts, but it’s easy to see where the seems are sticking out. The game never comes together as it should, so it feels like two different games crammed together trying to get your attention, tripping each other up in the process.
That’s not to say the game is a bad time, mind you. The rooms all have their own sets of monsters to get through, and that’s where the game works best. It becomes about navigating and examining enemy and platform patterns, which is enjoyable and rewarding, making experience grinds much less annoying to deal with. The game’s sense of humor and goofy designs also keep things light and fun, especially in a hidden area where you can gain a healing spell. It also doesn’t wear out its welcome, with a play time of about seven hours or so if you’re not using a guide. You’ll get your money’s worth, alongside a memorable world and wacky cast of characters from all over the fantasy genre. And a science ninja, because.
The game is also gorgeous, a real impressive work of sprite graphics. Every character and monster is huge and finely detailed, from their slightest movements to their clothing and features. Backgrounds feel full of life, especially in populated areas, and the whole game reeks with atmosphere. There are even lighting and shadow details mixed in at just the right times. Bado really shows off his studio’s skill and his experience here, making some of the most finely detailed sprites ever seen without having to rely on shaders to enhance things. The music is more forgettable, but always fits the mood the game is aiming for and makes the whole game immersive. The presentation seriously saves this game from mediocrity, as its sheer beauty alone distracts from a lot of its flaws through most of it. It’s a wonky game, but one worth giving a shot if you see it on sale.