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Hands On: Spellirium Alpha

A Funny Spell

When indie developer Ryan Creighton (Untold Entertainment) read a review of Bookworm Adventures, he was very excited. A game in which a story was told, with your means of interaction as a grid of tiles, from which words are spelt. He couldn't wait to play it. And then he realised that wasn't really what it was.

Bookworm Adventure, as great as it is (and I'll fight anyone who says otherwise (via spelling)), doesn't really tell a story. The adventures of a worm called Lex are loosely strung together at best. Creighton realised he wanted to make the game he'd thought it was going to be. And thus Spellirium.

You may already know the name Ryan Creighton. He is indeed the father of the father-daughter team that gained fame from the 2011 Toronto Game Jam, when they created Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure. While certain of us may have just wanted to see Creighton continuing to translate the insanity of a five-year-old's mind to gaming form for the rest of time, Spellirium is nothing like it. Except perhaps for sharing a similar spirit of fun.

You play Todd, a young Runemaster who's never left the Runemaster's cottage before, and as such isn't aware that spelling things is entirely outlawed in this future version of our world. Long after various disasters buried our own generation's creations under the ground, an evil tyrant named Lord Steve has entirely banned writing or reading of any kind. The Runemasters are a secret society who search for remnants of the past - signs, packaging, number plates - that bear the runes of "Once", and learn to interpret them. After Todd finds one of his masters lying face down in a pond, and a strange magical device lying next to him, he's inevitably drawn into an adventure. Er, spelled into?

Overall, Spellirium plays like a point and click adventure. You have an inventory, there are conversations to chose dialogue during, and there are puzzles to be solved. But rather than classic adventure puzzles, here you use this Spellcaster - a seven-by-seven grid of tiled letters - to spell out words for all manner of different reasons. Most times the solution to a puzzle is going to be USE SPELLCASTER ON X.

The build of Spellirium I've been playing is very much an alpha. Indeed it's the version people will get if they opt into the alpha funding that Creighton has just launched to support finishing the game. But even at this stage, there's about two thirds of the story in there, and a clear understanding of just how varied the use of the Spellcaster can be.

Sometimes you're knocking down a wall by spelling "powerful" words (using tile colours, stringing them into combos), another time you're fighting an enemy that's vulnerable to one colour of tile, then yet another you're trying to spell apposite words to the situation, to better succeed. And more besides.

You can rearrange tiles in the grid, but there's an energy cost to this - more energy used the farther apart the tiles are. In a scenario where you're trying to score big points to win, you can therefore find yourself playing very differently than you might when trying to spell words of a certain nature. In the high score situation, you can set up strings ahead of time, move tiles around so you can put together a red, then blue, then green word, for instance (the order is significant). Or a run of blues to get a multiplier. You budget the energy use this rearranging is going to take, try to move tiles efficiently, and then let loose (only to remember that tiles fall in from the top to replace disappeared ones, messing up a word you'd idiotically planned to spell above the last one).

In combat situations, enemies will attack the grid itself, taking away energy. It means you need to be even more efficient, but don't have the luxury of planning too many moves ahead - you'll get attacked a bunch during the rearranging. Discovering their vulnerability and chucking three or four letter words at them can be a more sensible route.

And I'm pleased to report that the time between the word puzzling isn't just filler. It's actually a story - an adventure game. I've not played too far into it at this point, rather wanting to hold off until sound is added in (I'll get to that). But I'm intrigued enough to care what happens next, and enjoying the party of companions that are being gathered.

It's safe to say the start of the game needs some work. The introduction of exactly how the device works doesn't come until you've needed to use it a few times, which feels a little strange. (There's also some odd confusion of Todd learning about the banning of spelling after he's already made it very clear he's aware of it, but again, alpha.) The same is true the first time you encounter someone who'll trade bonus items with you - there's a complicated panel on the left of the screen, and no information what it's for. Clearly a good few passes are needed to make things a bit more user-friendly.

But of course that's the point of a public alpha, along with bringing in some cash. Mimicking a Kickstarter-style appeal, the campaign is looking for as much money as it can bring in, and offering tiered rewards for buying in at this point. $15 gets you the game now, and a final copy when it's done, but there are options that let you spend all the way up to a grand. And by far the most notable reason money is needed at this point is the silence. While there are moments of spoken dialogue in there, they're clearly just low quality test blips, with most of the game played with no sounds at all. Which is an odd experience until you remember to put some of your own music on. Me, I recommend some Jon Hopkins - that seems to fill in the awkward gap.

Brilliantly, the dialogue that's in there in text form at the moment certainly warrants some lovely voice recording. Lots of good lines, funny gags, and pleasingly self-aware commentary on the quest basis for the adventure. An early moment I liked saw Todd coming out from having had a meeting with an oracle (of sorts), and rejoining his monster friend.

"What went on in there?"

"A lot of exposition. I'll explain on the way back."

And while there's no sound, that doesn't mean the game isn't already packed with some gorgeous background painting, and lovely character art. Some animations could be smoother, but others are just lovely - a fun, 2D style, evocative of Daedalic's adventure aesthetic.

I've not played enough of the game to say whether I think it's definitely worth your $15. But I have played enough of it to know I want to spend $15 on it. Does that make sense? While there's very little sound, there are two of three of the game's acts, which means you're getting a very sizeable chunk at this point. And a chunk that while it needs much tidier explanations near the start, offers a lovely midpoint between the overly-casual puzzlers that are rather vogue on tablets at the moment, and the hardcore adventures receiving a resurgence at the moment on PC. That seems a smart place to be aiming for. You can buy the alpha here. And it's all far better explained in the video below.

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