Spells & Secrets uses roguelike inspirations to bring a magical school to life
Enrollment at the Academy of Greifenstein will begin shortly
Spells & Secrets is an eye-catching, dungeon-crawling, magic-slinging action-rougelite with a lot of potential — and it's set in an academy for wizards, so basically catnip to me as a fan of a good high school story. I first became aware of this upcoming game while covering last summer's Future Of Play Direct, and I've been itching to write something about it ever since. Happily, as part of RPS Magic Week, I've had the opportunity to speak with Florian Mann, CEO and co-founder of Spells & Secrets development team Alchemist Interactive.
The Academy of Greifenstein, the game's setting, visually resembles a mash-up of a venerable posh private school (see the wall sconces!) and a modern campus (see the football pitch!). There are loads of games set in schools, of course, but it's an odder choice for a rougelike-inspired action-adventure piece.
Mann's explanation for this is rather straightforward: most people who play video games have had personal experience of being at school, so having your game take place in a school is a good way to ensure that your players intuitively click with the basics of the setting. But equally, the addition of magic transforms those familiar surroundings into something that will feel fresh and new for everyone. "The mix of the well-known and the unpredictable makes a great experience!" Mann enthuses. "You can throw your wildest ideas into it and with a little bit of tweaking nothing will feel odd or stand out in a negative way."
Those roguelike elements, Mann explains, come from the fact that the whole team are long-time fans of the genre, and have wanted to produce something along these lines for a while. Spells & Secrets is, however, consistently referred to as "roguelike-inspired" in official materials, which he attributes to Alchemist Interactive wanting to "give it our own flavour".
"We generate from a set of carefully designed components like rooms, enemies, and items, then arrange and combine them procedurally," Mann tells me. "Because we know that each of these components works well on its own, we then get interesting gameplay situations from the countless combinations that are created."
This allows, for example, the solutions to puzzles to change between runs, meaning that players can't get complacent even if they encounter the same basic puzzle on numerous occasions. Even though I'm sometimes sceptical of games which seem to be rougelite for roguelite's sake, I have to admit that Mann makes a good case for procedural generation here, where it clearly extends the scope of what an indie studio can hope to accomplish. And, you know, an impenetrable school with a constantly shifting layout sounds appropriately magical to me, if a bit impractical from a student onboarding perspective.
This would perhaps be of particular concern to the player character, who's a first-time student at Greifenstein. But it turns out that, other than being the new kid, there's not a lot that's set in stone for your character. "We chose to implement a character creator that makes it possible to create your very own character that you can identify yourself with," Mann tells me, adding that you'll have the option to change up your avatar's physical appearance at any time if you fancy something different. You'll also have an extensive series of wardrobe options from the start, and will unlock more by progressing through the game.
The student part is on shaky ground, too. It's no secret that many games taking place in academic settings do have a tendency to sideline the actual day-to-day business of school life. When was the last time a video game made you sit through six lessons for every lunch break in which you continued your heartfelt teen romance/investigation of a murder/desperate fight against a horde of zombies?
Nevertheless, I was a little surprised to learn that Spells & Secrets won't actually feature the option to attend classes at all. There's a good in-story reason for this, though, and Mann assures me that Greifenstein's teachers will still be on-hand to impart knowledge of new spells and help you level up your existing ones. He also drops an intriguing reference to "student factions", opening up unique spells and progression routes depending on which you choose to join.
When asked to describe his personal favourite spell, Mann initially tells me that he likes all of them, but later relents and gives me a little glimpse of one in particular. "I personally like the spell Switch," he says. "It allows you to switch places with your target. It always feels good to switch in the right moment with an enemy and to let them get hit by their own shot or to escape a tricky situation." Switch can also be used to enable quicker movement, Mann explains, allowing you to hop across a large room by changing places with the objects within it.
This neatly demonstrates the really interesting and, I think, quite unique thing about magic in Spells & Secrets. Every spell in the game can be used against any target, be it an enemy or an inanimate object. "A few spells will straight up deal damage to an opponent, but a wider selection of spells will not," Mann says, "Those spells have the potential to weaken enemies or to set up powerful synergies with other spells. A keen eye will also discover opportunities to use the environment or to manipulate objects and enemy behaviour to their advantage."
This, Mann contends, is what makes Spells & Secrets stand out from other wizarding games. Combat and puzzle-solving alike will go much more smoothly once the player learns how to wield their magic in a way that makes intelligent use of their environment. From the sounds of it, you'll spend at least as much time improvising with nearby props as you do directly blasting your opponents with magic beams.
Naturally, any dungeon-crawler worth its salt has to have enemies. In Spells & Secrets, your primary antagonists will be a variety of oddball magical creatures who — in typical fantasy fashion — overrun the school on your hapless protagonist's very first day. Hence the fact that no-one's too concerned with keeping track of attendance. "Every [creature] has very unique characteristics," Mann tells me, explaining that players must "learn how to defend themselves against their enemies' strengths and exploit their weaknesses."
There's a sort of bad-Pokémon vibe to the creatures showcased so far, although it's hard right now to judge whether they'll be evil or simply mischievous. Or maybe I'm only thinking that way because they're rather cute.
I could have easily kept asking questions about Spells & Secrets all day, but Mann very kindly agreed to this interview at quite short notice, and I know I've taken up enough of his time for now. Still, I've seen the game in a bit more detail, and I'm still as intrigued as I first was back on that feverish summer night last June when it first caught my eye. In a final happy coincidence, since this interview Spells & Secrets has been given a release window of Q2 2023, meaning that with luck we won't need to wait too much longer to crawl those scholastic dungeons.