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The Last Spell is They Are Billions meets Final Fantasy Tactics, and it's brutally tough

Tragic: The Battering

One of the most brutal frustrations in the world is the realisation that you have completely borked a meal with an overdose of salt. You taste a stew while it's on the stove and it's near-perfect: deftly spiced, neither too rich nor too light, and with the perfect levels of sweetness and acidity. It just needs a little salt, you think. And so you sprinkle in what you swear in the moment is a pinch, set it proudly on the table, and kerblammo: it tastes like it's been strained through a pirate's rancid beard.

The Last Spell is a superb turn-based tactical defence game, overburdened with too much salt. Or rather, with the precursor element from which salt is derived: extreme difficulty. This is not a "game is too difficult" sulk for the same reason that I continue to use salt in cooking. The Last Spell is a game about desperate last stands. It needs to be difficult and its systems have been designed around that fact. But the calibration is just a little off, and where it should trigger satisfaction and compulsion, it more often prompts exhaustion.

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The setup here is a great one, and a surprisingly creative bit of fantasy to boot. An order of mages, sick of the perpetual warfare in their high fantasy world, have embarked on a thaumaturgic Manhattan Project, and discovered a school of magic with the terrifying overkill of nuclear weaponry. Just as in our world, this monstrous breakthrough was copied by every kingdom going. But in the world of The Last Spell, there was no Stanislav Petrov, and a war of annihilation swept the world in fiery ruin.

You are what's left afterwards. Specifically, you're in charge of a handful of poorly-armed yokels, defending a circle of the last surviving mages, at the centre of a ruined city. The penitent wizards are working round the clock on one final enchantment - the Last Spell, indeed - which will remove the existence of magic itself, and make sure the atrocities of the recent war will never be repeated. It's a really cool take on the Death Of Magic trope, and it sets up a surprisingly potent atmosphere of bleak desperation.

"It's a bit like tower defence RTS They Are Billions, played with XCOM's turn-based squad mechanics."

Especially when the brutuses show up. You see, everyone who didn't just burst when the war kicked off turned into an 'orrible gribbler instead. And each night when the sun sets, they march on the walls of the last city, groaning, bleating, and fixing to yank the kidneys out of your wizards. If they breach your walls, they'll swiftly kick apart any meagre economy you've been able to build up during the days. And if they're not stopped before they reach the magic circle, it's the bin for you all.

On the first night, there are dozens. On the second night, there are scores, and the mist which spawns them has moved closer to your walls. On the third night, there's near a hundred, and they come from two directions, appearing within melee range of your ramparts. And so on. It's a bit like tower defence RTS They Are Billions, played with XCOM's turn-based squad mechanics. Or perhaps Final Fantasy Tactics might be a better comparison, given The Last Spell's little-blokes-big-heads aesthetic.

A bow-wielding hero attempts to hold off a group of mutants in The Last Spell.

Sounds great, right? Well, yes. But you've got no towers to defend with, at least until the late midgame. You've just got soldiers. Soldiers who can be randomly generated with heart conditions or extreme short sight. And you've got three of them. With four action points each. to defend a city from hundreds of zombies. Who are all as strong as the soldiers are. You will, one hundred percent certainly, fail. Again, and again and again. I haven't run the numbers, but my gut instinct is that, on your first run at least, you have zero probability of making it past the fourth night.

Ah, yes: on your first run. Because, of course, this is a roguelike. Everything's a roguelike, these days. Specifically, The Last Spell wants to be a roguelike in the model of Hades, where every time you beef it, you're able to unlock incremental benefits to help you on your next attempt. As such, each night of brutus-walloping earns you aid from a pair of gods - a shadowy purple one and a holy golden one, whose relationship reminds me of the benefactors from the excellent Ring Of Pain.

From the state of the walls you start with, to the quality of the gear you get, to the resources you can generate during day phases, everything gets a little better each time you start over again. After a handful of borked runs, you even get access to siege weapons to thin the hordes, and even the ability to increase your hero roster to a teeming five. Developers Ishtar games have been really thoughful with the variety of helping hands you're given, and persevering will, eventually, win you the day.

If you can be arsed to persevere, that is. Some people will, and will wonder why the hell I'm complaining. But everyone's wired a little differently, in terms of how much of a stomping they'll take for a lick of shiny toffee, and I found myself noping out of the difficulty curve relatively early.

For me, the problem was that, because of the massive escalation in brutuses with each successive night, I never suffered the kind of narrow defeat which left me aching to try again with the slim, slim edge I'd need to push things over the line. No matter what the game bolstered me with, the pattern of nightly assaults would be the same: "pushover, pushover, pushover, pushover.... What can men do against such reckless hate?" At every stage of my progression, there was always a Bad Night which could not be surpassed, and which ended in complete decimation for the city, time and time again, until I unlocked a genuinely massive advantage.

I realised I wasn't exactly playing in the spirit of the game when, upon realising the Bad Night was upon me, and that just a few more items sold would unlock one of the Golden God's bonuses, I sold all my soldiers' armour and weapons right as dusk fell. I knew they didn't stand a chance even with their kit, and this way I got a better bonus for the next run. It was, indeed, the optimum play. But as I watched them get busted into kebab meat by a crowd of hench skeletons, flailing helplessly with their pixel fists, I didn't feel amazing.

A question of balance, then? The Last Spell is still in early access, after all (though to its credit, it feels extremelty fleshed out), and seems due for plenty more tweaks. The answer is, I honestly don't know. Lots of people seem to have found a real sweet spot with the difficulty curve as it is. You might, too. And while the game already offers an "easy mode", it does so with the same implied contempt as a Navy Seal offering you a pair of toddlers' water wings, and a dialog box explaining that you'll not get the most from the game.

Honestly, I'd settle for a "just a tiny, tiny bit less hard mode", if only for the sake of time. I really like The Last Spell! I just don't love it quite enough to grind it for as long as I know I'll need to, in order to see all it has to offer. I will do anything for small pulses of seratonin, but I won't do that.

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