The Last Spell's magic ruined the world, and I'm so here for it
Games should think bigger when making magic feel dangerous
Too many spells in games are just variations on the old reliable fireball. Wizard sends projectile towards target. Target dies. Perhaps they deviate a little in how quickly they die, or how large the area of effect is. Maybe instead of a fireball it's a thunderbolt, or a poisonous gas, or a beam of light. Pish, I say. Pish! Where's the real magic? Where are the cataclysmic spells that take days or weeks of preparation, and then change the world with a single fateful ritual?
These games could learn something from The Last Spell, a roguelite turn-based tactics game about defending your village each night from hordes of mutant beasts that emerge from the purple fog surrounding the entire world. Whenever I start a new game in The Last Spell, I always rewatch the excellent opening sequence, which succinctly sets a harrowing scene of magic pushed further than we're used to seeing in most fiction in general, let alone games.
The intro introduces us to a world at endless, meaningless war, in which an archmage discovers the spellcraft equivalent of a nuclear weapon - a form of purple magic capable of levelling a city in an instant. But the leaders of this world realised far too late the awful consequences of the new weapon. Rather than learning the lesson, and instituting deterrence and deescalation protocols, the world was entirely devastated by the new magic, leaving only small pockets of survivors.
There's nothing stopping games from exploring a darker, more powerful, more uncontrollable version of the vanilla magic we're all so used to.
The fallout from the magic came not in the form of radiation, but instead as purple mist from which horrible mutated creatures began to spawn and amass. The sequence concludes by telling us that a group of mages looking to undo the magic-wrought apocalypse have found a "last spell" which, if completed, will remove all magic from the world permanently.
Thus the stage is set for a very stylish roguelite strategy game, part They Are Billions, part Final Fantasy Tactics, where the player must defend their village from escalating mutant assaults each night, holding them off long enough for the mages in the village to complete the last spell and wipe magic from the world. Cor, how brilliant is that for a setup?
It's a simple idea really. Nuclear apocalypse, but magic instead of science. I guess if you wanted, you could argue that the city-destroying spell in The Last Spell is still essentially a fireball - just a really, really big one. And I should clarify, before anyone gets too excited - the magic that your heroes have access to when it comes to actually defending your village is far more ordinary. No giant nukes for you, I'm afraid.
Still, The Last Spell goes big on exploring the far-reaching, deadly consequences of magic in a fantasy world, and ends up with a setting that's far more captivating to me than almost any other magic-filled video game world I can recall. I understand why it's difficult to introduce world-changing spells into the actual gameplay - what a nightmare for difficulty balancing that would be - but there's nothing stopping other games from exploring a darker, more powerful, more uncontrollable version of the vanilla magic we're all so used to.
I think most of the magic we see in fiction is quite, well, "safe", for lack of a better word. Very defined, controllable, predictable. And in fact it's (rightly) praised for being so, with ingenious magic systems like those of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series, Garth Nix's Old Kingdom series, and David Farland's Runelords series (to name a handful from my personal collection) often held up as shining examples of magic in fiction thanks to all the carefully considered rules that govern the spellcraft of those worlds. And don't get me wrong, I love all those books, and think that the magic in them is absolutely fantastic. And you should read them if you haven't already. But I think I'd also like to see more fantasy worlds like The Last Spell's, which bypass the need for strict rules governing magic, and instead present it in a far more horrifying, unknowable light. We need more magic that can destroy the world.