Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Microsoft Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch
Crafting a mysterious world filled with bomb-able rocks and hidden caves, Red Blue Games have served up a compact action-adventure in Sparklite that mines the exploratory spirit of the SNES era and moulds it into the shape of a roguelike. Super Metroid and A Link to the Past teased us with their enigmatic environments before gradually giving us the tools to explore them, and with an emphasis on gadgets and invention, this philosophy runs through every particle in Sparklite’s world of Geodia.
Unlike the persistent worlds of Zebes and Hyrule, the layout of this planet changes each time you return to the game’s hub, a floating colony called the Refuge. While you’re choosing which upgrades and temporary abilities to equip for your journey, the unstable climate causes tremors on the world below, leading to fractures on the surface and a redesigned map each time you embark on a new adventure.
When you land on the planet, gameplay from a top-down perspective mimics the flow of classic Zelda well, with screen-to-screen transitions and an abundance of grass to cut. Though levels are procedurally generated, Sparklite succeeds in building a cohesive world that feels as though it has been carefully designed, making it a great entry point for those apprehensive about this trait of roguelikes.
In a search for the truth behind the upset on Geodia, protagonist Ada has to track down and defeat the titans of the Baron Mining Corp hiding out in fortresses in each of the five biomes. Along the way, vaults will allow you to learn about new abilities that can be reverse engineered back at the hub, and furnaces provide dungeons as testing grounds for your skills as well as a quick way of accumulating sparklite, the blue crystals that provide the life force of Geodia and serve as the in-game currency.
Combining this gameplay loop with combat that feels a lot like Bastion in places, Sparklite ensures that you’re going to have a fun time for the most part. Thanks to a razor-sharp dash mechanic, most of the combat is focused around evasion. Flying insects charge towards you, and mole-like creatures pop out of the ground to throw rocks in every direction. Careful positioning and quick responses are your best defences, while your multi-tool gadgets, wrench and hammer give you the edge in battle.
By limiting the number of enemies on screen at any one time and giving you the mobility to dodge effectively, Red Blue Games have achieved a smooth flow to the gameplay, striking a balance between its exciting combat and the relaxing pace at which you would want to explore. The difficulty also increased gradually alongside my natural progression in the game, as I often felt just underpowered enough for each new area to provide a challenge, but never so much so that I was forced into an excessive grind for sparklite.
Each of the five biomes has a unique ecosystem, ambience, colour palette and use of space, and they’ll always appear in the same general direction on the map. The Acid Bog, for example, appears to the south and its ethereal music compliments the contrast of dusky tones and toxic pools. The Shifting Sands, on the other hand, provides a much more open space to move around in, and this distinct feeling of zones really helps with your concept of Geodia’s spacial configuration. While I was apprehensive about the random arrangement of screens and how it would sit alongside the game’s focus on exploration, thankfully all of these world-building touches help to ensure that the structure is carefully tailored for the adventure, just as Link’s tunic fits like a glove straight out of the treasure chest.
Like the way the hookshot allows you to reach distant platforms in Zelda, the navigational upgrades rewarded to you by NPCs in Sparklite give you an increasing sense of mastery over your surroundings, and the feeling of being lost that you experience at the start of the game slowly recedes as you’re able to get a hold on the shaky environment. Through its use of the roguelike trick of reinvention, Sparklite starts you off somewhat blindfolded, before slowly opening your eyes to the world’s treasures, a nice touch to help you measure your progress and an innovative way to drive home that sense of discovery.
Unfortunately, while its world building is masterful and its combat is fun, puzzles in the game are seriously lacking, and many of the permanent abilities that you acquire are disappointingly underused. The vaults where you acquire blueprints, for example, are very simple to overcome, often asking you to use a projectile to hit a switch. With so much potential in the abundance of gadgets and widgets available to you, and so many hidden areas to find, its a shame that the game doesn't challenge you more often to use these tools in a meaningful way. A greater focus on environmental puzzles would go a long way to making the quest to find them feel more worthwhile. There were also a handful of bugs and game crashes that appeared throughout my playthrough, and while none of them severely impeded by progress, they did highlight a lack of a quick save during playthroughs or the ability to return to the hub without dying or defeating a boss. Hopefully these issues will be addressed in upcoming patches.
A few reservations aside, Sparklite is vibrant from top to bottom, and full of personality and gorgeous artwork, all the way from its environments and monster design to the tiny icons that make up patches and blueprints. Special applause must be given to Dale North for an ethereal soundtrack that perfectly compliments the spirit of the game, brings impact to boss fights, and along with artwork elevates this to a contender for the most stylish Zelda-like. Sparklite really shines when it comes to bringing the world to life with organic lore, and to make a roguelike trope that often feels mechanical seem completely natural in the context of its world is a great achievement.