Video Game Investigations: Spaera, the Fantasy Puzzle Fighter

I spent the past weekend at MomoCON in Atlanta, which was promoting itself as the largest gaming event in the southeast.  I spent most of my time roaming, as I am prone to doing at conventions, but I also got the chance to play some awesome new tabletop RPGs and Indy video games.  There were a lot of gems, and i plan on writing about most of them over the next few weeks.  I’m starting, though, with a gem called Spaera.

Spaera is a puzzle battle game developed by a company called Blazing Orb, with it’s own unique style, characters, and gameplay.  I would have probably played this game for hours if I had not relinquished the control to someone who had not tried it yet.  In other words, I enjoyed this game.

This isn’t just a review though, it’s an investigation of the game: what’s good, what’s bad, what could be better and why.  So let’s get into that.

Cursory Observations:  The Basics

Spaera has a cool art style that reminds me of Battle Fantasia, a fighting game for the XBox 360 and PS3 that I’ve never heard anyone else talk about.  Maybe that means it was a bad example, anyway, the art has this blend of anime and fairy tale looks going on that I really like.  The characters look kind of cutesy without being chibi’d, and while the character designs resemble common archetypes (the bard, the kung-fu monk, the black mage, etc.) their appearance is unique enough to make them recognizable from a crowd.

Your roster of heroes.

Your roster of heroes.

The music was solid.  When I played at MomoCON I couldn’t hear it very much for the crowd, but having listened to it more I definitely enjoy it.  Now, I have the benefit and penalty of not having a trained musicians ear, so there’s not a ton of detail I can go into here.  The title theme is good and energetic, and each character’s theme is fitting and seems to be well put together.

The core gameplay is based on Tetris, with falling blocks and completing lines.  While I’m sure some people might take issue with the designers not using more unique puzzle mechanic, the familiarity of Tetris means you don’t have to spend a whole lot of time figuring out how the game works before you jump in.  Whenever a player completes a line or series of lines, a red bar beside their opponent begins to fill.  That played must then complete that many lines with their next piece or have their side of the field raised further, bringing them closer to defeat.  Each character also has a series of unique powers that can either protect their side of the field, mess with their opponent, or introduce chaos into the whole situation.  This gives the game a good learning curve, where learning it is quick but mastery takes a lot of practice.

Deep Inspection:  The Little Details

So the first detail that I noticed almost immediately was that there seems to be a limitation to customizing your control scheme.  There were two settings and both of them have issues that make them kind of unintuitive.  The first setup, called “Spaera Mode” uses WASD movement with the keys to rotate your pieces on the right side of the keyboard and then the Q key as your magic button.  The other mode, called “Battle Mode” is much better for me, with arrow key movement, the rotation keys being right next to each other and the space bar being… the hard drop key.  Instead of using the arrow keys for all of the movement, they inexplicably have the up bar locked into being your magic key, which has cost me more battles than I care to say.

No two characters feel the same when you play them, which is a plus.  On the whole the characters seem fairly balanced as well, although I’m sure that a tier list will form over time.  Mechanically, though, a few characters do stand out for me.  The first is Rafael, the character that I picked early on because he reminded me of who I wanted to be when I was younger: a wild-haired musician with, as his description on the website points out, “a bit of crazy in him.”  The thing is, Rafael is a character that requires a lot of practice and skill.  Very few of his skills are direct, and every one of them requires pretty meticulous planning or it can screw you over.

There’s also a robot called Setter Z, whose disruption effects are very powerful and who can, with a little planning, chain his first level spell into a long loop of you being helpless.  I feel like Setter probably needs the most overall rebalancing, which brings me to the final character that pinged on my radar: Joseph.  The first few times I played against Joseph were fine, because most of his abilities are pretty standard, but his final spell turns every block on his opponent’s side into bricks, which have to be cleared twice to get rid of.  I feel like if there’s a single ability in the game that needs some balancing, it’s probably this one.

Save a spell to counter this guy.

Save a spell to counter this guy.

One very important mechanic that takes some getting used to is that when you use a spell it not only uses your stored mana, it also costs you your current piece.  This means you can use spells to ditch unfavorable pieces and counter spells that only effect your next piece, like Setter Z’s nightmarish rocket punch.  This is another level of strategy available in a game that is already much more cerebral than you’d expect from a game based on Tetris.

The game currently has no real story mode to speak of, though the website does imply that there’s a plot even if we can’t see it.  You can play offline, but there aren’t storylines or endings.  This game is clearly about versus play anyway.  There’s local versus play that was available at the convention, which does exactly what you think it would, but more impressive is how they handle online play.  The online mode is called “Online Arcade,” and rather than sit and wait for matchmaking you get to play the offline mode while waiting for an opponent.  Whenever there’s a match made, the game flashes that a new challenger has appeared and you go into versus play.  The lack of serious idle time is a huge positive for me.

Conclusions

I REALLY liked this game.  The visuals and music are solid and most importantly the game is fun.  I had some specific issues with the control scheme (but not the control’s responsiveness or functionality), and there were a few characters who felt unbalanced.  Still, I highly  recommend that you download this game while it’s still in a free beta and try it out.  The link is here, so you don’t have to try to find it on Google.  Apparently, Google has a REALLY hard time finding this game.

Grade: A- (Adjusted for being in beta: A)

Recommendations: What would it take to get this game from an A- to an A+?  I think the biggest thing I could point to is allowing total customization of of the control scheme.  I’m sure the plot will be included in the final product but I can’t adjust for that because I don’t know how good it will be.  The impression I got was that some characters were just more powerful than others, though that might sort itself out as I play more.  Still, the more balanced the final product is the better.

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