Several entries within the same series can be dramatically different from each other and often divisive. That notion can be taken further from games which take heavy inspiration from well-known games with successful formulas and ideas, but create something entirely their own at the same time. Sometimes you have an itch for a specific style or genre, but don’t wish to feel burnt from tedium. There are several The Legend of Zelda titles and games like it out now for Nintendo Switch from both 1st-party and indie developers alike. Red Blue Games‘ roguelike action-rpg Sparklite is one of those titles to join the fray with their own spin on it and is worth checking out. There are a few shortcomings, but it has a good mix up of elements.
Sparklite is almost the answer to last year’s indie gem in the question of: “What if Moonlighter focused on outdoor exploration instead of dungeon crawling”? More than just similar visual approach and 2D Zelda gameplay, the main hub, character growth and procedural world feel almost identical counterparts. Sparklite is just done so to a lesser degree in various ways. You can reward yourself if you want to, but it often feels unnecessary since certain items or customization options can be completely disregarded.
You play as Ada, an adventurer in the land of Geodia which was one bustling with a powerful mineral known as Sparklite. The land is still filled with Sparklite waiting to be mined and tapped into, but a villainous engineer who goes by “The Baron” has been greedily sucking the precious resource all to himself and the world of Geodia finds itself on the road to collapse as enemies appear and the geography is tearing itself apart. Ada finds herself in a dire situation having fainted and is soon rescued by a floating work of wonder that is running its intricacy through Sparklite itself known as “The Refuge”, which acts as the main hub.
The gameplay loop is here to return to the surface to find spoils and then return back to The Refuge in order to enhance and upgrade your tools, become stronger and more efficient to eventually take down the boss of that region, being a specific Titan. The world is procedurally generated and changes every time you visit back down to the surface. The explanation given is that Geodia’s misuse of Sparklite has causes various quakes in the earth causing it to shuffle around. You’ll see certain screens and become familiar with them, but they won’t always be in the same order. What helps is the variety and situations that will sometimes leave you not able to access parts of it until you have a specific upgrade or item. Sometimes a new template is thrown at you once you do get an upgrade allowing parts of the same world to feel fresh and new. There are 5 different biomes to go through and the access to each is dependent on you successfully completing the one before it. And being a roguelike, occasionally you’ll get screens with no action or discoveries in sight, making it only a passthrough.
Through your discoveries you will find plenty of Sparklite which also acts as currency for upgrades. Upgrading can only be done at The Refuge. You may find and rescue NPC’s in the world who then return to The Refuge and offer you their services. Each section of The Refuge can be enhanced by spending Sparklite, which will then offer you more choices and better options as to what relates to their service. One of the odd things about this game is you can’t just willfully return to The Refuge any time you wish. The only way to do so is by dying. It’s even weirder that every time you land on the surface, the anchor from The Refuge is set and remains there, but you have no means to climb back up. Returning to The Refuge is also the only time the game saves your progress. This caused me slight pain in the final moments of the game, but more on that later.
Customizing your stats is directly related to patches you either purchase, find in the world or are rewarded by another character. Patches come in a variety to enhance your game to how you wish to play. They come in different grades being Bronze, Silver and Gold. There is a limit to how many patches you can hold at once, but the Patch board can be upgraded with larger space to hold more patches. You may hold patches in your inventory, but how many can be worn at once for your travels is a different matter. All upgrades must be performed at The Refuge as well. So if you find a patch on the surface, it can’t be applied on the spot.
In order to save space and prioritize wearing as many patches as you can and getting the most out of them, fusing them will be necessary. Two of the same patch can be fused together at a cost. For instance, a Bronze Defense Patch will reduce the damage taken by a quarter heart. Fusing two of those will turn it into a single Silver Defense Patch which then reduces damage taken by a half heart. If you then fuse two of those you will turn into into a Gold Defense Patch reducing damage by a full heart. There are other patches for offense and exploration, but it all depends on your style of play. There is an overlooked quality of life feature that is completely needed and that pertains to fusing patches. This can only be done on part of the inventory screen where you already have your patches applied. You cannot simply fuse patches in your inventory. This means you’ll need to un-equip patches in order to make room for the patches you wish to fuse together and then re-equip the patches you had previously creating an extra process that is deemed tedious.
Unfortunately, as with other aspects of this game, I found certain patches to be completely useless to me. There’s an appreciation in that they are at least there for players, but ones such as pointing out areas of interest on the map haven’t been useful. This was the case for me since you have an on-screen map you an bring up at any time and each biome only has a certain number of screens needing to be explored that you’re likely to see them all in every run.
Within the 1st biome, Ada rescues a flying robot buddy that then becomes her companion for the rest of the game. It can be used in a few different ways and will receive upgrades to solve puzzles and find treasure. For instance, one of the upgrades is a grappling hook which can grab things from within the ground and bring up. These may be extra Sparklite, a treasure chest, or a hidden switch that you need to hit in order to activate something. As with the patches, some features of her robot companion don’t reach their potential and are often ignored.
Ada, being an engineer herself, wields a wrench as her main weapon. Charging the attack button will activate a more powerful hammer in its place. The hammer can be used to crush small rocks or stagger certain enemies. Ada can also dodge, but I never found it useful in traversing for greater speed. There’s a split-second pause after each dash that it just may be more useful getting around without doing it. Dodging is crucial during certain enemy attacks and especially useful during boss encounters where you’ll need to time your dash at the right moment before impact. There are no additional weapons to wield, which is slight of a letdown. However, enemies and combat feels polished enough to be engaging and challenging at times. The case here is with a handful of patch upgrades for both defensive & offensive measures, the game can become easier even as the enemies and environments become more challenging.
You may find caverns underground that will hold a treasure or something useful if you manage to get through it. They can involve simple puzzles or just several enemies to take down. During your runs, you will find several you’ve seen before, but you might find new ones as well. I’m sure it all depends on your repertoire and upgrades. In each biome, there is a “shrine” dedicated to one specific Gadget. You acquire this gadget in the beginning of this shrine and use it to solve minor puzzles to get a feel for it. By the end, you reverse-engineer the gadget and it disappears. You then have this as a blueprint to construct it back at The Refuge. There’s a handful of these neat gadgets. They require energy in order to use them. This bar is located under your health. Energy can be gained by attacking enemies. Basically one hit = one node of energy, although this can be upgraded as well.
Unfortunately, these shrines are uniquely one-off and sparse with its challenge barely being there. Not only that, they were mostly one & done and I never had to use them. The only one I personally used was the remote control bomb in order to break large rocks. In its defense, there are sections in biomes that will take advantage of these if you wish to earn some loot, but both the challenge and reward are lackluster and easily avoidable. The variations of these are a nice break in exploration and change of pace, however.
Apart from gadgets, there are Widgets and these can be found all over the world. There’s a limited use of them and require holding down L in order to activate it. These can be scatter bombs to damage enemies around you, medkits to replenish hearts, etc. You can hold several at once, but only one can be activated at a time. Finding more of the same widget will increase the number of uses it has. There are several of them, but I haven’t find much use out of many of them. With limited use, a charge to activate it and the act of going into the inventory to swap them out, it seemed there is much collecting and not a lot of using taking place.
That is main shortcoming of Sparklite. There are the various pieces to Sparklite that are enjoyable. It’s not that the mechanics in place aren’t fun, because they are. Controlling Ada and using her companion in the world many times has its use. The game lets you go about things your own way. The problem has to do with the variety that’s there not having its potential being tapped into. I found many features of Sparklite paid great homage to classic titles before it, but throwing it all into one pot on simmer when it should be vigorously boiling when I check what’s inside. All of these options, but all I felt was needed to play was Ada’s handy wrench and nothing else felt useful in practice as it probably was on paper.
Sparklite certainly has its charm. The pixel art is quite nice and the animations never looked stale. The music has a nice throwback feel and captures the mood of previous periods in gaming. There hasn’t been any critical performance issues, but I have noticed drops in frames in certain parts with several enemies and grass. And speaking of grass, that along with rocks can be cut down and smash respectively. You just won’t find anything.
Early on I mentioned how you can only return to The Refuge by dying and now I will explain how it stung me a bit. I was making great progress on one run. Simply put, I saw the end credits on this run. I went from biome to biome, cleared out every screen on the map during this run, obtained many widgets and patches during my adventure, collected over 4,000 Sparklite and felt like I accomplished much. It was also the first time I managed to seek out the final biome on my first time exploring this part of the map and even defeated the boss. I contemplated with myself if I should die before even doing so, if only to save my progress. Having managed to see the end credits, all of my spoils didn’t carry over to my save after continuing from the title screen again. I felt a little bummed out that I managed to do a lot in one run, but then it quickly hit me how much it didn’t matter. I beat the game. I had nothing left to see even if I hadn’t actually seen everything. Nothing left was enticing. It was just a nice, simple little Zelda game with so much it wanted to do that it felt underwhelming in the end. Red Blue Games has the talent to outdo themselves in this regard.