Spells & Secrets is a rogue-lite title from German games devs Alchemist Interactive. Set in a wizard academy called Greifenstein, you have to create and play as a first-year student as they attempt to save the school from evil forces. So, yes, if you’re thinking Hogwarts Legacy, then you’re probably in the right ballpark plot-wise but this game does have its own ideas too.
After creating your player (a process that always seems to end with them looking a bit like Sue Perkins), you’ll then meet various students and teachers who’ll explain that the academy is under attack by ‘The Crown’ a group who want to bring destruction and chaos to Greifenstein. They’ve kidnapped the school’s headmistress and, for reasons that we couldn’t quite figure out, they’ve decided to send you, the new kid, into the fray even though you barely know any spells, the layout of the school or basically anything that could possibly help.
But this is a rogue-lite and so while you’ll be failing pretty routinely, you’ll hopefully become stronger in the process. And you’ll need to because at first, Spells & Secrets feels a little impenetrable. Aside from the fact that the story is told to you in strings of text from each NPC, you’re also armed with a magic missile attack that’s slow to charge, awkward to aim and low on impact. While you’re trying to force it’s few pixels at whatever enemy is facing you, they’ll have seemingly all day to attack you back.
Your other starting spell is a levitation spell that also appears initially useless. So at first, you’ll be thinking ‘what the hell is this’ and wishing you didn’t have to bother. But, first impressions, aside, this is something of a grower. As you’d expect from a rogue-lite, you do become better. Not just from improving statistics but also from learning the game’s mechanics and figuring out its secrets.
The game is set across three levels (and a final boss one). These are randomly generated from several types of areas that you’ll see over and over again and they contain enemies, cash bags and puzzles. The enemies are the most pressing element though as you can’t leave an area that has any of them left alive. So you’ll need to walk around each area killing these enemies and they’ll give you experience and hopefully won’t chip away too much of your health. The enemy variety is actually quite good though with various creatures who are able to attack in different ways. Some shoot you, some throw poison on you, some possess furniture and then lash it at your face and so. You’ll need to get familiar with them and learn their attacks and, once you do, you’ll soon send them packing.
Weeeellllllll, maybe not soon. You’ll need to get stronger spells too and to do this you’ll need to spend experience on them and even then these things take a couple of upgrades to be really useful and so you’ll be grinding for a while before you even feel slightly powerful. That makes sense in terms of the plot, you’re a newbie wizard after all, but that doesn’t make it all that much fun. But, thankfully, killing enemies is only part of the game.
You also have to solve puzzles and this element of the game is actually quite enjoyable. There are lots of them, mostly hidden away, and with no information but when you spot them and figure it out, it’s super rewarding. Some of them are pretty easy to see. In an area you might see a football and then a goal a little way away. You’ve got a levitation spell, so if you get the ball over to the goal, you’ll unlock a reward. Other puzzles are more creative or tricky but they’re all pretty cool and even though you’ll end up having to re-solve them over and over, they’re a nice diversion from all the combat.
When you get to the end of a level, you’ll face off against one of the game’s selections of bosses. These encounters are okay. The combat mechanics don’t really lend themselves to larger encounters but the bosses aren’t too much of a chore to beat (although you’ll probably find that they provide a plateau until you level up a bit more). Once you get past a boss, you’ll get a bit of health back and you’ll get to go to the next level.
Your rogue-lite progress all happens after you die in the game. You’ll return to ‘The Hub’ which is where you’ll find NPCs that will sell you new or upgraded spells, permanent features for the game (such as improved money bags and special loot-dropping things do destroy) and improvements to your health capacity and mana regen. This isn’t super intuitive though as the game uses gold, credits and experiences as different forms of currency. Figuring out what’s what can be a bit tricky as the game doesn’t always explain itself very well.
That’s pretty much it for all of the gameplay elements and overall it’s reasonably good stuff. There are some serious niggles though. Our biggest issue is how the game manages all the spells you can eventually obtain. While is always allocated to your levitation spell and is always your magic missile attack, everything else sits on the button. There’s a spell that lets you turn into a mouse, another that ‘jostles’ enemies (a spell we never found a good use for), one that lifts enemies off of the ground (although this isn’t the levitation spell, but oddly it’s the most useful spell in the game as it temporarily makes enemies helpless) and others.
The problem though is that you can scroll through these spells with and , which wouldn’t be a problem except that is also allocated to environmental actions such as opening doors. So we’d be in battle using our favourite spell but then when we went into battle again, we’d have something else selected because we’d opened a door. It’s a constant, maddening frustration and one that speaks to this game’s PC origins where, no doubt, it probably got a bit more love and attention. Indeed, between that and the other controls (there’s actions mapped to every DualSense button and d-pad direction), it all gets a bit unintuitive.
On the plus side, Spells & Secrets sports some pretty decent visuals. Set in a Hades/Bastion-esque isometric viewpoint and with a clean and colourful look, the game actually looks very nice and the game’s setting is actually pretty charming. It all feels quite cartoon-y and non-threatening which gives the game a child-friendly look but they probably won’t get on with the controls and tricky combat. But yeah, we really appreciated the game’s look. The sound wasn’t quite as good though. The music is fine but there’s no voice acting and the spot effects are fairly rudimentary.
Rogue-lites are tricky to get right. There’s a balance between allowing the feeling of progress without it seeming forced and grindy. Where games like Rogue Legacy force endless attempts, there’s always a sense that each run improves you. Other games like Dead Cells get it right by giving you fun, powerful items to use in future runs. However, other games just feel like they’ve added five to ten hours of grinding to get you to the point where you can now realistically compete. Spells & Secrets definitely is a grind but it’s reasonably short run-time (once you’re good enough) and interesting puzzles do help. The clunky combat and controls definitely don’t though.
Overall, we’re a little frustrated by Spells & Secrets but we liked it too. There’s a charm and quality to it and it rewards patient play but it also feels like a few design choices away from being something more special. If you’re up for some wizarding rogue-lite fun, this will do the job but if you’re looking for a game that entertains up front (and respects your time a little more), this might not be the one.
+ Good puzzles
+ Quite addictive
+ Nice visuals
- Combat is sluggish
- Can be very grindy