The Last Spell review: turn-based roguelike meets zombie survival

The Last Spell review: turn-based roguelike meets zombie survival

After hours of strenuous gameplay, I finally did it — I cured The Last Spell‘s first town of its violet smog and reinvigorated the remnants of civilization with some semblance of hope.

In developer Ishtar Games’ accursed fantasy world, an Archmage has decided they’ve had enough of incessant war, so they’ve developed a ritual of mass destruction to finally end it all. As the Commander, you’re trying to banish magic because the make-believe Oppenheimer’s spell covered the sky in a toxic mist and spawned massive hordes of murderous mutants. You lead many valiant heroes to their deaths as they give seemingly OK mages enough time to expel the magic seals plaguing the world.

Death is upon us screams a winged monstrosity in The Last Spell.  Numerous undead monsters attacking a town.

Image: Ishtar Games/The Arcade Crew via Polygon

The Last Spell takes the squad-centric gameplay of turn-based strategy games à la Fire Emblem and XCOM, and ramps it up to 10 by combining it with the massive hordes of They Are Billions. Rather than facing off against an equally sized army, your unfortunate heroes clash with an onslaught of bloodthirsty adversaries numbering, sometimes, in the hundreds. During the first few nights, my heroes were frail and scrawny, but as the days progressed, they turned into zombie-killing machines who left behind trails of carnage. With each level up, you can upgrade an attribute like health, armor, or damage and grant your heroes perks that alter their play style.

Against this many enemies, units or heroes that can control the masses are necessary to survive. I’ve had a few runs in The Last Spell where I didn’t have a clear bulky body to tank the ongoing assault, or a crowd-control specialist who could whittle down a cluster’s health en masse. However, with the leveling system, I was able to turn one of my mages into a tank by upgrading their health and block skill while also swapping out their damage-oriented equipment with one more catered to survivability.

Structurally, The Last Spell is split into two phases—daytime and nighttime. During the former, you use your resources to construct buildings, bolster your defenses, and upgrade your heroes’ gear to prepare for the ensuing undead army. Your goal at night is to defend the mage at the center of the town by defeating every monstrous crawler, thus surviving until morning, and repeating the cycle again and again. After all of the fiends are eliminated and the night is over, you’re introduced to the roguelite progression system, in which you can unlock passive abilities, stronger weapons, bulkier defenses, and new omens (buffs that you can set before a run to increase the strength of your Heroes and your Haven).

Daytime preparation in The Last Spell.  Mounds of monster are debris scattered throughout the town while the heroes try to recover.

Image: Ishtar Games/The Arcade Crew via Polygon

Every night, a legion of zombies invades the town in waves from a forewarned direction, giving me time to build up defenses and place my heroes on the correct side of the town. Each hero has a set amount of action points that must be used to dwindle down the numbers to a manageable level. Spend a few points to drop a meteor onto the hostile cluster or slash and dash through the enemy lines. I made sure to use anything and everything to expel the plague from this town, but I made the silly mistake of believing that my mana would regenerate once the sun came up. The next night, I was caught with my pants down. In a game where the enemy forces are suffocating and overbearing, tanks are vital to controlling the crowd while mages propagate damage amongst the fiends — but without mana, the angry mob walked all over me with little to no resistance.

There are the usual resources of gold, material, and workers, but there is also a fourth, and it’s the most precious: your time. When a beacon of light breaks through the purple haze surrounding the world, you get one step closer to scrubbing away the calamity, and a wave of relief sets in. But you soon realize that it took five hours to finish that run. The Last Spell requires longer, more dedicated play sessions than the usual roguelite. While that’s not inherently a bad thing — if it was five hours well spent, then it was five hours well spent — but the pacing within these five hours came with its fair share of hiccups.

Essentially, you’re forced to exterminate the first few fodder waves only to meet the real champions of the undead army on later nights. At this point, you’ve spent three hours clearing the pawns only to be met with the queen, rooks, knights, bishops, and even more pawns. Every repeat run will involve you devoting hours to pick your way through the early nights hoping that you can finally defeat the boss and progress to the next town. It’s been a blur of incredible medieval metal music and meticulous planning, sure. And it’s hard to complain about a time sink that is so satisfying, rewarding, and frequently thrilling. But with each subsequent retry (despite the roguelike unlocks and progression upgrades) the prospect of such a long trek without moving on to the next haven may turn away less committed players.

A red beacon of light emitting straight out of a town surrounded in wooden walls.  A visible shockwave blurs the screen in The Last Spell.

Image: Ishtar Games/The Arcade Crew via Polygon

I’m grateful, then, that Ishtar Games has provided so many options to make The Last Spell more approachable on any given run. Before restarting, you can set omens to buff your heroes and havens, but you can also make the game easier by lowering the number of enemies or decreasing the cost of items and defenses. Adding these omens made The Last Spell much less stressful and time-consuming, but just as enjoyable.

Although some runs took me up to a quarter of my day, I was consistently entranced by the head-smashing music, and pulled along by the tactical decision-making process. Ishtar Games clearly knows how to induce a flow state, distort time, and balance challenge with approachability. playing The Last Spell means settling in for the long haul; but when the long haul is this thrilling, I’ll keep returning.

The Last Spell was released on March 9 on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by The Arcade Crew. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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