February 11, 2012 5:00 AM | John Polson
MagicalTimeBean has been getting a lot of accolades for XBLIG hit Escape Goat (speaking of which, let's get a PC version of that, Indie Royale), but they have a few other titles under their belt. Soulcaster is the illustrious world PC premiere in this package making its way over from the wild wild west that is Xbox Live Indie Games, and let me just say that I'm glad it made it.
The game is a neat fusion of dungeon crawling bits, roguelike elements and tower defence with cool retro graphics and a very good soundtrack. You are a wizard, but not just a regular wizard: you're a Soulcaster! Your wizard comes across the spirits of three long dead adventurers, and using your magic you can summon copies of them to protect yourself from the hordes of undead. In layman's terms, you run around the map with a limited number of available units (up to five) and try to keep the enemies from attacking you by blocking off chokepoints and setting up defensive perimeters.
There are three adventurers, each with their role along with a slew of pros and cons. You have the archer, who fires in a straight line and does the most damage, the warrior, who does low damage but can be used to block hallways, and the bomber, who does area damage but is weaker overall. It's probably a good thing there are only three units, because each one has a ton of conditional elements and weaknesses. The archer cannot fire over obstacles and allies, the warrior dies very quickly when surrounded and the bomber explodes on death, damaging enemies and allies alike. Add in a bunch of colour coded enemies that can counter your units, and you have a simple to learn but deeply sophisticated basis for gameplay.
Each level is littered with enemy spawns and obvious choke points, but the game requires you to think on your toes. Enemies will often ambush you, and occasionally the entire level conspires against you by shifting the layout (this is much more prominent in part 2, but still shows up in the first game). You'll definitely have to rework your layout on the fly, returning your souls and replacing them as needed to keep from being attacked. Your copies can also be attacked, but on death they simply return to your pool after a nominal delay. It's hectic and chaotic, and the best laid plans often go awry leading to tense moments when you attempt to regain control. Also mixed into the level is various potions and emergency AOE scrolls, as well as bags of gold and a merchant who levels up your dead adventurers' gear and also really seems to be into powermetal.
It's a really unique style of gameplay, and I have to say I have not seen anything similar before so major credit is due to MagicalTimeBean. The only minor complaint I have is the lack of control over the order your summons are recalled; often I would want to replace my archer with a bomber, but pressing the R key recalls my first summon, which is the warrior standing between me and the horde of undead rodents eyeing my brains like an overripe lump of gouda. You can usually overcome this limitation by planning the order you summon your fellows in, but some kind of control over recalling your dead pals would have made things a little easier to manage.
Soulcaster II is also included in Indie Royale Valentine's Bundle, so I should touch on that. It's not a lot different from the first title, to be honest, with new enemies, new locales, new levels and tweaked graphics. The engine is mostly the same on the surface, but the level design is even more devious and tricksy in terms of ambushes. Essentially it's a part two of the same game, but it adds a lot of extra maps to extend the fun. Genuinely unique mechanics, cool retro graphics and tons of tricky maps to get through. It's a great title, and I would probably say my pick for highlight of the bundle. Don't ignore it just because it's not on Steam, folks. It's quite a gem.
[The Indie Royale Valentine's Bundle, co-created by IndieGames.com and including this game, is available now at the official website - go check it out!]