May 22, 2015 5:00 PM | Joel Couture
You'd think finding three ingredients for a Walpurgisnacht Brew would be easy for a witch, especially when she's still taking classes at the Hagmore School of Magic. Shouldn't those things just be lying around in someone's office or something? No, that would be too easy, so instead, poor Belle MacFae gets stuck combing the school and surrounding grounds looking for ingredients. It's not as easy as blasting monsters with fire magic, though, as you'll need to grab the right items and pass them to the right people if you want to get your ingredients by the deadline. A young witch only has so much carrying room in her black dress, though, so it's up to you to face off against the creatures and bosses while also carefully choosing which items to carry with you as you play Last Dimension's Mystik Belle.
Mystik Belle's big, beautiful sprites stole my heart when I first watched the trailer. Belle just looks adorable in her little hat and dress, brandishing her broom and wand. Seeing her detailed motions and facial expressions had her growing on me even more - especially that little smirk she does when she's toasting some dumb monster with fire magic. Other characters look just as good, such as the trio of teachers that set you to your task, the beastly hall monitor, and the slew of monsters that march through the school's halls and grounds. The large sprites, and Last Dimension's artistic skill, give these characters a cartoonish life, making everything fun, cheerful, and vibrant, capturing the lightheartedness of a child's Halloween party. It's hard not to look at this artwork and smile.
The sharp pixel artwork doesn't just focus on making the characters stand out, but also the areas themselves. Huge libraries expand into the background, piles of books reaching for the ceilings as candles give off a dim, flickering light. Forests stretch far into the distance, shadowy trees hiding peering red eyes. Old towers loom, lights glowing in the windows. The art gives the sidescrolling action a sense of reality, as if the halls you're traveling are part of a bigger school and world. Every location is crammed with little details, from cooking fires to moonlit trees, and I felt like there was an endless amount of things for me to look at and enjoy. The art in Mystik Belle game is just gorgeous.
With large, detailed character sprites come equally large, detailed monsters. As nice as they are to look at, from a gameplay perspective, this can be both good and bad, as you're both large targets. I may have enjoyed watching comedic skeletons throwing bones at me or undead suckling pigs floating through the air, but it's easy to take a quick thump because Belle is a huge target. The enemies are as well, though, making them easy to hit them back with a salvo of fireballs (which shoot almost as fast as you can slam the button), so it balances out. The game is also pretty generous with health pickups, so the occasional hit you take while savoring the look of some new, detailed monster can easily be balanced by grabbing some dropped hearts from your unfortunate enemies.
You aren't necessarily only going to be tossing fireballs at your enemies, either. Other weapons and abilities become available to you as you play and beat bosses, letting your use other attacks or find other means of movement and dodging. A personal favorite is the lightning ability, which charges by holding the fire button down for a few moments. If it hits a monster, it explodes in an area effect, leaving a circle that does downright absurd damage for a few seconds. You don't need to equip this ability either, as the developer's have found clever ways for you to execute these attacks without having to equip anything. A simple change in your normal input lets you cut loose with something new, like holding the fire button instead of tapping it. It makes these abilities very accessible without navigating cluttered menus.
Mobility is important, as exploration is a large part of the game. Non-linear corridors are open to travel through however you like, with hallways blocked off that require different powers or means of motion to get through. Can't just swim in the moat without something to help you breathe underwater, right? With the great artwork in level design this exploration is a treat, and it makes it easy to know where you are without opening a map. Don't get me wrong, a map helps, but the game supplies so many memorable NPCs and landmarks that navigation isn't that difficult.
That being said, the map in the game is a bit of a let-down. There is a small map that shows your current location in the upper right, but it doesn't show much of the rest of the school. To see that, you really need to go to a warp point, which will show you the maps of everywhere you could possibly go (if you've unlocked a warp point in that location). It's a clunky way of finding your way, but it's not a big problem since I found it pretty easy to navigate the castle using my memory and a few visual landmarks.
You will need to learn your way, though, as a point-and-click stye item system is another major part of the game. Characters and machinery need items to unlock the way to different areas, requiring you do something as simple as find a hammer to smash open a door or as complex as building a battery out of several items so that you can reveive a certain monster in the basement. It's a nice touch that gave the game a separate focus from combat, requiring I use my head along with my reflexes. I'm not used to having to do this kind of thinking while also dodging three-headed rat kings, and I found it really made the gameplay appeal to me. Plus, if I got frustrated with a puzzle I could always go set a monster on fire.
I was worried I'd have a hard time finding what I needed given all of the game's details, but it was simple. The game shows a little yellow exclamation point above Belle if she passes over something she can interact with, so I always knew when I needed to check on something. This also makes some of the weirder items easier to find, as some of the objects can be in strange places or look a little like part of the background. You still have to pay attention as you travel, but I rarely found myself unable to find what I was looking for.
This system is complicated in that you can only carry a few items at once. If you try to pick up an important item and you have too many, your character will drop one from your inventory. This means you really need to keep track of where you left something, and that you can't just grab everything along the way. The game does make a notation on the map when you leave something in a room, so it's not too hard to find out where something is, but it doesn't tell you which item is there. That's up to you to remember. Personally, I took a moment to gather items up and drop them near warp doors (you can drop items at will) so I could easily get them when I needed them. This system can be a bit of a nuisance to keep track of once you start getting a lot of items, but I didn't mind much since most of the items have obvious uses once you find the puzzle they belong to. I typically knew which item I needed, even if I couldn't quite remember where I'd dropped it. LEAVE ITEMS AT THE WARP DOORS, PEOPLE.
It didn't mind having to backtrack for items all that much since I was gaining experience while killing monsters on the way. You can level Belle up, although doing so just makes her do more damage and have more health. Nothing too exciting, but this game does get harder than its cute visuals would imply. You can switch to an easier difficulty on the fly if you like, but at the basic difficulty, you might find yourself dying often. Bosses often have complex attacks or reflect your projectiles back at you (which DOES hurt), and since you're a big target, you end up taking quite a few hits unless you're very careful. Dying leaves you with your items, which isn't so bad, but it drops you back in the teacher's room with your experience reset to 0 (but still at your current level). It can take a lot of monsters to fill that experience bar so this is kind of a brutal punishment, but it gives death meaning when it might not otherwise be a big deal. It made me push myself harder.
Really, I would have kept on pushing just to see all of the monsters and locations in Mystik Belle, anyway. The game looks fabulous, and by combining point-and-click item puzzles and solid sidescrolling combat, it's just a fun, intelligent game to play. The story is lighthearted fare (although Belle has a filthy mouth - another surprise) that turns the whole game into Halloween fun, and it was hard not to laugh and grin at the constant battle between sorcery and science that drove the game. Belle might not have deserved to be the one forced to fix the Walpurgisnacht Brew, but I was more than happy to help her do it.
Mystik Belle is available for $12.99 on Steam (plus %30 off for launch week). For more information on the game and Last Dimension, you can head to the game's site, the developer's site, or follow them on YouTube and Twitter.