As Good as You Could Ask For: First Impressions of ‘Spiritfall’

There are a handful of phrases that could immediately make the ears of diehard roguelike fans like yours truly perk up with a fierce intensity, but “Smash inspired combat mechanics” is certainly one of them. If the central mechanic of the roguelike feels good to play and satisfying to master, it tends to be a hit, and there are very few other franchises that perfectly capture that feel other than Super Smash Bros. While on the surface it’s a party game, the competitive scene brings to the forefront a wide array of “tech” that makes it a joy to play and watch, from wave-dashing allowing for incredible movement to directional influence letting you snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. So when Spiritfall advertises itself as inspired by other Platform Fighters, well it’s not entirely unsurprising that I’ve racked up over 70 some runs over 20ish hours and that’s just with early access.

From Gentle Giant Games, Spiritfall has a straightforward story as any other roguelike. You, a chosen warrior (Omenforged) are tasked by the Great Spirits to seek what caused the world’s destruction. You don’t need to worry about death since you can come back and walk the path again and again and again until you have resolved the eternal conflict. But narrative has never been a Roguelike’s pure draw, although that said, the art direction and lore of the game is pretty incredible. The Omenforged evokes some elements of Dead Cells (floating head on a humanoid body) and Hollow Knight (cute mask) while still retaining its own identity. The six spirits available in the early access are managed to evoke a certain type of magitech stylization with glowing runes on large masked beasts. The wide variety of enemies in the three available biomes each have their own visual dictionary, which makes them easy to identify in the middle of the fray. Even in the post-apocalyptic ruin levels, there is an undeniable vibrancy and fluidity in the models skirmishing, which translates naturally to the actual combat.

While your Omenforged needs upgrades to fully get access to the iconic Smash tech that’s advertised, their core of the combat feels at home for anyone who’s ever touched a platform fighter or Dead Cells. As you enter a contained arena with a group of adds, you use your choice of implement (initially a hammer, before you get the option to select things like four floating fists, a run of the mill bow and arrow, and a pair of hooked blades that were repurposed from fishing hooks). Each has standard attacks and/or “launchers” that can be used to slam enemies to either create space or spike them against the wall. At the end of the level, a reward shows up that ranges from the typical meta currencies that let you modify the biomes, weapons, and the aforementioned character unlocks and weapon mods. While the majority of gameplay in Spiritfall resembles Dead Cells, the systems are actually much closer to Hades.

Your base kit includes the Attack, Launcher, Bolt, Dash, and Assist. The different great spirits offer six different styles of divine retribution (with clear hints at additional spirits coming later). It’s a pretty balanced spread between spirits that add negative status conditions to your enemies and ones that focus on buffing you. Like with Hades, Spiritfall wants you to mix and match the pantheon to allow for synergies and eventual specific boons that unify the playstyles, the ability to upgrade the boon potency, and relics that offer neutral benefits. I’m personally partial to the Ice’s skill tree for its good AoE options and slowing the opponents down. Although, it’s hard not to appreciate the sheer survivability of poised or Seahorse’s bubble shield assist.

The current Spiritfall build (again, in early access) features three distinct biomes, each comprised of a handful of rooms that you path on an overworld map. The nice part is that due to the frenetic nature of combat, each run in the beta to go through the three worlds and three boss fights only takes about 20 or so minutes. In my eyes, this puts it at an advantage over Dead Cells, a game I love conceptually, but find myself burnt out much faster due to the longer levels that require constant attention because of hordes of adds and exploration required. The contained nature of each of the encounters allows for a natural reset in cadence, much like a fighting game’s round, a fact that is even more evident in the Rift Levels which are loving homages to the original platform fighter.

This is one of the few times that I bought into the early access, and I’ve really enjoyed being in the active part. The last major Spiritfall update on May 24th added the hook blade fishhook weapon. The offered a drastically different playstyle and aesthetic (although, I still find myself going for the fists by default) and outfits that provide additional bonuses to further customize the Omenforged for the trials and tribulations ahead. And I’m very much looking forward to the new region and boss in June, and the new spirit and weapon coming out in July.

It’s been a joy having the weird Smash muscle memory carry onto this game. The satisfaction of wave-dashing away from an attack to charge up a spike and watch an enemy bounce on the walls like a pinball can’t be overstated. This game has such a strong foundation and is becoming a prime example of why the Steam Deck’s biggest draw for me is not the fact that you can play triple AAA games like Elden Ring on the go (although that’s still very much cool), but that the small indie games that you can play for hours play wonderfully.

Spiritfall’s polish in its entire package makes it a must buy already for me. When the full game comes out, don’t expect a full review, because I will be too involved in an endless cycle of reincarnation and these fundamental points aren’t likely to change: combat feels good, game looks wonderful, and it’s easy to jump in and find a rhythm. That’s pretty much as good as you could ask for in a roguelike.

All images courtesy of the Gentle Giant’s press kit.

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  • Mikkel Snyder is a technical writer by day and pop culture curator and critic all other times.

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