I feel like I’ve played a dozen different top down adventure games that also just happened to reset after every death. I think independent developers have been taking stabs at combining the two philosophies time and again, with sometimes incredible results like Crypt of the Necrodancer, which added a rhythmic twist, or last year’s top down adventure Sword of Ditto, or even The Binding of Isaac, to some extent, copping the dungeon formula. All attempts added a lot to the pot, but something gets lost in that same translation. None of them are bad, but none of them feel like Zelda.
Sparklite feels like Zelda.
Sparklite is seemingly the first major release from Red Blue Games, a smaller studio in Dunham, North Carolina, and I’m happy to say they have something few studios do: a fundamental understanding of what makes adventure fun, and the pace at which you should progress. These are the greatest strengths of Sparklite, which combines running around the fields of a delightful top down fantasy world, with a sense of danger, difficulty, and the reminder that dying and returning to your home base in the sky means you can spend your currency to make your next run that much more dangerous.
The ticket here is exploring that world and making that adventure feel interesting every single time. I think most solid roguelikes of the day get this, and challenge you to always explore every nook and cranny, to that slow progression of pinpointing the best ways to get the most return on your time. Sparklite injects a little bit more of that exploration magic. I always felt like I was finding secrets, and even the ones I saw multiple times, like rooms that require a certain item or ability, everytime I found those areas I felt closer to finally being able to return and solve the puzzle, and get the reward. That reward system is spaced out well over multiple runs, where sometimes I would see a totally different set of secret caves, mini dungeons, or challenges. Whether that be because I didn’t find those rooms sometimes or they weren’t in the world on that ran, it never seemed to matter, the sense of freedom in exploration was still very much present, and drawing me to my next objective.
The key bit here is how the game rewards you when you go off looking for secrets. You always fall into the same central area, which is procedurally generated each time you die, justified by the world’s tectonic plates being very unstable, causing frequent shifting earthquakes. After beating each area’s boss, you’ll get another necessary tool to get to the next area, all of which change with each death, but are always “center”, “east”, “west”, et cetera, occupying five regions on the map. Each area still has some constant characteristics, like the region’s boss, two mini dungeons that either have the player solving puzzles or fighting enemies to clear them, and a hidden item dungeon as well.
These constants give a consistency to the world, so you have a strong grasp of what you’re looking for from moment to moment, region to region, but they’re still somewhere new each time. One such location in each region is that hidden item dungeon, that introduces a new permanent item, like the Boom Balloon, that lets break rocks and clear paths, but also acts as one of the few ranged weapons at your disposal. The dungeon gives you the item at the start, then puts you through a series of challenge rooms, only to have the gadget taken away from you at the end, but Ada will take this experience to learn a blueprint of it. The next time you return to the flying city of The Refuge, either from beating a region’s boss or dying, you’ll be able to craft this gadget permanently from the blueprint, opening new puzzle areas and challenges in the world.
Sparklite understands exactly what should be permanent between runs and what shouldn’t be, all while still finely balancing the rogue like aspects and adventure ones. Small power ups, like healing pods, area of effect attacks, and any limited use item is gone between runs, and while these are essential tools to finish some of the hardest encounters in Sparklite, finding them is the given reward any time you explore. On top of that, you can spend the currency you get from each run on permanent upgrades for the inhabitants of The Refuge, who can then give you better tools and buffs going into each run.
Items that help you increase your maximum health or defence are hidden well within the puzzles and challenges that multiple trips to the world will deliver, while the tools to make each run easier and the place to equip those upgrades waits between each run. There is a beautiful balance struck between both halves of what’s at work here.
All the while worth mentioning, the whole presentation is beautifully tied together with the soundtrack, and all the music very lightly expresses an adventurous tone to the free exploration. I couldn’t get enough of it, and it never got old in the hours I spent with runs. Dale North, who also composed Wizard of Legend, captures some of the island and jolly vibes that Wind Waker had with a totally original flavor that makes Sparklite shine like other transcendent Zelda-adjacent games like Okami. The music being part of it, Sparklite’s presentation as a whole absolutely elevates it.
Not to be too reductive and keep comparing Sparklite to Zelda when it gets a lot of its own magic in the mix, nothing has so satisfyingly created a loop out of overworld exploration, and even though I’ve finished it once I’m hankering to start from scratch on Switch and dive in on the go, it’s just that fun to play.
This game was played on an Xbox One X system with a download code provided by PR for the title.