I've played a lot of free-to-play RPGs, and they all tend to have the same strengths and weaknesses. That's probably due to most of them being inspired by the model used in the popular Puzzle & Dragons [Free], following its formula as closely as possible in hopes of achieving similar levels of success. Now, I like that game quite a bit, but even I'm getting a little tired of getting into a new game only to see the same old mechanics powering it. There must be other effective ways to monetize your puzzle RPG besides monster-collecting and stamina meters. Spellfall: Puzzle RPG [Free] takes a different approach, avoiding many typical elements such as multiple currencies, drawing random monsters, and nudging you to expand your inventory. Unfortunately, the game also has its own take on the stamina meter concept that seems on paper like it would be better, but in practice doesn't quite work out.

Spellfall is a stage-based match-3 puzzle game with RPG elements. In this particular variety, each stage has a set number and type of enemies that you can preview beforehand. On entering the stage, you get a set number of turns to make matches before the enemy retaliates. Pieces come in five differently-colored elements, along with some coin pieces. You can pick up any piece on the board and switch it with any other piece, with any match besides coins resulting in damage to the enemy. If you make matches of more than three pieces at one time, you'll earn special blocks that allow you to perform direct magical attacks or clear entire rows or columns at once. Take the enemy's HP down to zero, collect your experience and coins, and you can move on to the next stage.

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That's how it should work, anyway, but as this is a free-to-play game, there are certain catches, of course. The biggest one, and the one that ends up dragging the game down, is its variation on the popular stamina meter found in many free-to-play games. Usually, you have a meter that is depleted each time you play a stage, allowing you to play perhaps five or six games before it has to be recharged one way or another. Spellfall does not have a gauge like this. You can take on as many stages as you want. There's just one little rub. Unless you happen to gain a level at the end of a stage, your HP are carried over as-is to the next stage. With the way it's balanced, you won't be far into the game before enemies start getting tough enough to leave you with less than half a life bar at the end of a fight. You might pull two fights out if you're on top of healing or finish off the monsters quickly, but it's very unlikely you'll be in any shape for a third battle.

There are two ways to refill your life bar. You can pay some of your hard-earned coins to top off the bar, or you can simply wait in real time. Your HP restores fairly quickly, but the higher your level gets and the more HP you have, the longer that wait will be, or if you choose to pay in coins, the more it will cost you. It's not that it feels unfair to me, all things considered, but whether or not it's fair, the end result is still only being able to play one or two matches before you have to wait for the whole thing to fill up again. It's too much waiting for too little play, and it only gets worse the longer you play.

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There's just one currency, coins, and while you can buy them with real money if you want to, you'll also be earning them as you play. The game is actually reasonably generous in handing them out to you, and this is one aspect that gets better the more you play. After conquering a set of stages, you're able to harvest gold from them every so often just by tapping them on the map. With prices being what they are, you're still going to have to save up for a while to get the best gear, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Coins are used for just about everything in the game. Of course, you can buy new gear with them, but you can also top off your HP, buy one-use boosts before fights, and upgrade your equipment. The only thing you can't use coins for are revivals and buying treasure boxes. Each individual revival requires you to purchase a $0.99 IAP, while the treasure boxes are available for a variety of prices. The game gives you a free box from the lowest tier every day, which is nice even if it usually ends up being something you're likely to sell right away.

The catch with the gear shop is that while you might want to save up for a particular piece of equipment that appears, it's pretty hard to do so. Every time you clear a battle, a new random piece of gear will appear in the shop, but the oldest piece currently available will be retired. The really cool items are priced so high that you've got little chance of getting together enough coins to get them if you don't already have a bunch saved. The game certainly isn't shy about letting you know a piece of gear is going away, trying to tempt you one more time to invest in some coins. It's not that hard to just let things go, though, as generally speaking the equipment that appears in the shop only gets better the farther in you play. You will want to grab certain runes if they appear, but if you miss them, they'll always come back sooner or later.

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It's pretty fun to collect new gear, since it changes the appearance of your character as well as his stats and abilities. Different weapons and armor have a certain number of maximum rune slots you can use coins to open up. You can slot the runes of your choice into them for various spells and effects. The spells can be charged up by making matches of the same element, while the other runes are generally passive and do things like boost your attack or add a leech effect to your strikes. Getting that visible change in addition to making your character a little stronger ensures that it's always pretty satisfying to get something new.

Sooner or later, though, you hit the difficulty wall. Enemies start doing far more damage than you can stay on top of, and since losing means you have to wait twenty minutes or more for a recharge to make another honest attempt, it's very frustrating to get cut down in a matter of seconds. At this point, all you can do is go back to earlier levels and slowly grind out some coins and experience to get stronger. At least against easier enemies, you can do several battles before you're worn down enough to have to stop, but it's not exactly fun to stomp enemies that pose little threat. The actual puzzle gameplay lacks the spice to carry the game through these grinding periods, so I expect most people are going to check out of the game as soon as they hit the first really nasty challenge spike.

If nothing else, it's at least a pretty game, with good all-around production values. The UI is well-designed, the player character and enemies have a bunch of different animations for their attacks, the music is okay, and you even get to hear a Wilhelm scream now and then. It has Game Center support but only seems to use it so that you can poke at your friends to play. It's also very interested in hooking up to your Facebook account for similar reasons. That's great for people who are into that kind of thing, but it would be nice if there were some achievements to go with all of that if you're going to use Game Center anyway.

In spite of all of my problems with the game, it's still really fun while it's rolling along. There's nothing special going on with its gameplay, but its nice production values and enjoyable gear selection help compensate for its lack of imagination. I wouldn't even mind the grinding half as much if I could do it against more challenging foes without having to wait between every couple of rounds. That misguided stamina substitute system sits at the root of most of Spellfall's problems, and it's off-putting enough that I'd rather just go and play one of the many other match-3 RPGs available on iOS.

TouchArcade Rating

  • CecilMcW00t

    So tired of timers. I was really digging this game, but I can never actually get a play session out of it. Devs have got to stop falling back on this timer mess.

    • Marvin

      I'm actually right there with you. I like the boosts for cross matching tiles to expand your attacks and such but the health regen time is killing it for me.

    • torosama

      One trick I learned to save time was to go back and do easy levels and farm water/heal and heal up on low lvl stuff to save time and keep occupied and earn a little gold. That being said, I'm at a point that my gear and lvl 3 skills aren't enough to defeat the enemy even if I buy all boosts and and go into battle with all skills fully charged. Realllllly annoying, also having to pay insane amounts if money to unlock rune sockets is stupid on TOP of charging insane prices for the better gear.

  • Goggles789

    Screw timers. I'll just play games that don't include them. I'm not missing out on crap like this.

  • Enker

    I find that once you have a heal spell or are toughened up you just have to fight a weaker battle, fire off the heal spell and your back in the game. Works for my wife and I and we tend to play in hour long bursts over the telly, etc. Similarly inviting friends to play nets you additional in-battle turns when your close to them in the map, as if they are helping you. I liked that feature.

  • hellscaretaker

    The reviewer did not mention you can get a Heal stone that you can charge up without having to spend gold to fix you.

  • Anotherkellydown

    Shaun, I've been really loving this. I play it on and off every day, got my character to level 10, got some good runes leveled up, but hate the timer aspect like you mentioned. This could have been a brilliant game if it was pay up front and no timers, IAPs, etc. I've played a ton of these types of games including 10,000,000 (loved and beat the crap out of that one), Puzzle Quest (probably what got me into this genre of games), Horde of Heroes and Dungeon Raid, just to name a few. I know you love RPGs of all kinds so I thought you might have a recommendation for me. Or have I played all the really good ones already? Anyone else feel free to chime in too...

  • DanRiverBrew

    The 'hurry up and wait' aspect of the game is horrible. I'm playing (if you can call collecting gold and daily bonuses playing) until day 20 to see if the uber weapon is really that great. As I play I just constantly get that creeping feeling that I am slowly being forced down a pay wall tunnel. I'm ready to jump ship though soon

    One free RPG that no one seems to be talking about is the side scrolling action game Arcane Soul that came out the same week as this one. The Freemium aspect does give you a creepy feeling and so far I haven't had to buy anything with money to keep playing. The Devs are very responsive to email and on FB. Each character has different skills that are cool and the game is challenging please review this game

    • CecilMcW00t

      Yes! ArcaneSoul really needs a push. It's surprisingly good.

  • Arthur Hogemann

    Awesome game, hope they implement a vs feature ... I just did an insane combo with total dmg of 19000 and 3000 of drain effect.

Spellfall™ - Puzzle Adventure Reviewed by Shaun Musgrave on . Rating: 3