You know, the dark side can be adorable. It is easy to link Halloween with the grose and uncomfortable style of horror, but we often forget that this dark and creative setup can be for more than just to create a scare. Titles like Coco, Kid Dracula, Spirited Away, Coraline, Luigi’s Mansion, Ghostbusters, and The Adams Family, are good examples of how the horror genre can be both imaginative and inviting for all audiences. This is why I got interested in Mystik Belle. It looked colourful with its spooky atmosphere, reminded me of The Worst Witch-series from 1998 in its setup, and the fact that it was published by Wayforward Studio helped to peak my interest. Even if I lacked any knowledge about the actual developers, I decided to give it a go. After playing through it, I can safely say that this is one of the worst schools I have ever been to.
You need more than puns to be cute
It is never easy being an outcast and face unfair treatment, which is exactly what happened to Belle MacFae. She is a freshman at the Hagmore School of Magic, and if you think that pun was bad, how stupid is it that the teachers and the staff members out of nowhere accuses her for practising fire magic, causing the Walpurgisnacthc Brew to be destroyed? Of course, Belle got no saying in this and the teachers just gives her an ultimatum: either recreate the ritual brew (despite that she is a freshman!) or get expelled. Honestly, I would probably never set my foot in this place ever again after such unfair treatment. Surprisingly though, Belle takes this harassment and goes off to find the ingredients in order to recreate the brew.
This is all surely played for laughs, but it is such a forced setup that comes out of nowhere, to the point where it feels like a lazy reason for getting this adventure started. The journey does not get any better either, as while there are multiple characters and some form of a semi-villain to this plot, they all stick as well to this story as beef jerky being thrown onto a skeleton. All are either one dimensional puns, such as Franky using monsters for his science project, or random combinations of elements, like scientific ninjas. This results into humour that is as clever as the worst Halloween jokes you can find in candy bars.
I could go easier on this title if everything was not so forced, the world was not made out of puns, and the game tried to be for kids. I say the latter, because this game has swearing in it, which adds nothing to a story with such a simple setup. There is a child friendly option for the dialogue, but it baffles me then even more why swearing was included. Going for a more lighthearted story, could have added to the puns by showcasing that it wants to be just silly and fun. This is not the case, and all the issues presented made me want to skip every dialogue just to get a move on.
To give some genuine credit, I do like the idea of making the school into a non-linear setup for exploration, as you will be venturing through many different areas, like the detention dungeon and a haunted dining hall. This truly adds creativity to this magical world, making me intrigued by what else I will witness. The troll girl was also the only character I cared for due to her insecurity about her looks, which is both cute and sad. Unfortunately, that is all the praises I can give. For a title containing heavy amounts of dialogue with a cute protagonist, I am impressed by how my frown never turned upside down.
Story Score: 2/10
Undercooked metroid and click
According to the developers, the inspirations for this title came from games like Slightly Magic, Little Puff in Dragonland, and the Dizzy-series. They wanted to mix these titles’ adventure style gameplay with modern metroidvania in order to make something unique and improved. On paper, this does not sound like a bad idea, as these titles where essentially non-linear platformers with point-and-click aspects to them. With how the metroidvania genre also focuses on exploration, this sounds like a solid match.
Mystik Belle succeeds for the most part with the implementation of fetch quests and puzzles. There are tons of characters that need your help with something, and there are clever and subtle hints on how to succeed. This is further enhanced by memorable locations and through how this is a small school, making it is easy to find specific locations quickly, like the library or the kitchen. However, solving a puzzle can be needlessly cumbersome.
While I do not mind picking up items manually as it is always clear if you can interact with elements with an exclamation mark, the game is not always clear on how you should use an item. For example, filling a up bucket with water requires you to simply jump into the water, not to use the bucket. However, giving an item to a person must be done by selecting the item with the drop button of all things. These are annoyances that makes ways of interacting inconsistent and confusing. This also goes for combining items and even for asking the right questions, as you are not be able to do either unless Belle herself knows what to do. I absolutely hate this, as this will force a severe amount of backtracking to find the right dialogues or events to witness, despite that the player might already know what to do.
This frustration should have at least been dampened by the warp points scattered throughout this game. However, this is not the case thanks to your limited pocket space. You cannot bring with you all the items you find and have to instead tuck some of them into chests placed around the castle. This downright perplexes me as it does not add any layer of strategy, just backtracking. On hard, this is even worse as the chests will not share the same inventory. This is not challenging, but tedious busywork!
At least, exploring the castle is intriguing for its clear layouts, which helped me care about the objectives I encountered. What I did not like, was literally everything else this game had to offer. For some reason, this simple title only took some inspirations from traditional metroidvanias, which is where Mystik Belle severely suffers. You only have a projectile fire attack and eventually the ability to fire a charged attack for making a ball of stationary spark on impact. That is it, and while simplicity can make for interesting depth, the variety in enemies does not help in this regard.
Yes, there are over 60 monsters in Mystik Belle, but none are memorable in their behaviours or placed cleverly enough to provide a challenge. All are just poor obstacles with no interesting patterns and with your projectile attack having good range and can be upgraded to cover more grounds, the enemies and the overall combat feel like an afterthought. The same goes for levelling up, as you will gain XP from defeated monsters to automatically upgrade your attacks and health bar, but that is all. There are no other upgrades to make the combat interesting or exciting, just the bare minimum.
While you will loose XP upon death, this is also a useless idea when you reach the max level of 8. This not hard to do in the first place and when it happens, there are no consequences anymore for dying. In fact, I often killed myself in order to be able to start from the centre of the map (the council room) with full health, since you can only heal otherwise by tediously farming for health orbs from defeated enemies. There is one more way to gain health back, but it is through a secret, which makes it clearly not a focused method. Honestly, they should have just removed the combat completely from this game when it is this bad. Not even the bosses are fun to fight against, as they are only damage-sponges with no strategies involved.
From the defeated bosses, you will gain abilities for exploring areas of the castle you could not before, and these are rudimentary at best. You will gain abilities like a double jump, using magic underwater etc. These are almost context sensitive inputs, as they feel more like keys for opening doors than upgrades to enhance your skills for traversing or combat. Not even your dodge-manoeuvre is well implemented, as you will have to double tap a direction in order to use it, and it is never required for any fight. Why have a dodge-ability, when you do not need to dodge any hazards?
All of these issues made Mystik Belle simply mundane and underwhelming. When it was clear just how shallow the ideas were implemented, it became even easier to notice other frustrations, like not being able to double jump or dodge while falling. You actually have to jump before you can do either in midair, which is just bizarre. In fact, if they did the bare minimum with the combat and platforming, why not just focus on the exploration?
The game is already severely short, and making the overall journey fun instead of adding constant bumps in the road, would have made Mystik Belle a more pleasant experience. Perhaps then the developers could have even polished some aspects of the puzzles and exploration. I am happy they wanted to expand upon the adventure genre, but you cannot do so by giving the bare minimum in varied aspects. This is like adding a drop of milk to a cup of thin coffee and calling it latte: you probably should redo everything at this point.
Gameplay Score: 3/10
Bubble audio and too good looking
I am just gonna come out with it and say that the biggest problem I have with this title, is the inconsistency of quality. The visuals are on a level with a 32-bit system, similar to the GBA or PS1, but the audio is filled with crunched bubble sounds, which is more reminiscent of an old DOS-title or a GBC game. I might sound harsh, but there is a thing of beauty and respect when you try to mimic an old school style and actually go with a clear mindset of technological limitations. What Mystik Belle offers, makes the developers’ artistic choices fall flat on their faces.
With that said, this game is nice to look at with vibrant colours being used constantly and characters that have adorable designs to them. They are clearly based on familiar faces from the monster universe, with even the young Belle being nothing unique or imaginative of a protagonist visually, but everyone are simply cute. Their big sprites and nice idle animations are easy to admire for their pixel art alone, and Belle has plenty of animations to offer as well, making her a fun character to see interacting with this world.
Speaking of, the medieval school, the small village, and the dark forest, are all intriguing areas to witness due to their traditional look that feels familiar to a setting from the 1800s, just with magic added inn. Libraries with flying books, detention dungeons with chains and dark corridors, and a kitchen with dead pigs flying towards you, are just a few examples of the fun areas to venture through. It is just a shame that nothing screams personality or are unique, which makes Mystik Belle at best an adequate parody. Some hallways can look downright bleak due to no decorations, which is a terrible blemish on this title. There are impressive lighting and wonderful parallax scrolling to give some immersion, but it is hard to call this world original.
Although, the audio fares better as it uses the limited chiptune to its full potential. The bubble sound gives each character distinct pitches to their voices, and the attacks and explosions contain lovely punches to make them satisfying. There is an underwhelming amount of magic being preformed in this title, but the sound effects help somewhat. As for the music, it has progressive uses of tones, similar to classical scores, all done through the bubble sound. This is quite impressive, and makes every location memorable with distinct melodies. Although, not all songs are equally strong due to how similar to one another they can be or their lack of length and diversity, but they all fit the mood the areas go for and are strong parts for highlighting the locations.
Presentation Score: 5/10
Traditions die hard
Similar to most metroidvania-titles, there are secrets to uncover in this school, with the main one here being the 8 lore scripts hidden around. They can be fun to look after, but add nothing to the lore and only hide one extra boss fight that is a shallow afterthought like the rest of them. Getting the best ending through this is also not worth it, as it is just a short and rushed extra addition. Speedrunning this title is also not engaging due to the constant backtracking, and the hard mode is utter silly with no warp points, stronger enemies, and the unforgiving chests. Again, it is just more busywork.
Extra Score: 2.5/10
This is really what I hate about these kinds of projects, as it is hard to tell if the developers were sincere with what they created or just tried to please a crowd by going old school. Either way, Mystik Belle is simply undercooked. It has no idea on how to make the combat interesting or the platforming entertaining, and instead becomes a tedious puzzle-title with tons of backtracking and worthless additions. Combine this with the lack of charm in both presentation and setup, and it is hard to say it honours its inspirations or the metroid genre. There is no magic here, only the illusion of it.