Mystik Belle attempts to create a unique fusion of the Metroidvania and adventure game genres and, for the most part, it succeeds, though it stumbles rather heavily in two parts of its design. At first glance, this may very well appear to primarily be a Metroidvania platformer with other elements simply tacked on. After all, there’s a castle to explore for new abilities, a basic leveling system which both increases health and changes the basic fire attack, and even a good number of references to Maziac, a much older Metroidvania platformer created by the developer which also stars a fire-wielding heroine. However, Mystik Belle is definitely more than it may initially appear to be as interactions with items and NPC’s play just as large of a role as the platforming.
The first thing you need to do in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is kill Dracula. The first thing you need to do in Mystik Belle is pick up an apple-shaped hall pass and show it to a lizard-woman for permission to leave the room. In addition to serving as an effective tutorial on how to interact with objects and NPC’s, this initial action serves to establish a few important aspects of the game. First, it demonstrates that the ability to find and properly use items will be at least as important for making progress as platforming and combat. Additionally, it helps to establish the fact that characters and dialogue will actually play a significant role in the game; the opening cutscene shows how Belle is a student at a Hogwarts-esque magical academy and is indirectly framed for ruining the Walpurgisnacht brew and must collect the necessary ingredients or face expulsion, but it is the choice to make a basic adventure game puzzle the first thing the player has to do once gaining control which signals that the setting will serve as more than a backdrop for the platforming.
The unusual focus on item-based problem solving is both one of Mystik Belle’s greatest strengths and, unfortunately, the source of its biggest issue. There are dozens of items in the game and nearly all of them will warrant a unique line of dialogue from just about any NPC you show them to. Sometimes this dialogue may result in a hint on which other items something can be combined with or what to use it for, and there are a respectable number of instances in which these hints are very useful indeed, but most of the time the dialogue exists purely to be entertaining and it adds a great deal of personality to the setting and its characters. I can safely say that a respectable chunk of my playtime came from running around showing various items to every character just to see what type of a reaction it would evoke.
Now allow me to sum up what is so awful about these otherwise great adventure game mechanics in two words: inventory limit. You see, regardless of the actual size of the items in question, Belle can carry a grand total of all of six items at a time. Oh, and that apple-shaped hall pass given to you at the start prevents an invincible enemy from spawning so, unless you want to take the risk of being sent back to the starting room due to dying to the ‘hall monitor’, that limit is effectively reduced to five. Item combinations usually consist of about four or five items and Belle will automatically create the new, combined item just by having every necessary item in her inventory (assuming the story calls for it that is – there was over an hour between the time I was told a magnet could be made by combining a horseshoe with a copper wire and an electric source and the point at which Belle actually combined the horseshoe and wire), so I ended up using the warp rooms as makeshift storage containers, tossing everything I wasn’t currently using on the ground.
The extent to which the inventory limit is an issue becomes evident just about any time you start to delve into a new area; you probably want the hall pass, but you also want to bring along some other items in case you encounter something which requires one of them to get past it, but you also want to leave a slot open for if you find an item – and you’ll probably stumble across more items than you were expecting and end up needing to leave something behind anyway. Backtracking to at least some degree is inevitable in a Metroidvania, but the frequency with which I would start going down a path only to encounter an obstacle requiring an item I had left back at a warp room or, worse, more items than I was expecting, resulting in needing to leave something behind in order to cart the new items to a warp room, go down the same path to retrieve the item I had left behind, and then once more go back was astonishingly frustrating. I kept hoping, even half expecting, to find some sort of storage capacity upgrade, but you’re stuck with six item slots from the very beginning to the very end with a limiting system which, to put it bluntly, has no good reason to, and should not, exist.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about something positive. Namely, it should be obvious just from glancing at any given screenshot, but Mystik Belle looks more than good, it’s outright beautiful and the soundtrack rivals the art. The spritework has a great deal of care put into it and a few simple lighting effects, especially those of Belle’s fire and lightning-based attacks, go a long way. This isn’t just a game made for screenshots though as everything still looks great in motion and Belle in particular has an impressive number of frames of animation. It’s also not a matter of quality without quantity as many of the assets and even a decent number of the enemies are used for one or two rooms and nowhere else. There could be a bit more variety in the character portraits as the emotion depicted does not always match the dialogue, but this is an exceedingly small issue given the overall quality of everything else. Great spritework may not be all that much of a surprise from the creator of Ultionus: A Tale of Petty Revenge and the upcoming Legend of Iya, but it is a wonderful to look at all the same.
As far as the platforming itself goes, it’s perfectly fine (other than one particular issue which I’ll address soon enough), but it’s also not anything particularly special. Belle moves at a somewhat slower pace than usual to give the game a bit more of a methodical pace. As far as attacks go, Belle has a basic fireball which changes and gets stronger as she levels up, a strong broom-based melee attack which she will perform in place of the fireball spell if an enemy is near her, and, after the first boss fight, a very useful lightning attack which she can charge up and which will stick around for a few seconds after it connects, making it useful for taking out groups of weak enemies and for multi-hitting stronger foes.
As to the issue with the platforming, it is not one of deliberate design like the inventory limit, but it is one which cannot be ignored if encountered all the same. Specifically, Belle eventually acquires a dash which she can use on the ground and in the air by double tapping in a direction and all-too-frequently it just doesn’t work. I don’t just mean that it’s a mechanic which doesn’t fit with the rest of the game either, I mean that Belle plummeted to the bottom of a room after refusing to dash across a gap so frequently that I put down my controller and switched to using a keyboard until Belle received a certain other movement upgrade; the issue still exists to some extent with keyboard controls, but, for whatever reason, is nowhere near as prevalent as it is when using a controller. Judging by comments on the game’s Steam forum, this is very much a known issue (though some people also complained of the dash being overly sensitive for them, which at least wasn’t an issue for me during my playthrough). The developer has mentioned the possibility of making the dash tied to a specific button and, as someone who had to experience rapidly pressing a direction on my controller’s D-pad only to have Belle dash once, maybe twice, long after having missed a jump, I cannot stress enough how much of an improvement this would be.
There are a few other features worth noting before wrapping up. Though there are very few optional items in the game, Mystik Belle does take after the Metroid series in one particularly useful way in that an icon will appear on the minimap in any space containing an item, several of which would be very easy to completely miss without this feature. There is not an equipment system and Belle will lose all of her experience points upon death, though the bosses usually give enough experience upon defeat for Belle to level up, or come very close to doing so, so it is very likely that you’ll hit the rather low maximum level of eight by the time you reach the end even if you do little to no grinding along the way. There are a few secrets to find along the way, but the vast majority of collectibles are mandatory and mostly rely upon using logic to obtain.
At the end of the day, Mystik Belle is a great game for fans of both exploration platformers and adventure games as long as you are willing to put up with the frustration caused by the inventory limit and potential issues with the dash. The English dialogue even has an ‘E-10’ option for younger children or those who simply do not wish to see some occasional profanity. Even with its issues, Mystik Belle is an enjoyable, if somewhat short, platformer with a large amount of entertaining dialogue and outstanding aesthetics which all come together to create a memorable experience.