Visual novels aren’t usually my forte, but that’s not stopped me from dabbling in the genre from time to time and finding the odd gem like Behind the Frame. This time around I took a look at Wyrdren Games Spellbound: The Magic Within, a charming magic-filled story that’s rough around the edges, but full of character, and an incredible example of inclusive design.
Let’s get this out the way, Spellbound: The Magic Within follows the usual formula of visual novels, offering some dialogue choices at certain points and not much else in terms of gameplay, so let’s just move on to what the game wants you to focus on.
The story takes us into Witchery, a town full of witches. wizards, wands, and any other magical buzzword that comes to mind. You discover your attunement to magic and soon find yourself on a train to witchery to stay with a family friend and explore your newfound abilities.
Upon arriving in Witchery we meet Maggie and her granddaughter Fern, the first of the colourful cast of characters that fill Spellbound. These characters and the others you meet stood out as one of the better parts of my time with the game, which is good because you’ll be spending a lot of time with one of them after some introductions and details on their school of magic.
You’ve got four schools to choose from, each with their own tutor: Conjuration with Fern, Abjuration with Theo, Divination with Ari, and Transfiguration with Melody. Along with the tutors you’ve got a few extra characters you’ll meet and get to know during your training and time in Witchery. Each of them felt full of personality and charm, with a mixture of one-to-one moments and group moments with characters interacting and playing off each other, all giving you a chance to get to know individual characters. With the game being a visual novel, there is of course the option to romance or befriend your favourite character if that’s your thing too. All this is coupled with some great presentation and visuals, with the world and its characters full of colour, simple yet distinct characteristics, and plenty of charm fitting the game’s world and mood.
It’s a good thing that the characters and visuals were so great, because they carry what was a pretty average story and make it much more interesting. The story ebbed and flowed between engaging and sluggish fairly frequently, with certain moments feeling like they dragged or slowed the pace, whilst others really showcased the character’s personalities, grew connections, and took the narrative forward. Perhaps it may have been my character choice, especially as there are multiple endings for each of them, but even then I found myself too often losing interest in a conversation or hoping to have a little more engagement and choices in them. Was it a bad story? Not necessarily, but it wasn’t one that ever fully kept my attention and the moments it didn’t felt a few too often compared to its moments of it did.
Aside from this, there are a few other issues and nitpicks that I encountered at the time of review. For one, I couldn’t select a saved game from the main menu, only continue from where I left off. If I wanted to, I had to continue my game, and load my save from the menu in my continued save. It’s minor and a relatively easy fix but still proved to be a bit frustrating. Then there were a few minor bugs with character appearance and the odd glitches or typos, but these were few and far between and didn’t dampen the experience. However, what did cause me some grief was the soundtrack. Most of the game’s music involved guitar work that after a while became more of a nuance, with volumes ranging from too loud to too quiet, were short and rather repetitive, and in some tracks didn’t sound like they were being played too well as Id hear bum notes or the rhythm would be off tempo that was hard not to notice.
Despite my grievances, I do think Spellbound is a good game, especially for a smaller team’s first outing, and it’s one that I want to give praise to for making a game for everyone. Players have complete freedom over how they represent themselves, being able to pick their pronouns, body type, hairstyle, features, the whole kit and kaboodle. Nothing is gender-locked, and you are free to change at any time whilst playing, all with ease. Why mention this? Because games should feel welcoming to everyone, regardless of who they are, and this simple addition is one deserving of praise and attention. Its design, story, and characters all embody this idea too, and it’s easily the best example of inclusion and thoughtful design I have seen whilst writing for B3. Hats off to Wyrdren Games for doing this, and this should be used as an example of how to make your games welcoming for anybody.
Spellbound: The Magic Within is a good game even if it feels a little underwhelming in some areas. It’s got great characters and a unique setting that are the centrepieces of the experience, and their focus on inclusion is easily some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory. Despite the somewhat spotty plot, it can be an enjoyable romp for fans of this genre, though maybe a bit more time in the oven wouldn’t have gone amiss.