Sep 18, 2020

Spellbreak Review

Lights Off
4 Awesome
Retails for: Free
We Recommend: N/A
  • Developer: Proletariat, Inc.
  • Publisher: Proletariat, Inc.
  • Genre: Adventure, Action, Role-Playing, Multiplayer
  • Released: Sep 08, 2020
  • Platform: Windows, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Switch
  • Reviewed: Windows

It’s been three years since PUBG appeared in Early Access on Steam to throw the fledgling Battle Royale multiplayer genre into the spotlight, and since Fortnite seized opportunity and released its own Battle Royale beta later in the same year, further legitimizing an already powerful movement in multiplayer gaming. In the intervening time, Battle Royale has matured into a staple of online multiplayer gaming, both as standalone, focused titles, and add-on modes for other existing franchises. At this point, everything from Battlefield to Fallout to Tetris has tried its hand at Battle Royale, hoping to find a fresh spin on the formula and corner a lucrative chunk of the audience. Trouble is, most Battle Royale games are mutations of a familiar formula, making their own adjustments to the rules, the game’s setting, or small mechanics designed to differentiate without breaking out of a comfort zone, and the result is that most of these games end up feeling pretty similar after a few rounds. Sometimes, iteration and refinement can be good! But three years on from 2017, we’re starting to need more than just “now it’s on a tropical island and there are cars and the ring is a dimensional rift!” What if the way to make a really new and truly interesting game in the now-crowded Battle Royale space is to do something outside of the typical shooter?

This seems to be precisely the question that the folks at Proletariat must have asked themselves when they set out to create Spellbreak. It’s an extremely familiar but also totally new take on Battle Royale, swapping out the backdrop of military or futuristic shooters and instead building up a light fantasy Action RPG that’s been conceived from the beginning as a vehicle for Battle Royale within a new framework. It takes all of the familiar mechanics of Battle Royale (the enclosing circles, the airborne drop onto a giant landmass, last person standing takes all) and applies them to a totally different style of combat that feels really fresh and fun, and extremely well tuned.

You play as a battlemage facing exile, along with the rest of your adversaries on the island. You opt into a primary school of magic before the round starts (a class, if you will), which defines what your primary attack and primary special ability will be. You also have three categories of talents: Mind, Body, and Spirit, and you can select one talent from each category to go into battle with. You’ll unlock more talents as you increase your Mage Rank (your overall character progression rank). You have a pool of up to 12 points you can spend on your talents, and more powerful talents cost more points to equip, so as you gain access to more you’ll have to make careful decisions about how you build your class around specific talents. Some of them offer some really nice bonuses like increases to your spell damage, increased run speed on taking damage, or even a dramatic increase in your chance to find talent scrolls in chests (which are used during the game to level up your talents in a round).

The round starts by selecting from a variety of portals high above the island to teleport into and perform the signature “drop” from, and players will race their way down to the ground to start opening up chests of various size and quality in search of loot. Chests can contain armor (boots, belts, or amulets), ability runes, spell gauntlets, talent scrolls, or items to recover your health and armor pools. Most items in the game use the color-coded ranking system popular among RPGs, progressing from white (common) to green (uncommon) to blue (rare) to purple (epic) to orange (legendary). The efficacy and bonuses conferred by these items increase with each grade, and you can get a strong edge on your opponents by finding blue or purple gear early, especially when it comes to gauntlets which can let you deal a heck of a lot more damage against your likely unarmored opponents.

Unsurprisingly, players are therefore incentivized to go after the high tier loot areas early, as surviving the inevitable early skirmishes will net you a whole lot of strong gear right out the gate, positioning you to go on the offensive and hunt down other mages before they can grow their own strength. While this same philosophy is generally true in many other Battle Royale games, it’s much easier to understand conceptually in Spellbreak because it’s illustrated so plainly in your gear quality. High tier loot areas also tend to have a higher density of talent scrolls to find and read, which can also give you a significantly improved edge in the early stages of a round.

There are are six classes of mage to choose from each corresponding to a basic element: Frostborn (ice), Conduit (lightning), Pyromancer (fire), Toxicologist (poison), Stoneshaper (stone), and Tempest (wind). Each class has its own play style and lends itself well to different situations. The Pyromancer (my go-to) is a great all-arounder, who can both deal damage with their fireballs and zone out other mages with the flamewall ability. The Frostborn is a solid DPS class with an added bonus of high mobility thanks to being able to lay down ice trails, the Toxiciologist excels at damage over time skills and has an affinity for stealth play, the Tempest specializes in high mobility, The Stoneshaper is adept at applying pressure and remaining survivable, and the Conduit is great for rapid fire ranged combat and has incredible rune synergy. Each class has an active primary ability and special ability, and can receive further active and passive bonuses by surviving rounds to level up, which happens the moment you get into the next ring.

Things get really interesting though when you equip a secondary gauntlet, which gives you the active spells of another class that you can synergize with your primary class, and now suddenly you’ve got four active spells to work with and can combine elements in some really fun and exciting ways. For example, I love casting a poison cloud and lighting it on fire to do a ton of burst damage to opponents on the field. Similarly, you can light the Tempest’s tornado on fire to have a violent firestorm on the ground. There are a lot of different elemental combinations that you can utilize in combat to surprise your opponents with, which results in a deceptively diverse amount of strategy to the combat.

Also, and this is really important, your mage can levitate. You can just take off and ascend to higher ground any time you want, and it adds a ton to the power fantasy of being this badass spellcaster who has mastered the earth’s elements and can zip around the world. There’s a catch though; every attack and every little jaunt into the air requires mana, and it all draws from the same pool. At the beginning, that pool is pretty small, and can be depleted pretty quickly by spending too much time in the air or casting too many times in quick succession. It regenerates pretty quickly, so you’re never without the ability to attack for evade for too long, but if you fully deplete it, you’ll be unable to do anything until its recharged, potentially putting you into a situation of extreme vulnerability if you aren’t managing your mana pool effectively. As you acquire bonuses to your mana pool through gear and talent scrolls each round, the pool becomes less of a problem, but it is always something you have to be managing.

Luckily, even in the worst cases where you run out of mana, you can fall back on ability runes to get you out of tough scrapes. There are currently seven runes in the game (Springstep, Dash, Invisibility, Wolf’s Blood, Featherfall, Flight, and Teleportation), and all of them can be used as effective escape mechanisms. Wolf’s Blood is the most purely offensive rune, granting you extra run speed and outlines and reveals your opponents through all walls and terrain for 12 seconds, which could be used both to hunt down other mages or to hastily avoid them while maintaining awareness of their position. Whether being used for offense or defense, every one of them is squarely focused on mobility and gives you yet another tool to change the dynamics of a fight or reposition yourself to gain advantage. It’s a great addition that helps to further balance encounters and allow for even deeper build customization.

All of this comes together to make for an experience where even though you’re playing a Battle Royale game, you’ve got a ton of control over how to build and play your character, and in that way it feels like a really great extension of systems common to RPGs that is simple to understand and is also highly flexible and complex if you want to get into the weeds with it.

I’ve played the game primarily in trios mode, and you can opt whether or not to fill your squad if you don’t have a full stack. Rounds play out pretty much how you’d expect, but I will say that the flow of matches feels much faster in pace to me than most other Battle Royales I’ve spent time with. Yes, there’s downtime between fights, but because the overall player count is lower, the size of the map is scaled somewhat to match, and the rate at which the rings close is also more rapid given the fact that just about every player will have some kind of traversal ability at their disposal to move through the world more quickly. The result then is that most matches play out in a way where you’ll find yourself facing off with others more often than not, and skirmishes between multiple teams are really common as the circle reaches even the second or third stage of contraction. Spellbreak encourages fights and action by design, and while you can opt to play things slow and avoid combat, you may well find yourself at a gear disadvantage in the later stages of a match to a higher degree than you would in other Battle Royales, which can be a major problem for you. Unless of course you’re confident enough in your skills to take down powerful opponents and scoop up all of the tasty gear they drop, including every scroll they’ve read, to give yourself a nice boost, which can be a totally viable strategy if you’re capable of enough burst damage and can set up an effective ambush.

I’ve talked a whole lot about how Spellbreak plays and works. It’s important also to touch on the fact that technically speaking, it feels really excellent to play, largely owing to some exceptional performance. You will have no doubt noticed that Spellbreak‘s art style is strongly cartoonish in nature, which you might perceive as a turn off at first, but honestly I feel that the game’s visual style works extremely well with its concept and setting. We’re already in a fantasy world with magic, so realism is out the door as it is. The use of an illustrated visual style for characters and special effects against the backdrop of more realistic looking environments (relatively speaking) does wonders for establishing the setting and theme of the game. Every part of this game feels extremely playful and fun, and that’s underscored by the artistic choices made in its visuals. Plus, because of these stylistic choices, Spellbreak delivers buttery smooth performance pretty much all the time, which goes a long way toward making the combat fun to engage with. If there’s one thing I’ve been frustrated by in other games, it’s being distracted by performance issues at critical moments in combat engagements, and there is effectively none of that here, even when loads of spell effects are flying around on screen. Running on my four year old system sporting an Intel i7-6700K and a GTX 1080, Spellbreak runs at maxed settings on 1440p with virtually no major performance issues, which frankly is just not something I can say about nearly any other Battle Royale game out there. And, in my opinion, this game looks fantastic in motion.

Every choice in Spellbreak feels thoroughly considered, and this is no accident. The game first entered pre-alpha back in late 2018 and it has gone through extensive testing and player feedback cycles, spending a whole lot of time baking to get things dialed in just right. After all, if you’re going to remove firearms and put magic spells in their place, you’d better be darn sure that every aspect of combat and character builds feels really well-tuned. Honestly, there’s a great deal to like here, and it’s evident that a huge amount of time and effort were put into getting things right for the game’s launch. Matches are fun to play, time between matches is impressively low, and there’s a lot to discover about character builds and play styles. It gets a whole lot of things right, which is really impressive.

Still, there’s a feeling to me that something is missing. I like dipping in to play a few matches here and there, but it doesn’t necessarily have the same “just one more round” quality that a lot of other Battle Royale games have gotten down really well. It could be the absence of a traditional battle pass and systems that funnel you into desiring progression (which may be a positive depending on your tastes). It could be that the game’s single map feels generally pretty uniform, or that the differentiation between some of its areas is largely rendered moot by the high level of player mobility. It could be that even for all of the things it gets right, it does sometimes boil down to being a really well executed marriage of two pre-existing genres, and therefore is mostly evolutionary in nature. Or it could just be that I’m salty about not having been able to win a game since my first round. I do almost always rack up several kills each game, but the skill curve feels steep, and the players winning rounds are always clearly more skilled at the game than I am, not just in direct combat, but in how they compose their character builds. So, it could be that there is a feeling that even if I’m skilled with aim and flanking and evasion, I won’t be able to reliably outplay somebody whose gear is significantly better than mine. Which, you know, is kind of how it goes with RPG mechanics.

All of that said, I think Spellbreak is a truly unique take on the Battle Royale genre which brings enough ideas to the table that it feels like a fresh multiplayer experience, even within the familiarity and comfort of the larger mechanical systems at play. It may not spark a revolution in multiplayer gaming, but it’ll give you something new to be excited about in an otherwise crowded landscape of all-too-similar shooters.

A pair of Master Pack codes for Spellbreak were provided by the publisher for review purposes