Developed and Published by: Proletariat
Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: Out Now
Am I accidentally getting into Battle Royale games? If I am, it’s partly due to my friends. After their suggestions, I have recently played Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout and now Spellbreak, a new take on the genre that brings fresh ideas to the table. Whilst it undeniably relies on certain traits of previous Battle Royale games, there is a physics-based, magical spin that does serve to set it apart. So, how does Spellbreak stack up against PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite, Apex Legends, and so on? Well, read on…
I Call It Magic
Upon first entering the game, an aspect that struck me was the art style and accompanying slightly melodramatic, grand notes of the audio. This may be a random connection, but it stirred memories of the rousing Spider-Man 2 theme but with a fantasy, medieval edge. Spellbreak is set in Primdal, a world of mages and mystery, and visually has a vibrant sheen not far removed from Fortnite but with a bit more detail and intrigue to it. The aesthetic is reminiscent of Western animation – proportions are quite realistic, but they maintain clear segments of colour interspersed with signs and symbols to add that extra sense of lore.
To me, the style resides somewhere in that space from Fortnite to Apex Legends. Furthermore, the different types of magic flying around in-game creates a palette of colour spattering the surroundings, complimented by reverberating sounds of impact to keep the tension raised. As clarification before going any further; I played the Switch and PlayStation 4 versions of the game. The PS4 version is unsurprisingly more technically proficient; there are crisper lines and the game runs smoother, compared to the Switch edition which is a bit more blurry and can suffer slowdown when there is a lot happening on screen at once. It isn’t awful though, just a tad behind the PS4. It certainly isn’t enough to, ahem, break the spell.
Let’s get into that, then. Spellbreak starts, wisely, with a tutorial to get you accustomed to the basics of the controls. You play as a mage, and choose one of six different specialisms: Frostborn (Ice), Stoneshaper (Stone), Toxicologist (Acid), Tempest (Wind), Pyromancer (Fire), and Conduit (Lightning). The option you settle on decides your primary Gauntlet on the right side of your HUD; this, logically, takes up one of your arms, leaving space for a secondary Gauntlet on your other arm if/when you find one within the world map in-game. As you play, you start to get more accustomed to how each one works, and find combos that work for you as a player.
Each Gauntlet has two attacks, with varying effects and cooldown rates which at launch are impressively well-balanced, with no one Gauntlet being overpowered. Combined with your Rune, another pick-up item that can give you varying effects such as invisibility, dashes, and the ability to see enemies through walls, it creates a menu of actions at the bottom of your screen that reminded of the real-time combat in JRPGs such as Xenoblade Chronicles (see below). As far as I know, this is a new mash-up within the Battle Royale space, and is perhaps the defining element of Spellbreak.
The tutorial is actually really well put together, explaining all of this plus various other gameplay mechanics. To sum up other elements of the HUD: you find Scrolls in the world that improve one of your three custom Talents that have subtle effects on your character; Potions and Armour to bolster your ability to take hits; Belts to increase your capacity to carry Armour; Boots to up your Run Speed; and Amulets to increase your Mana supply. When you do enter the scary world of the Battle Royale proper with up to 49 others, finding these items and sufficiently preparing yourself for encounters with opposing players is – as with other Battle Royales – crucial. However, I will say that because of the added depth of the range of HUD options here, it does result in a more complex set of mechanics – particularly because of the mix of elemental Gauntlets.
Mix ‘n’ Match
This is because the game, and those Gauntlets, have a very clever, interweaving physics system based on their differing properties – a system that isn’t just about combat, but traversal too. Each of them are singularly fun; to take the Ice Gauntlet as an example, the trails of Ice it creates can be skated on for increased speed and mobility (Frozone in The Incredibles anyone?), and the Wind Gauntlet can spring you into the air for an improvised vantage point. The initial phase of Spellbreak where you are experimenting with these different Gauntlets is brilliant, as you discover how they all work and affect the space around you.
Whilst your character runs and crouches as you may expect, the jump has a hover function that allows you to float, further tying into the Mage idea and supplying a vertical dimension to the gameplay; skating on ice and then transitioning into a speedy hover over a gap is joyous, almost making you forget you need to keep an eye out for other players! There’s a decent skating game hidden in here, you know. Where Spellbreak really excels, though, is in the detail of how the Gauntlets interact with each other, whether it be with other members of your up-to-3-person Squad or the Mages you fight.
So, say your opponent puts up a wall of fire with the Fire Gauntlet, but you have the Ice Gauntlet; a shot from the Ice Gauntlet can cut through the fire with the Ice dousing a safe path. In the other direction, though, the fire melts your ice path quicker, limiting your skating. Moreso, if a player with the Thunder Gauntlet strikes that water, they can create a new barrier of electrified water! Another case: The Toxic Gauntlet can cause a cloud of poisonous gas, but then the Ice Gauntlet can freeze that, and another element – perhaps the Stone Gauntlet – can smash that gas away to clear the space.
These are just a few of the examples of this wonderful physics system that delivers surprise moments. It reminded me a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the way physics played such a part in that game, especially as the art styles aren’t that far apart – and also the hood and cape you can wear reminded me of the one Link can wear in Breath of the Wild, aha! Developer/Publisher Proletariat could have had the Gauntlets work individually and left it at that, but instead they have gone beyond and thought about the way they act in contact with one another, emphatically adding to the enjoyment of playing.
On the other hand, not all of Spellbreak is so praiseworthy. The gameplay systems may have a new twist, but the world they are encased in has an admittedly generic Battle Royale infrastructure. It’s all-too-familiar for players who have experienced Fortnite, Apex Legends, et al: you land in a set map (this time without even the illusion of any vehicle dropping you in) with up to 2 others on your team. From there, you collect the aforementioned resources to kit yourself out, whilst being wary of other players around you. Then the “Storm” closes in, shrinking the circle of play smaller and smaller and closing the remaining players up until eventually only one Squad or player is left victorious. Put that way, it sounds very unoriginal, and well, it is, but as I say, those gameplay quirks are where the appeal lies.
Side note: I find it kind of amusing how each game has to find their own terms for their games: so, in this case, you don’t go down, you are “disrupted”, and you you don’t bleed out, you are “exiled”. One day we are going to run out of words! The first and currently only map, the Hollow Lands, is your typical fantasy world, with a dystopian tone again making me compare it to Breath of the Wild. It’s lots of green and brown punctuated by crumbling castles, but there are some welcome contrasts, whether they be an intricate maze or a misty, swampy section. We aren’t savvy to a lot of the lore of Primdal or the Hollow Lands yet, but the destroyed sites you encounter – including one that seems to have been a Colosseum or auditorium – do pique my intrigue. Narrative content is on the way for the future – the “Chapters” menu is currently grayed out – and I may do a further article at a later date to see how these affect the game.
Going back to the set-up of the game, I will note that as the game progresses and the circle – sorry, the “Storm” – gets smaller, the more the distinctive magical actions make their mark, as you’re naturally forced into deploying them once hiding becomes less of an option. Not that I’m hiding… Erm… next point! Early on, when you’re on the Battle Royale collecting merry-go-round, it’s a very similar cycle to other games of this type, but when you encounter others, that’s when the game really comes alive. Desperately maneuvering around as spells fly past your face, with ice, fire, acid, and more suddenly appearing around you, is a frantic and utterly fun form of chaos that legitimately gets the heart pumping, especially when you get down to the final few players. Staying on the move is so important in this game to make yourself harder to hit and to remain aware of those around you.
I tried playing Spellbreak with friends and without, and had engaging experiences with each approach. With friends you can discuss strategy on the go, but in a way it is also easier to get distracted and give away your position, aha; I am very appreciative of Proletariat incorporating cross-play, making the process of putting together a group of friends more efficient. When playing by myself in Solo it brought out that lone wolf determination, and then when in Squads with unknown people, there ended up being in-game camaraderie despite no voice chat! The inclusion of the pinging system that was so well done in Apex Legends – so, again, this isn’t a new idea – is helpful for co-operating without dialogue, too, letting you point out where you are headed, items you have found, and opponents you spot.
Running the Gauntlet
Free-to-play games such as Spellbreak can be made or broken by their progression systems and the way that the dreaded real-money payments are integrated. If we start with just the in-game side: each Gauntlet has a separate Class Rank, which as it improves unlocks new ways to optimise it – take the Ice Gauntlet, which is the one I have used the most. As that has gone up in Rank, I have acquired the possibility of it being able to temporarily highlight players I target, making them easier to keep track of. Being able to commit to one Gauntlet and feel as though you are mastering it is very satisfying! Similarly, there are separate “Mastery” stat tracking menus for each class, allowing you to see your record with each playstyle. As well as this, you have an overall Mage Rank that you get progression on whichever Gauntlet you are using, and the increase of this is the main in-game way to earn Gold for the Shop.
Okay, so the monetisation. It’s not great… The frequency at which you earn the Gold isn’t necessarily the problem, but the amount you earn, 50 each time? When items range from around 400-1200 in the shop? By Level 10 I had around 450, which gave me the option to purchase one item, but if I did that then I would be back to around 0 and even further away from those more expensive items. When you”re in the scenario of only being able to afford a “bored” emote, you know the system has gone awry!
It just seems as though for items in the Shop, realistically, they’re set up for you to pay real money for them. Spellbreak is free-to-play, so not as egregious as, say, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, but it still isn’t an ideal situation for the player. To counteract this, the item unlocks in-game are decent, with fun designs for your Badge, Card, and more, solely from your level going up. Therefore, if you ignore the Shop, you’ll still get a decent variety to customise yourself from. I also have hopes that as they add new features, they open up new ways to earn Gold to make the Shop more viable for those not spending real money.
In terms of those prospects for the future, there is that aforementioned story-based content on the way which sounds promising, and there have already been updates, such as the addition of a Solo mode that I touched on earlier for those who would prefer to go it alone. It’s awesome to see how aware the game is of the community – take the very active Discord server as an example, where players are constantly teaming up. I’m very confident that this game has legs, and in my mind there are opportunities for ideas such as new elements being introduced to shake up the meta. A dedicated Water Gauntlet, perhaps? For now, though- as with Fall Guys – I can only review the game they have presented to us at launch, so my score is based on that, not what might happen.
For a game I tried out with friends as a potential way for us to spend some fun time together, I was pleasantly surprised with Spellbreak. Within the generic trappings of Battle Royale conventions it employs, it manages to create an identity for itself through inviting presentation and, most of all, the smart Gauntlet system and clashing of elements. This is a fantastic base from which Proletariat can work from, and I am especially excited to see how the story side of the game evolves into the future. Spellbreak may not do much to redefine the Battle Royale, but it does have enough new ideas to carve out a place in that genre in which to shine.