Flame-throwing, air-bending battle royale arrives with Spellbreak
By TEDDY AMENABAR | The Washington Post | Published: September 18, 2020
Don’t look now, but we’re surrounded by battles royale. The last-man-standing formula has been regurgitated over and over again in countless attempts to create the next Fortnite, the next worldwide phenomenon, the next holy grail in online gaming.
It’s like the Hunger Games, and it’s exhausting. Still, the matches keep queuing. The wheel keeps turning. We all keep chasing that coveted “Victory.”
Amid all of this enters Spellbreak, a free-to-play, spell-casting battle royale that officially released across platforms Sept. 3 after months spent in closed beta on PlayStation 4 and PC. Developed by Proletariat, Spellbreak doesn’t shatter the battle royale wheel, but the game creatively weaves the bloated genre into a fantasy RPG. There are fresh, polished ideas at play here and plenty of possibilities for Spellbreak to grow into a top-tier battle royale.
In Spellbreak, players trade the typical assortment of handguns and rifles for spells powered by elemental gauntlets. You play as a battlemage who wields certain gauntlets to conjure fireballs, lightning and giant boulders in a fight for survival. The basics of the battle royale formula remain the same; players compete in a squad, or on their own, to become the last player standing against 42 competitors, all while a storm slowly approaches from the horizon. Along the way, you will find chests in villages, fortresses and other ruins across the map to upgrade your gauntlets and other inventory.
Each of the elemental gauntlets provides players six different classes with spells and sorcery to fit certain playstyles. The frost gauntlet creates an ice lance perfect for long-range attacks. Meanwhile, the stone gauntlet turns battlemages into “stoneshapers” who can send boulders hurtling toward their enemies. Every class has its strength and weaknesses. Stoneshapers deal damage but spells take longer to conjure, and the earth-based attacks make it hard to effectively deal with opponents flying in the air.
Before every match, players select their class from one of the six “elements” — ice, wind, lightning, fire, earth and poison. The spells are basic enough, but the fun comes from all the ways these elements interact, conjuring lethal blows or countering enemy attacks. A fireball will ignite a noxious cloud of poison. A trail of ice melts over time, providing a perfect conductor for a bolt of lightning. A tornado conjured by the wind gauntlet can extinguish an opposing firewall like a birthday candle. Spellbreak turns into this mad dash of rock-paper-scissors that only gets better with some coordination and skill.
Each spell is straightforward, but the ways they combine create increasingly complex opportunities to parry, attack and defend. The gameplay hits the same notes as Fortnite’s deceptively simple building mechanics. With time and fervor from fans, Spellbreak’s team fights could be as chaotic and as rewarding as the best sweaty, tower-raising duels on Fortnite’s Retail Row.
All battlemages can use some of their magical ability to levitate, as if propelled by a jet pack. Depending on your playstyle, combat can feel a lot like the high, arcing jump shots in Destiny. Opponents drop into battle like mortar rounds and certain runes scattered around the map grant players the ability to fly farther into the air to gain a high ground.
As teams do collide, the sound effects pull you into the action. The ground breaks under the weight of a stoneshaper. When a toxicologist is nearby, you can hear the hiss of poisonous gas. A rogue fireball will carry a whiff as it flies by your head. All of this leads to gripping — and somewhat overwhelming — sequences that end with one team standing.
Spellbreak’s world, the Hollow Lands, feels an awful lot like “The Dragon Prince” on Netflix, with a cross between medieval fantasy and anime cartoons. In a recent interview with CG Magazine, Spellbreak’s art director said developers modeled the physicality of the spells and summoning from the elemental might of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “Legend of Korra.” Yes, it feels incredible to hurl a boulder. And, yes, every cutting gust of wind made me think of Aang. The game scratches an itch that fans of the series have never really been able to reach.
All six of the classes have different perks that you can unlock over time. A shot of ice as a Frostborn, for example, will freeze the surrounding surfaces, allowing you to skate faster toward a new objective. And, the game also rewards players grinding on every elemental gauntlet. Ranking high in certain classes will allow you to turn on new talents that will boost your overall stats every match. The game rewards players who both specialize and experiment over time, which is a tricky balance for Spellbreak to strike.
Spellbreak is now out on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, PC and Xbox with cross-play and cross-progression for all four platforms. For this review, I mainly stayed on PlayStation 4, but I did test the game out on the Switch, which can feel a bit choppy and disconnected at 30 frames per second.
And, the masses are playing. On Sept. 8, Spellbreak announced that the game hit two million players in the first five days since launch.
The question remains: Where does Spellbreak go from here? The fundamentals are sound, and the new concepts are a refreshing escape from the lifeless carbon copies of battles royale.
Still, the title menu for the game feels like a half-empty house. There’s an in-game store, but the outfits for sale leave much to be desired. Plus, they cost a few pennies ($12 for the featured skin of the week, $4 for a very, very boring common skin) — but that’s to be expected for a free-to-play game. Meanwhile, the practice mode is limited, and the game could use a sandbox for teammates to test out combinations of spells against NPCs.
Many of the greatest battles royale had simple beginnings, however. This game may be yet another. The true test will be whether Proletariat can expand on what’s here with upcoming chapters and improvements to keep players coming back.
If I could, I’d break whatever cloning machine sits in the backroom of every game developer’s office to end the flood of battles royale. But I enjoy Spellbreak. It’s the rare exception in the genre for me. It’s fun, thoughtful and challenging. I’m eager to see whether the title has the right stuff to evolve into a top-tier battle royale. There sure is a foundation for a breakthrough title here.
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch