Just the other week, we reviewed Hyper Scape, Ubisoft’s attempt to take the world of battle royale by storm. Yet, here we are again, talking about yet another title trying to grab out of a market that, at this point, is ridiculously crowded, and where anything below greatness is destined to fade away rapidly. Boston-based developer Proletariat is aware that they need to do something bold and different to stick the landing, and that’s exactly the plan: it’s still a battle royale, sure, but one on a smaller scale, and most importantly by using elemental magic that can be combined to create a unique and varied combat model. Will it be enough for the game to cut itself out a share of the market, or will it fade into obscurity? Spellbreak’s free-to-play and humble Game Preview beginnings have been at players’ disposal for a couple days now, here’s what we’ve thought about it so far.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Spellbreak doesn’t have a story or lore, because as far as in-game content goes, there is essentially none. All you really need to know is that you’re among the Vowkeepers, a group of rebels fighting against a system that disallows them from using any magic. So they use said magic to… uhm… murder the hell out of each other on an island? Forget opening movies, cutscenes or dialogues, not even the playable characters make remarks like it happens in Apex Legends. For the moment, Spellbreak (which I continually want to call Spellbound for some reason) is just a core gameplay loop, with much of the window dressing still about to come. The menu hints at the eventual arrival of story chapters, but for now there’s only a handy tutorial and… the battle royale mode. The game only launched with 3-player squads, but duos and solos are also being phased out around the time this preview goes live. So, shall we enter the arena of Spellbreak?
If the tutorials weren’t enough, similarly to many other titles of the genre, there’s some pre-game lobby action, where during the wait for the real deal, players can freely explore, fight each other without losing health, and pick up any and all equipment available in the game, distributed together neatly in various locations to allow free testing of what’s to come. After that, expect no airplanes to drop from in the game’s medieval fantasy world, and the game doesn’t currently dive into high fantasy like dragons or other flying creatures, so the match effectively begins with the players effectively choosing one from a series of randomly placed portals on the map, from which they can drop onto the island that holds the battle royale match. Think the final battle in Endgame, but the portals are horizontal and in the sky. The drops are essentially vertical, not much room to manouver and no parachutes to use. This means all players touch the ground pretty much at the same time, and that’s when the action begins. The landing phase is accompanied by gloriously epic symphonic music that seems to arrive straight out of The Matrix movies, before leaving us to the silence of the barren fields, interrupted only by the noises of war.
On a first glance, the look of Spellbreak’s battle royale arena isn’t too different from what we’re used to seeing in other games of the genre, including Fortnite. Green pastures, high mountains, lakes, forests – mainly natural formations. There’s also buildings spread across the map, mostly medieval castles and walls. Given this style, there’s no skyscrapers or buildings with several floors, but a level of verticality is guaranteed by a decent variety of altitude changes, on top of statues and towers rendering the vistas somewhat more busy as well. The scenery is obviously full of items to pick up to power yourself up, along with the weaponry needed to go against other opponents. The formula is old, with crates to loot, circles closing in and the last team/player alive taking the crown, regardless of whether it happened by hiding in a corner as other teams duked it out or after a glorious battle where the winner took out 10 enemies single-handedly. What changes is how the combat and traversal work in Spellbreak, two elements that make this title shine over the waves of identical titles.
The battle system is based on two elemental gauntlets out of a choice of six each player can wear, one per arm. One is chosen before the match per the class picked, the other can be exchanged every time a different element is found. Wind, stone, lightning, poison, fire and ice, each with offering two different attacks, some even impacting mobility like the ice arrows that can be used to create frozen paths on the ground to effectively ice-skate on at very high speeds, or the secondary poison ability that can keep the player mid-air while it’s being cast. These gauntlets take the place of the traditional weapons and abilities, effectively substituting them in function too. The ice arrows are a lethal long range sniper of sorts, lightning is a fast barrage of individually low damage fast bolts that serve as an assault rifle, stone is a slow throw that has massive splash damage like a rocket launcher, and so on. All of them have a secondary mode with a couple seconds of cool-down. My favourite has to be the poison smoke you can create with its elemental gauntlet. In itself, it’s a spicy little trap to throw on your opponents, but what if we… mix it up a little?
Having two arms with a gauntlet on each is not just a cosmetic choice, nor it is a more effective way to alternate your “weapons” – the elements can be mixed in a shocking amount of ways, creating some devastating combos. The aforementioned poison cloud can be electrocuted with lightning, creating an even deadlier trap. Ice paths can be set on fire, incinerating a long straight line on the floor. While there already seem to be certain combinations that the community is starting to favour (I’m personally an electricity + poison guy), all elements and their respective combos currently look like viable solutions based on each players’ individual playstyles, and the sheer amount of of options renders battles surprisingly varied, albeit with one apparent common theme: verticality wins.
On top of the gauntlets of various rarities, equipment following the same rulesets and smaller and larger health and shield potions alike, another enormous element of combat and traversal alike are runes. Once again coming in various increasingly effective variants, these abilities can be equipped one at a time, and in exchange of a cooldown of a couple seconds they donate the player some special abilities, usually relative to mobility. Teleportation, flight not unlike Superman for a handful of seconds, my personal favourite Featherfall allowing the player to jump up high, then to descend at a lowered speed which, combined with the base ability of all players to levitate for a second or so, makes not touching the ground for a long time surprisingly comfortable and easy. There’s also more grounded abilities like a wolf’s call that reveals enemies’ locations around and invisibility. These are also effective, but experience of the first week of gameplay or so seems to reveal that abilities that launch the player in the sky and allow them to stay there seem to be the winning strategies, as they allow them to attack from a larger variety of directions, dodge splash damage and all-ground based abilities, on top of being able to reach higher locations that are literally inaccessible to those running less mobile abilities. Endgame is all about the aerial plays, just like in Rocket League.
A total of 40-42 players duke it out in these medieval fantasy locations. The map is fairly large, so it’s likely to find long walks without encountering enemies unless the player chooses a crowded location. Joining an excessively chaotic fight is a risky strategy however, as relatively low TTK (time-to-kill) encourages laying low in such situations, then bursting in as a third party to get rid of the survivors. There’s a classic respawn system in place where players’ dead bodies can be reanimated for a certain timeframe, unless an enemy decides to finish them with a lengthy melee interaction, with no second chances to reenter the battlefield like in Apex Legends, Warzone, or recently even Fortnite. Squad-based modes definitely reward teamplay, but there’s no effective team abilities like heal areas or ammo sharing (not that there’s ammo in Spellbreak), so getting outnumbered is less of a problem compared to most battle royale games, as various clutches of mine can testify. As of now, there’s no other gamemodes with alternative rulesets, and the progression of each match is pretty much bog-standard for the genre, with the unique elements coming almost exclusively from the combat and the traversal.
There’s not much else going on even as far as the surroundings of the game goes. The map is an island with no meaningful fantasy elements or events, it’s essentially a pretty standard world that would not be out of place in just about any medieval-themed videogame. Lore is also practically non-existent. A bit of visual variety is given by the free unlockable and paid skins, flight effects and emotes like it happens in most free-to-play titles as of late, but so far their effective variety is very low. There’s a system of perks too which are unlocked throughout XP, which allow slight variations to gameplay like faster potion consumptions and health boosts when eliminating opponents. Oh, and another important thing: the game is entirely cross-platform between Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and PC, and all progress is also shared on your account regardless of which platform you choose to play on. Another excellent chapter taken out of Fortnite’s book.
All in all, Spellbreak is a very promising start. 2 millions of players in the first days, an excellent combat model with the combination of elemental magic, fantastic traversal and great runes that spice up the gameplay. For now, what’s missing is… pretty much everything else. This Game Preview currently lacks any lore, story, varied gameplay modes, any sort of visual identity for the game’s map, much of a progression system, and even the paid skins aren’t particularly inspired. There’s a meaty gameplay model, now the developers will need to add the window dressing and the depth necessary for the game to remain interesting on the long-term. If they play their cards well, this could become one of the battle royale sensations of this decade. We’re certainly curious to see what the future brings to this peculiar fantasy take on the genre!