I recently got into the preview closed beta for Spiral Knights and the first thing I noticed was how it’s reminiscent of Castle Crashers for the Xbox—or at least the characters look like 3D versions of those characters. If it were fiction, it would belong to the clockpunk genre—a mixture of clockwork mechanisms with fantasy archetypes. And as clockpunk it doesn’t disappoint.
Developed by Three Rings Design, Inc. of San Francisco, California and published by SEGA, this game looks like it will prove to be an extremely solid offering into the free-to-play MMO market. Three Rings happens to be the developer of Puzzle Pirates, a puzzle-based MMO I thoroughly enjoyed during the time that I played it.
Upon entering the game you get to choose a Knight with some minimal aesthetic choices and, of course, your gender which really means you either get pigtails or a flat helmet. You’re immediately thrust into the fray after your emergency lifeboat crash lands on a strange world—known as Cradle—and you’re guided to the rescue camp for your introduction by a radio call. The premise unfolds that you’re a space faring race of mechanical armor people and you landed on a somewhat hostile clockwork world. In fact, from space it looks rather like a globe crossed with a Rubik’s Cube. A golden axel shafts its way though the axis of the planet and is crossed with an internally-toothed gear to one side similar to a globe.
It suggests that the works mechanisms connect off of the main-axel and perhaps a mainspring and that the land itself shifts and rotates against itself. As the narrative of the game progresses, you discover that further environments exist deeper within the shells of the planet as you trek towards the core. The core is of extreme interest to the Spiral Knights as there seems to be an immense power source there and thus it’s the primary goal of the players to harden themselves through battle, crafting, and experience to reach it.
After the rescue came tutorial, you’ll find yourself in Haven—the main center of commerce and community for Spiral Knights—from which you will find groups of players to fight alongside, and discover the strange world of Cradle for yourself by descending into the Clockworks.
Gameplay: It’s a little bit like Gauntlet with a dash of arcade puzzle
The game is played in a 3/4s view and you control your character with the mouse. Left button moves the little Spiral knight in the direction they’re facing, left-button attacks with their current weapon, mouse-wheel switches the current weapon. Spiral knights have to weapons: swords and guns. You also have a shield that can be activated by pressing the ‘X’ key that surrounds you with a defensive barrier—it can be broken down, but while its up, you’re pretty much invulnerable and it may be used while moving. Special items (collected only within the Clockwork) can be used from the 1-5 keys; these items consist of explosive elemental potions (ice, fire, electricity, stunning, etc.) clockwork guardians (an NPC who fights alongside you like another character) and recovery items.
The control set makes it feel very arcade-like when you enter combat. Hitting enemies is satisfying and knocks some of them around and being struck causes red “0”s to pop off of your character. Getting killed forces you to spend energy to revive–one of the in-game credit systems. Combat is a cute arcade of carnage with smashing noises, flashes, stars, and other special effects flying.
Mowing through large groups of jellycubes can be quite exhilarating. Especially with a large group of other Spiral Knights in the Clockworks.
As you progress you will collect money called crowns to purchase better weapons and armor and as you collect them your characters look will change. As with other games, you have the ability to wear one armor element for the stats it provides and wear a different one for the look it provides (or both for the same.) Different Clockworks (the dungeon equivalent) also provide different types of enemy encounters, so a player might have more than one suit of armor/weapon loadout they’ll choose to wear when they enter a Clockwork.
Both weapons and armor have strengths and weaknesses that aid or hinder the player when they encounter different types of enemies. Enemies have “types” such as constructs, jellies, etc. and specific weapon types do extra low to massive damage against those specific types–some even have secondary status effects such as lighting them on fire, stunning, or shocking them. Some armors have specific strengths such as being strong against ice attacks but weak against fire attacks. So choose your loadout carefully before descending into a Clockwork gate.
New weapons and armor can be bought from merchants, but the best stuff in the game comes from the crafting system called “alchemy.” This takes place at Alchemy Machines in Haven and uses items collected from Clockwork runs and recipes also collected from Clockwork runs. As the resources and recipes are limited, it generates a rich trading community who use their crowns and energy credits to exchange goods.
Enemies in early levels vary only a little. The basic enemies consist of jellycubes and chameleons that lash their tongues; there are also heavy ogre-like monsters who swing tree limbs but move very slowly. As you progress down the Clockwork rabbit-holes you’ll find more and more ranged enemies who fire elemental attacks, requiring that you think about your weapons and armor before you enter.
PvP exists but only in arena-style matches called Brawls signed up at The Coliseum kiosk in Haven. “Super Brawl is a fantastic, free-for-all fight for up to eight knights! You will be awarded points for defeating other contestants and lose points for being defeated. The contestant with the most points at the end of the five minute round wins!” Winners get their names up on the leader boards.
Sound: Sweet lilting harmonies cut by the crash and clatter of combat
There’s a pretty solid score to this game with some environmental sounds. In Haven there’s a specific repeating song that plays with a harmony of several voices—repetitive, but you get used to it–that’s accompanied sometimes by the chirps of strange helicopter birds called “snipes.”
The arcade-effect really comes out when descending into the Clockworks where sound is concerned. Attacks and swings have a satisfying swish and crunch on impact, blaster pew-pew produces sounds as you’d expect. Enemies screech, howl, and gurgle as they assail you from all directions and yelp death cries when they go down. A full on scrum with swords and blasters firing can emit a strange cacophony of various arcade-style sounds.
Best of all, when a boss-battle or wave-enemy event is triggered by players the music changes and swells; the battle music score is an upbeat, strong melody that makes you feel like you’re about to walk into the thick of it. Sometimes that certainly is the case.
Graphics: 3D with maze 2D environments atop breathtaking vistas
The graphics for this game exemplar a sort of 3D cartoony arcade-style that the art direction seems to favor. The colors and palates are vivid and pop out at you no matter what region or Clockwork you’ve entered and you’ll begin to recognize styles of maps by the environmental effects in them. There’s castles with dark masonry, metallic floors covered with grills belching fire, snow-covered freezing areas with ice crystals on the walls, and even grassy platforms full of trees and shrubs.
The Clockworks, which account for the dungeon system of Spiral Knights, are accessed via kiosks attached to elevators called Clockwork Gates. In Haven there is only one static Clockwork gate called the Firefly Gate–the rest of them exist in the Arcade and they cycle in and out of accessibility with time. The concept means that every few weeks you gain access to new Clockworks dungeons and old ones get cycled out (I suspect they return.) This means that you’ll always be able to choose from a new Clockwork every time you return, increasing the game’s playability hugely.
The gates also have a secondary function, which is that they must be “built” through collecting precious gems from within other Clockworks. The quicker that the gems are poured into inactive gates, the sooner they’ll become active—furthermore, through a complex system, the types of precious gems fed into a gate will decide what paths are open when it becomes active. This may lead particular organized groups of characters and guilds to make decisions on what types of gate they want to appear in the future by hoarding gems and then pouring them into a gate that matches their desires.
When it comes to varied atmosphere and art design Spiral Knights really shines.
The environments of Cradle–specifically the Clockworks–appear like floating platforms inside of a vast space. The edges of the platforms reveal a misty depth below containing clouds, colossal metal structures, gears, levers, escapement wheels, plates. Sometimes a giant internal-tooth gear is visible as a line against the cloudy blue. Others display a smoky black distance, filled with the chugging of machinery and cogs rolling against one another in immense turning clockwork mechanisms. I’ve also seen floating castles, crenellations and masonry floating in a darkness illuminated with numinous clouds of flickering light.
Free-to-Play: A Freemium model redux with a game time limiter opened up by cash
Players are encouraged to purchase crystal energy to enhance their game play. There are two types of energy in Spiral Knights: mist energy and crystal energy. Mist energy recharges at a rate that gives you about 100 in a day and has a maximum of 100. Crystal energy doesn’t recharge and instead must be traded for or purchased via the in-game marketplace. 1,600 crystal energy costs $4.95—and crystal energy can even be exchanged for crowns at a rate of about 100 crystal energy for 3,000 crowns (this varies, and energy -> crowns is always a worse exchange generally 100 crystal gives ~2,500 crowns.)
All operations in the game cost energy. Alchemical transmutations often cost 50 energy to produce lower level equipment. Using elevators to descend a level into the Clockwork cost 10 energy (meaning you can only descend 10 times in a day) however, there are events that low the prices for various activities, such as a weekend promotion that made elevators 2 energy. Resurrecting after death starts low but appears to increase geometrically either with the number of deaths or number of floors descended.
All of these factors encourage players to purchase crystal energy and work towards the freemium aspect of the game. The fact that mist energy recharges over time will help this for players who cannot pay money to play the game; but they’ll be left in the dust by players who can purchase crystal energy.
Conclusion: Group-based fun with a healthy heaping of energetic gameplay
Right now, Spiral Knights is a little bit one-trick-pony: going into the Clockworks with groups to beat up monsters and find a path to the core. It has a puzzles, battles galore, and derring-do, but that’s really the very crux of the entire game. This is why their current rate limited freemium model will probably work well as people won’t want to play this for hours on end over the course of an entire day, but are more likely to come in and play it casually for a few hours and find something else.
The ever-shifting access and manifold different Clockworks to look into that change week-to-week will be a huge draw to bring people back and help reduce burnout. Plus, the staggering variety of enemies, environments, and reasons to build up an arsenal is also an excellent reason to come back week-after-week even if it’s not the sort of thing that allows you to get sucked in.
There’s a lot to be said about how smoothly it runs, the well-thought-out design and art direction, the sounds and music which provide further atmosphere for the interesting environments.
But what will really keep you coming back to the Spiral Knights and the dangers of the Clockworks will be the friends you make there and bring along. As an MMO, it encourages a lot of team play, and that’s really what will make the game shine like a twirling gear.