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Sonic Speed Review: Spiral Knights

April 8, 2011
by

How does Three Rings’ and SEGA’s free browser-based MMO fare?

 

Welcome to the Order, Recruit!

Spiral Knights has actually been around for a while. Being a beta, it remained in obscurity until about a month ago when developer Three Rings made the call to take it live – which it did just a few days ago. Playing from the day its miniature marketing campaign began and finished, I’ve seen a little of Spiral Knights progression and I can tell you that it’s still the beta without the beta sign. But is that beta engaging? Yes. Definitely yes. Spiral Knights is your typical dungeon crawler, but MMO browser-based styled. The game begins with you as a Spiral Knight, assumedly a sort of cute bio-robot that runs on the special energy ‘heat’, crash landed on alien territory with your mothership, the Skylark, irreparably damaged. Sort of.  A few tutorials later in which the basics of the game are introduced and you make it to the main hub of the game, Haven, where you learn the rest of the background under the meager narrative. The foreign world you’ve found yourself stranded on has a core of great interest to the ‘Spiral Order’, as it is composed of a hodge-podge of super-powerful energy that you Spiral Knights are intent on commanding. There’s no story arc, or at least only a very abstract one. You just charge head-first into the Clockworks…


The Clockworks are Spiral Knights’ excuse for almost identical dungeons. The world has over thirty levels, separated into thee tiers, the first just below the surface and the lowest closest to the core, each with a series of dungeons that rotate around inside the geosphere in real time. Accessing them is as easy as descending through a ‘gate’ from Haven, which lowers you into the earth in search of minerals (which build more gates for you to explore) and, if you’re brave and obsessed enough, this intensely powerful core. You descend a gate, scour a floor for the next elevator, fighting gremlins and other such monsters, find minerals, collect crowns, find the next elevator, pay out ten energy, then do it all again.

(Gameplay recorded by our very own MaxCady!)

Conceptually, the rotation of the dungeons is quite ingenious; a clever way of taking thirty or so levels and making them potentially three hundred. I’ve been playing since the announcement it was soon to leave its beta tag in the dust and of the floors I’ve descended I’ve probably seen only about half of the Clockworks. There are a generous amount of styles of dungeon, so we can’t pin Three Rings for being lazy – there’s anything from a graveyard swarming with bony zombies and a particularly irritating breed of flaming-red demon, to a peaceful garden littered with ferocious puppies and towering rock giants. Tranquil. It becomes apparent very quickly that the bulk of Spiral Knights is not in its ‘adventuring’ but the items you get out of it. You’re striving for bragging rights here. You collect items, crowns (half the currency of the Clockworks) and save energy (the other half of the currency) and then partake in some alchemy to craft better rated armour, shields, guns swords and bombs. You can just purchase some, such as 1 star items, from the stalls higgledy-piggledy and confusedly placed around the Bazaar outside of Haven, but if you want equipment you’re going to have to craft it from ‘recipes’, which are bought from NPC’s placed equally as higgledy-piggledy around the game. You learn the recipe, collect from the Clockworks or acquire from trade the materials you need, then partake in some good old fashioned alchemy to fashion yourself your beauties. You can just skip to the NPC’s at tiers one, two and three when you unlock them, but the placement of the vendors around the main hub is irritating – a central shop would be far more convenient. That aside, Spiral Knights makes you work for your bragging rights, and it makes you work hard. And wait.

Waiting is a biggie. Addiction is something I don’t think the human race can help when it comes to interaction with random, faceless people on the other side of the street/state/country/world, and being an MMO, interacting with such people is obviously unavoidable in Spiral Knights. But, somewhat barring hours in front of your computer screen is your 100 energy limit. As each elevator costs 10 energy to use, plus you need to use energy to transmute items in alchemy and revive yourself if you fall in battle, 100 will only get you so far. I didn’t want to pay for a free game, so I didn’t spend money on extra energy. If you don’t you’re looking at about an hour a day until you get deeper into the game Of course, you can buy energy with crowns and real money, and I suspect the reason some players are strutting around with five star armour is because they’ve poured half their savings into the game. But once you hit deeper tiers you become self-sufficient and it requires actual will to pull yourself. Not that it’s too hard to do. Spiral Knights is a good, but very shallow game (see what I did there?) combat-wise, and the social side of things nearly takes up half the gameplay. The action is very simple – press Z to hack things, press spacebar to switch weapons and shoot things, hold X to shield from things hacking you and hold cursor to run. You can throw poison or fire etc vials at enemies and bombs at enemies and set enemies on fire or freeze them or turn them green with yellow polkadots, but it’s all a very low-key unambitious method. In fact I’d hedge the only reason players will keep digging down into the Clockworks is the thrill of the unconditional teamwork.

 

My favourite part of this picture is not the awesome looking knight. No, not at all.

Socially, I really liked Spiral Knights. There’s always some guy that thinks he can abuse the fun to say what he likes when he likes, but this is the internet. The community for Spiral Knights is very friendly, and very approachable. Need help? Yell it out in in-game chat and you’ll get a dozen knights rushing to your aid. In the preview event when I was just starting out, some kind Samaritan gave my pathetic shell of a knight a leg up and handed me 50+ energy, a two-star helm and a two-star armour. And you can bet that when I reach that god-like level of shadowy-eyed, z-button-is-broken addiction, I’ll be finding a new recruit to take under my spiral-tailed helm and ease into the game. All swearing is censored and there hasn’t been a guild I’ve come across that does not almost fiercely encourage team spirit and ethics and co-operation and other such nonsensical nuances of society WoW and the average Halo Reach lobby indiscriminately dispenses of.

(More gameplay recorded by out very own MaxCady!)

Spiral Knights… hasn’t got much more to it. It’s not amazing graphically, it’s not groundbreaking – but it is free, something we all like the sound of. The knights are cute, the players are intent on a good time and you will not be running out of ambitions in the game any time soon. It’s just a party bag of time-wasting fun, the sort of thing you hop onto while you’re waiting for your facial mousse to set or your beer to cool in the fridge. I can’t really pin it for anything – for a browser game it ticks the boxes and provides a shallow but satisfying experience. It’s not particularly hard to run – I played on my hard-working little Macbook Air and until the game hit about Haven 3 (150 live players – those not dungeon crawling) did the servers begin to choke and my knight start moonwalking around the dungeon (at Haven 5 I thought my knight was running on paint-fumes instead of heat). However I tried again on other, more suitable computers and I never had a problem. For those of us without such luxuries, never fear, the initial surge of players will even out and eventually the game will probably be running smoothly for internet connections more advanced than a copper wire and some sticky tape.

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