Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs, or MMOs for short) are a booming business. World of Warcraft (WoW) is the most lucrative entertainment property of all time. A multitude of other MMO’s have garnered great success in both the paid model and the free-to-play model. Spiral Knights is a recent entry into the free-to-play market, developed by Three Rings Design and published by SEGA. In Spiral Knights, you play as an eponymous Spiral Knight. These are little steampunk-meets-Final Fantasy mage characters that wield swords, guns, bombs, and a shield, while wearing armor. You find yourself landing on The Clockwork, an ancient mechanical world. Your job is to try and reach the core of The Clockwork to gather energy.
You wander through isometric dungeons called Clockworks with up to three other people, destroying enemies, exploring, and gathering loot. Since the Clockworks are constantly moving and changing, the dungeons change at regular intervals, providing a fresh experience almost constantly. Crystals are gathered as you go lower in The Clockworks. These crystals are then used to open up more paths, with a complex system that allows players to try and influence how those Clockworks are assembled before they open.
Spiral Knights resembles The Legend of Zelda more than it does World of Warcraft in terms of gameplay. Combat is based around three different weapon types: guns, swords, and bombs. There is no magic, but some weapons can have elemental effects. There are also potions that can be gathered during your exploration. There are potions to replenish heath as well as bomb-like potions to that you can throw at enemies to damage them. This still makes for what feels like rather limited combat, particularly against enemies who seem so adept at dodging that the concept of friction no longer applies to them.
The first thing anybody will notice about Spiral Knights is how unlike other MMOs it really is. While it has guilds, commerce, and tons of people just like any other MMO, the the similarities end here. Rather than having you level up, equipment levels up as you gather “heat” from destroyed enemies. Any piece of equipment can go up to level ten. Some pieces can then be upgraded, for a cost.
Spiral Knights features a deep commerce system with two types of currency: crowns and energy. Crowns are obtained by killing monsters, selling equipment, and opening chests. Crowns are used in the purchase and crafting of items. Energy is divided into two categories. Mist regenerates at the rate of one point every 15 minutes or so, up to 100 points that can be carried at any given time. Crystal energy doesn’t regenerate, and players start the game with 500 points. More energy can be purchased with real-world dollars, however. Energy is used in nearly everything. Operating the elevators that take you lower into The Clockworks, crafting items, and the purchase of higher-end equipment all use this precious commodity.
Spiral Knights has a steampunk meets old-school Final Fantasy look to it. Players and monsters alike are all beautifully rendered sprites on lush, colorful isometric backgrounds. Different Clockworks have themes that not only designate what types of monsters and traps you face, but also the color and stylistic theme of the level. Some look like ancient castles while others look like ruined city streets. Spiral Knights won’t win any awards for its graphics, but it’s not trying to, and it stands on its own two feet on the basis of style.
Story and narrative are nearly non-existent in Spiral Knights, but then the same could be said of other great isometric dungeon-crawling franchises like Diablo andGauntlet. This type of gameplay just lends itself to less story and more hack and slash, though a bit more explanation of the Clockwork and the Spiral Knights would have been appreciated.
The sound design changes along with the visuals. The soundtrack changes based on the theme of the Clockwork you’re in, but is always a fitting synthesized orchestration that fits the mood of the level. The sound effects work well, though the mixing isn’t up to snuff with other isometric games, so you cannot figure out where an enemy is coming from based on sound.
Value is a tricky thing to judge in a free-to-play game. However, Spiral Knights is a game that is so fun and so deep with its semi-randomly generated dungeons, it's worth paying money for. It provides hours and hours of entertainment just in getting powerful enough equipment to get all the way to the core. Then when you go back down, it will be completely different. Combine all that with guilds, the auction house, and the collection ingredients to craft items, and you have a substantial amount of gameplay for the reasonable price of nothing.
I am personally not a fan of MMOs. I’ve tried my hand at World of Warcraft and DC Universe Online only to discover the wash, rinse, and repeat nature of an MMO really isn’t my style. However, Spiral Knights stands apart from these traditional MMOs with its action-adventure gameplay and inherent sense of whimsy. You don’t have to be an MMO fan to thoroughly enjoy Spiral Knights.
Note: Our original Spiral Knights review was found to be factually inaccurate and so it has been redone with a different reviewer. We apologize for the confusion.