Review by ZPtE

"Truly Free-to-Play"

Spiral Knights is an online action adventure game which shares a lot in common with the 2D Legend of Zelda games on the GameBoy systems. It was released on Steam (PC) in early June this year although it's initial release was a few months earlier. It is in essence, a MMORPG although you can only team up with a maximum of four players in real-time adventures.

After creating your own knight, the game starts you off at a crash site where you get a feel for the controls. The game allows you to use a few set-ups including mouse and keyboard, just the keyboard or a control pad. I went with the first two; Z, X and C keys to attack, block and strafe respectively and the arrow keys to move. It restricted using the handgun (long-range weapon) accurately as much as I wanted it to so I switch to the WASD keys and mouse on-the-fly for that reason. You can also use a sword (close-range) or a bomb (medium/long-range) as a weapon in this game and can carry at least two of any type on your travels although more can be unlocked for 30 days with ‘crystal energy'.

Once you've done that, you'll arrive at the Rescue Camp where you go through a very helpful tutorial and learn more about the story behind the game. Eventually you'll proceed to Haven which acts a hub and this is the only real MMO feel you'll get as there can be over fifty players on at the same time, especially in Haven 1.

The story should be clear to you by now, you're a knight stranded on a planet called Cradle and you and your fellow Spiral Knights need to collect enough resources to reactivate your Order's spaceship. As of writing, this story is incomplete in-game as finishing the third tier does not mean you've beaten the game.

There's not much to do in Haven and the Clockworks is the next place to go. This is where the “dungeon” of the game is located and your aim is to reach ‘The Core' by passing through three ‘tiers' which have their own ‘subtowns'. Every day or two, a level is replaced by another in a constantly changing world which keeps the content fresh.

Within the levels, you'll find the monsters of the game. Gremlins, wolves, gun puppies, winged bats, office chair-throwing fiends amongst many other foes all inhabit the various levels although usually you can choose to avoid certain monsters by avoiding certain levels altogether. You can do this by waiting for the gate icon to change on elevators, something I didn't know until someone showed me in-game once (you can check your gate map to see what levels are available).

Playing co-operatively seems to be the main focus of Spiral Knights. Most things are shared while you're in the Clockworks including crowns, heat (the ‘experience' needed to level up your equipment) amongst other things. Only monster drops are distributed randomly and clockwork drops such as vials go to whoever pick it up first. I played with random players in the first tier without problem but later on as the monsters got more difficult and more thinking is required to overcome them, I stuck to friends who I could rely on (or you can join guilds for this reason alone) or went solo. I found solo much less frantic and I could take my time playing through the levels.

The levels themselves can be puzzle-orientated where you need to step on or toggle switches to open gates, treasure-laden island, graveyards where a re-spawning phantom drives you mad until you leave, arena rooms where you face waves of enemies, boss fights (these are great in a guild party) and many others.

The music in this game is used very effectively. One minute, you're in Haven, you'll be relaxing away with some upbeat tune and before you know it, you're in a small locked room fighting for your survival with some thumping beats.

The sound of your sword crashing against the metal body of a mecha-robot or the wallowing screams of ghastly kittens is great and really helps make the game feel that much better.

Eventually you'll want to be able to defend yourself better and inflict more damage to monsters. This is where new equipment comes in or brought from vendors in the Bazaar or the ‘Auction House'. At the time of playing, as the economy in this game is player-driven, the price of many things are totally different to what they are now. I refrained from spending any ‘crowns' (currency) and just stuck to the starting gear, this served it's purpose until I reached the second tier. This worked well as I had enough crowns to get what I wanted. However, you'll realise soon enough you're out of energy and with that you can't do anything. You find out that to get more energy, you must pay real money…

Energy revolves around everything in Spiral Knights, using elevators to go down a level in the Clockworks, crafting equipment, reviving, rolling for unique variants (a nice bonus) on your existing gear and so many other things. The common assumption therefore is that as you need to pay to get more energy, this makes the game “pay-to-play” which I agree with to some extent.

I've seen some reviews where the reviewer obviously does not know how this game can be self-sustaining as they fail to mention that crystal energy can be brought with in-game crowns. Yes, the same crowns that drop for free. Now, if you calculate an average run (or two) through the second tier, more likely than not that is enough to cover one hundred crystal energy for you to purchase from the energy market. No one told me this when I was playing and I felt exactly the same as that PC Gamer reviewer but after realising there ways to get energy with crowns, I clicked the crystal energy icon and lo-and-behold, I managed to get enough crystal energy to upgrade my gear to three-stars (obviously not all at once). After 240 hours of playing, I've got to tier 3, made it to The Core and what I did exactly pay in real money? Nothing.

There are certain exclusives you can get with real money but they are mainly cosmetic items which do not give paying customers any real advantage. What that shows is obviously that Spiral Knight is indeed a free-to-play game for those that can wait a few days to get something they need. Sure, there are faster ways (to get to where I am) but that's a choice some players make – they buy time, grind through levels all day or play the Auction House to their advantage. I'm patient enough to build up gear, it gives me a satisfying feeling when I use that five-star handgun knowing exactly how much effort I put behind getting it. I've seen comments where people say there should be a fixed price for this game and no crystal energy but I honestly feel this will destroy the game. Rushing to the end-game will just shorten the attention you give this game and I've seen many players lose interest after reaching the end-game. There is also the auction house which can help you earn a good amount of crowns if you're willing to put in the time and effort to learn how it all works.

When I started playing this game, the game was more accessible to new players as crystal energy prices were around 3,500 crowns per 100 crystal energy. It's about 5,100 crowns now in the market, it's still accessible but less so. The price has crept to 7,000 crowns since I've started and apparently it was higher than that before the Steam release but there are many crown sinks in place to counter this thanks to the Merchant Update.

Having said all that, this game is not without some minor faults. It uses Amazon cloud servers somewhere in the USA and as I live in Europe, the connection latency is terrible at times. The game indicates the connection quality on-screen, four bars being the best connection but usually I am at two or three. When it drops to one bar, I stop playing for a while as I know my knight will be flat on his back within a few second especially in crowded areas. Disappointingly, there are no plans to host servers in other parts of the world. I've somehow coped with the sudden spikes and deaths that result but one can hope for better forecasts in the future.

There's also the waiting game you have to play to avoid certain levels, these are mainly the fiend levels for me personally as I do not have any equipment that defends against shadow damage. I suggested it on the official forums but a good point was brought up about players farming on certain levels although people do that anyway.

Relating to that, a new mini-game was recently released called Blast Network which uses Bomberman-like game play except you fight against other players online. My only experience of this was that lag is more apparent here and despite holding my own and coming second in that match (thanks to years of Bomberman addiction), it's not something I'll play too often.

As Spiral Knights is not the finished product, constant updates are regularly released so more content will be added like the Lockdown mode. As it stands now, I can recommend this game to everyone. It's no World of Warcraft but it doesn't need to be and you might even end up liking it and the best thing is, it won't cost you a penny to buy.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 08/09/11

Game Release: Spiral Knights (US, 06/14/11)


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