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Spiral Knights

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Been a while since I've done a game review here, so I guess I'll start up with a little something my girlfriend wanted me to play with her: Spiral Knights.

 

-Background-

 

Spiral Knights is a free to play game, released back in 2011, and added to Steam's list of free to play games later that year. The story, which started out lacking, has grown considerably, but only barely. You play, as the title suggests, as a newly recruited knight within an organization known as the Spiral Order, whose exact purpose in the universe is as of yet unrevealed within the game. During an equally ambiguously explained mission, the Spiral Order's assumed base of operations, a starcruiser named the Skylark, is pulled towards an unexplored planet named Cradle. The pull of the planet forces the Skylark to crash, resulting in its near destruction, and the explosion of its main fuel source. The Spiral Order is welcomed to the planet by the friendly natives living in a town called Haven, and from there, the Order has set up a new base of operations, with the purpose of seeking out a new energy source deep within the core of the planet to power up their ship and resume their previous mission.

 

With the addition of new story details, players get to learn more about the other sentient beings on Cradle, Gremlins, who seek to destroy Haven for reasons unknown. Apparently lead by the Crimson Order, these Gremlins build powerful war machines to combat the knights of the Spiral Order and further their goal of Haven's destruction, so that they may unlock the secrets of the Clockworks themselves.

 

-Gameplay-

 

Spiral Knights heavily resembles top down Zelda games, with players hitting switches, opening doors, and defeating enemies with their choice of bombs, swords, guns, or a combination of any two or all three. The majority of the gameplay takes place in the subterranean dungeon known as the Clockworks, an ever changing maze made of pieces of other worlds. The game touts this pseudo-random level generation as one of its key features, as it adds a slight level of difficulty in predicting exactly what your next challenge in these worlds will be. Players can traverse the Clockworks solo, or with a party of up to four friends (or strangers), which the game developers note has no downside, since all money and heat (more on this later) is shared between party members, but the real downside to playing with friends is that monsters receive an unnecessary HP and attack boost, and your strategies will often be accidentally ruined by your teammates. There is absolutely no protection from being griefed by your fellow knights, either, and playing with even one person who is skilled enough to conspire your downfall will lead to countless unnecessary deaths. You can kick troublesome party members from your party if you happen to be the leader, but by the time you realize that your teammate is troublesome, it'll be too late.

 

To discuss Heat further: players in this game have no levels. In stark contrast to typical MMORPGs, players do not level up to earn better equipment, but instead, level up their equipment through the collection of small round orbs referred to as Heat. When a player's item gains heat, it can be upgraded at an alchemy machine to a higher star level. Since there are only levels 0-5, it can be said that there are only 6 levels a player can be in Spiral Knights, depending on the level of their armor and weapons. Don't be fooled, however, becoming a full level 5 will take non paying players months.

 

The one true plague to Spiral Knights' gameplay is its system of Mist Energy. A new player starts their game off with 100 Mist Energy, explained as a natural energy that flows through the air of Cradle. This energy is used to power all sorts of gadgets and gizmos, from elevators to alchemy machines. The problem here is that to go to a stage where you actually play, you must activate one of the aforementioned elevators, which cost 10 Energy. Energy recharges at a rate of 1 unit every 13 or so minutes, but this of course means that on a normal day (unless the game gives you a free Mist Tank, which happens when you achieve certain things), you can only play ten levels, a depressingly low amount considering that there are 30 floors in the Clockworks. Your progress cannot be saved, either, so a full run of the clockworks requires that you purchase Crystal Energy, either using real money, or by using in game money to buy it from other players. Early game missions and the first few floors of the Clockworks, however, give beginning players very little money, and Crystal Energy is almost always better spent on crafting new weapons and armor than exploring the game's dungeons. This gives Spiral Knights the feel of a Facebook game, restricting your play based on daily limitations... that is, unless you pay. This means that non-paying players will find their first few advancements to take weeks or maybe even months.

 

On top of the inherent energy related restrictions, the game stops players at two points within the Clockworks based on their equipment. If the player hasn't completed the missions giving them clearance to continue, they must either replay missions or the same tier of the Clockworks until they build up enough money to expand their arsenal. This can get tiresome to impatient players.

 

The bosses, of which there are four, are mostly gimmicky fights with what would otherwise be extremely powerful normal enemies. The first boss in the game is the Snarbolax, a heavily upgraded version of another enemy called a Wolver. The gimmick here is that it is absolutely invincible except when it approaches a bell in the center of the area in which it is fought, which must be struck to inflict Stun status onto the boss, as well as make him vulnerable to attack. To any player good with pattern recognition, the fight is nothing more than tedious, made only a bit more confusing when you bring more players along. The second boss is Royal Jelly, referred to as King Jelly or Jelly King by most players. He is, in every way, a literal upgrade of the commonly encountered Jelly monsters, with the added gimmick of being able to heal himself. The mission in which players are expected to defeat him is encountered relatively early in the game (when most players are expected to have very low level equipment), and his constant healing is almost unbeatable by oneself so early in the game. The third boss is a shining light in the sea of overall disappointment that these bosses have brought about, referred to as the Roarmulus Twins. While it does bring back the slightly pointless gimmick of invincibility that the Snarbolax had, along with the respawning enemies that Royal Jelly introduced, The Roarmulus Twins is the most well planned out boss in the game in terms of requiring players to actually work together - one player in charge of destroying the endlessly respawning enemies, the other in charge of managing the gates that allow the players to have the Roarmulus Twins attack each other, making them able to be attacked by the player on enemy duty. Lord Vanaduke, the fiery "final boss" of the game is a massive boss with an even bigger boss area. he spends the majority of his time surrounding himself with respawning fireballs, inflicting Fire status on players and making himself generally incapable of being hit. For players experienced and prepared for him, however, he is a complete and utter pushover who can be defeated in under five minutes. For the inexperienced, the fight can and will drag on until you've spent all of your energy reviving yourself and either luckily defeat him, or give up. However, the last part can be said for all of the bosses, again, except for the Roarmulus Twins, who are the only bosses that careful strategy can allow a player unfamiliar with their every move to succeed, aside from possibly the Snarbolax who is overall too easy to allow consistent failure. For this reason, I have to say that the bosses in the game are poorly balanced.

 

The game was later patched to introduce four "Shadow Lair" versions of the bosses and their stages, which do nothing but try to make them harder. The strategies are largely the same, except the bosses deal more damage and have more health.

 

-Overall-

 

There's no reason to say that Spiral Knights is a bad game. In concept, it is an excellent idea: essentially a multiplayer Zelda game that doesn't completely rely on teamwork like the actual attempts at multiplayer Zelda. In execution, however, Spiral Knights lacks. It is programmed in Java, and naturally has all of the flaws that comes with being a Java based game. Don't get me wrong, though, it's no Minecraft. It is overall an extremely stable game that rarely crashes but often lags, as there seems to be no memory buffer on enemy spawn or level generation, which can cause visible framerate drops or momentary freezes, which will of course lead to trouble, especially if you were moving, since server side, your character never stopped moving, whether you saw it happen or not.

 

Beyond the game's flaws in programming, the economy (an important part of every MMO) is severely stifled due to the game's heavy reliance on players spending money on Crystal Energy. As I said already, everything is run by energy... everything. Trading weapons is impossible without first unbinding them, which costs exorbitant amounts of energy. To unbind a four star item, for instance, costs 800 Energy, which is more than $2.50 USD. To unbind a five star item, you're looking at literally double the amount. This of course, drives up the price of unbound items significantly, and for new players, looking at an item that costs in excess of 600,000 crowns (in game currency) adds a sense of futility to everything you do, especially since the game's hardest missions and bosses only reward around 3000-4000 crowns. There's nothing wrong with trying to prevent players from just up and getting the best armor and weapons in the game, of course, but that argument honestly just lends to the fact that the system of player level matching weapon level is often the best for everyone.

 

In terms of making your own items, a trip to the deepest depths of the clockworks is required to make five star items. The missions seem like they're made to help players make items quicker, but in reality, the system there too is flawed. Players are hard pressed to get the recipes for items one level higher than theirs unless they randomly come across it at a merchant in the Clockworks. This leads to hours upon hours of replaying the same thing just to try and get what you want, which is honestly on the level of NES games in artificial lengthening. Even when you do reach four to five star rank, you quickly realize that the endgame content is underwhelming and lacking. The hardest missions in the game suffer from exactly what the bosses and Shadow Lair missions suffer from: difficulty brought about not by a change of strategy or gameplay, but by simply increasing the HP of the enemies, increasing their attack, and in the case of Danger Missions, increasing the number of enemies to an almost impossible level. Even with the best armor and weapons you can afford, these missions are nearly impossible to play by yourself and become even harder when you bring friends to try helping you. Even when you manage to beat them, the end result is the same, mostly due to the game's lack of a full or even comprehensive story. Everything the game can offer is a goal set for yourself, which isn't inherently a bad thing (again, I'm reminded of Minecraft) and there's nothing wrong with wanting to make yourself look cool so that you can hang out with friends and strangers wearing your awesome gear, but the game lacks a critical something that makes you want to keep playing even after you've completed your wildest fantasy.

 

Patches and updates are few and far between for Spiral Knights, and the updates that do come out are minimal game fixes that add one to two features. Unfortunately, there is little to play for in the game, and even the updates provide little more to play for. All in all, the game is fun for as long as you have the patience for it, and needs its developers to find another way to monetize it than try and force players to either grind endlessly or have everything given to them on a silver platter. Unfortunately, they have yet to find that happy medium, and until they do, the game will suffer for it.

 

 

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I've overlooked posting an update to this for a while, Spiral Knights has long since updated and my review is a bit outdated. Let's look at a changelog!

 

Forgot when this happened, but I can give a rough estimate of Summer, 2013. Spiral Knights did away with the Mist Energy system altogether, making the game 100% free to play for as long as you want, as often as you want. Unlimited exploration of the Clockworks is a huge reason to want to play the game, since this allows you to get money a lot faster, and possibly even find those fabled rare item drops deep within the Clockworks.

 

From an economic standpoint, one would assume that essentially unlimited money would drive up the price of Crystal Energy due to Crown inflation, but the developers actually thought this through and changed another important feature of Crystal Energy - alchemy. As I mentioned in my first post, Alchemy is a huge part of advancing in Spiral Knights, since the game itself has little concept of player level (outside of Mission Level, which we'll get into a bit later) and used to be done with Crystal Energy at an alchemy machine with a recipe. For a player who doesn't wish to pay to play this free to play game, alchemy was once a dreaded experience, resulting in having to spend almost 40,000 Crowns on upgrading one piece of equipment, a real hurdle to cross when your playtime was limited to 10 levels a day in the best case scenario. In this update, however, the developers introduced Orbs of Alchemy, items which are mission rewards or that can be found as drops in the Clockworks, that allow players to create new weapons and armor without the use of Crystal Energy. While it may take some time, players are now able to craft weapons and armor much faster than before, with much less cost to them. Even getting full 5 star gear (the highest level gear) is extremely easy at this point. However, for every good idea, there has to be one bad one, right? Right.

 

Forging items is also a new mechanic introduced with this update. Previously, as I mentioned in my first post, when a player collected Heat Energy, their weapon was automatically leveled up, to a maximum of 10. Under the new Forging system, however, a player must collect Heat Energy, level their weapon up completely, and then forge it with Forge Crystals, which, like Orbs of Alchemy, can be found while adventuring in the Clockworks or be collected as rewards from missions. Unless you remember to forge your weapons and armor when they reach maximum heat, all heat collected for that piece of equipment is essentially wasted. Unfortunately, Forge Crystals are few and far between, so upgrading your weapons is a rare event unless you spend a lot of time grinding for the Forge Crystals themselves. A recent update has added in crafting recipes for Forge Crystals, which allows a player to create Forge Crystals of a lower level from higher level ones. Personally, I think it would make more sense to be able to create higher level crystals from a lot of lower level ones, but this system at the very least does give players the opportunity to make use of Forge Crystals they don't need yet.

 

Another new system is one that feels vaguely similar to a level system, which I alluded to earlier. For some time now, Spiral Knights has had a mission system in it, in which players gain prestige and new items (typically recipes). As you gain prestige, your rank as a Knight goes up, similar to a level in most other MMOs. Previously, this ranking meant very little, since with high level friends, players would technically be able to go anywhere in the Clockworks they wished, but when this update was introduced, the ability to wear Four and Five star equipment was limited to higher ranks (though, not too high, so for players who had been big on missions, this update went completely ignored). Due to the ease of creating new weapons through alchemy that the Orbs of Alchemy brought, this sort of level based equipment system makes a lot of sense, since it encourages players to complete the missions rather than just grinding money to buy/create more powerful equipment.

 

Overall, Spiral Knights' changes have made it a more viable game, especially since players can now play as long as they wish with no limit on what they can do. Remarkably, the game's economy has gone completely unchanged, and the price in in game currency of Crystal Energy has remained stable. There's a few downsides to this new change, as I noted before with the Forge system, and to a lesser extent, the ability for players to really aid each other with Crystal Energy trading. Teamwork seems to have taken a backseat with this set of updates, which is a bit of a bummer since the game's teamwork aspect, while poorly executed, was really begging to be patched up instead of almost completely removed. The changes are positive enough for me to recommend this game to anyone who wants to try something different and free on Steam.

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