When I first heard about Spiral Knights, I knew I had to give it a go. It looked like an enjoyable top-down, action-adventure game with which to while away the hours, and the fact that the art style is so appealing didn’t hurt either. I naturally assumed that, as the game has thrown out a character-based levelling system and relies on heavy instancing, it would be a bit of a system shock for my poor themepark-attuned sensitivities and force me out of my comfort zone. I was right, but not necessarily in a good way. Three Ring Designs have clearly put a lot of effort into the game but whilst playing it I found myself constantly asking the same question: where the hell is my energy?
Aesthetics – 7
The over-arching style of the game drew me in from the start. As a long-time fan of the Final Fantasy series, there’s an air of familiarity. With their big helms and glowing eyes, the player avatars wouldn’t be out of place teaming up with the black mages from Final Fantasy to fight evil on weekends. Enemies look great as well and the entire style is very cohesive. NPCs are clearly different from player characters, which help them to stand out and so all in all the world works from a purely aesthetic perspective. Mostly.
The problems start to seep in when you hit the clockworks, which happens quickly and then doesn’t let up. The style is undercut by painfully similar layouts. So whilst the Candlestick Keep theme has clever moments, such as needing to light candles to stop big unbeatable chompers from getting you, it quickly wears off. There’s only so many times I can walk down the same corridor before it stops mattering whether it’s in lush forest, busy factory, or haunted graveyard flavour; I’m doing the same thing. This is where the camera angle starts to come unstuck too, as its static position above the character keeps movement clear, but it does rob the game of any sense of emergency. Enemies too suffer from a lack of variety. A green chameleon enemy in one theme may have slightly different attacks to a purple chameleon enemy on another, but it’s a simple case of re-skinning not redesigning.
What it all comes down to is that this feels very much like a game, not a world. Admittedly a large chunk of this is tied up in Spiral Knights being an action-adventure game first and foremost, but it still doesn’t quite excuse it. Despite an engaging style, the design and layout of the clockworks (where you’ll spend 90% of your time) keeps jarring you back to how small the game is. Which is great if you’re looking for something to briefly divert your attention, but it really does make playing feel repetitive, fast.
The game’s soundtrack for the most part cements rather than adds to the goings on in the game. The exception is during arena depths, when you have to face off against waves of enemies. From the moment combat starts, the music shifts gear, adding a sense of urgency that works beautifully with the real-time combat to make these levels frantic and charged. Unfortunately, it really makes you aware of how such a feeling is absent in other depths.
Whilst the UI compliments the cartoony rest of the game, some of the panels weren’t in the places I expected them to be. The auction house UI lacks a basic search feature, but offers a range of filters. The most useful of these for me was the ability to filter by recipes you know, so as to see what materials you’re missing to craft the armour of your dreams. It’s weird there’s no search, but in the end I found this to be an acceptable workaround.
Gameplay – 6
Before I get too bogged down in a bitter rant about how what could be a fun time is ruined by a poorly implemented energy system, let’s have a look at the good things on offer. Spiral Knights starts out with an instanced tutorial section that clearly explains how to play the game. The controls can be rebound but for the most part are fine, with the exception of shielding on the ‘x’ key. If you use WASD to move and then, in a moment of intense battle, are desperately stabbing around for your shield only to hit the wrong key, it’s not great for your blood pressure.
One of the game’s stand-out features is its lack of an arbitrary advancement structure based around stats; rather every knight enters the game ready to hit the clockworks. Advancement is instead done through gear, with every item having a star rating from 1 to 5 indicating how strong it is. Gear is obtained either through trading in tokens from bosses or, far more commonly, through buying a recipe then using materials obtained in the clockworks to craft it. On top of this is the item’s “heat level” which may be increased by killing enemies, making it slightly stronger.
As a result of this system, once you’re out of the tutorial area, you’re at endgame. From here on out, you can choose between the two different types of PvP on offer, or instead focus on the clockworks, a series of descending levels each one harder than the last.
At first glance, the clockworks seem confusing but it’s actually a clever system. There are 8 gates available from the Arcade, with only the 4 left ones being active at any one time. The other 4 are dormant and where you can deposit minerals found on your journeys. Doing so changes the themes of each level (in-game referred to as a “depth”) for you and other players when the gate becomes active. Gates move a stage to the left every 2 days, meaning each gate is active for 8 days, then dormant for 8 and so on. It’s a great idea in theory, but in practice it’s a bit pointless. The minerals you contribute tend to be but a drop in the ocean when everyone else doing the same.
Each gate features a boss somewhere, and is also divided into 3 tiers which mark the points where the difficulty really starts to ramp up. To move onto the next tier, you gear needs to be a certain star level. The difficulty curve scales well, becoming increasingly brutal as you descend whilst reducing the power of 5-star gear in the earlier tiers.
PvP meanwhile comes in two flavours: Blast Network and Lockdown. They cost crowns to enter, but offer profit for victories. Blast Network is simply a team-based Bomberman carbon copy, right down to the power-ups you receive. It doesn’t take gear into account and so is open to all, which is nice. Lockdown on the other hand can be played in random, pre-set or guild teams and allows you to use your own gear whilst engaging in a king-of-the-hill style battle for control of 3 points. Whilst I really enjoyed my time playing Blast Network…I’m dubious as to whether this is a good thing. When one of your product’s best features is essentially another company’s game, it may be time to go back to the drawing board.
There are other issues, too. Combat isn’t particularly varied, with the weapons on offer being especially limited. Attacks are launched by clicking the mouse, whilst holding the button down produces a charge attack from your sword or gun. There are also bombs and potion vials available, but I didn’t find they added much. I felt I had very little control over my character and I’m dubious whether combat in Spiral Knights and a frenzied game of Minesweeper could be told apart by an objective observer. Additionally, the various different speeds, strengths and bonus effects on weapons didn’t provide enough incentive for me to get more than one of each star rating due to the steep time and costs associated with it.
When entering the clockworks you can either go with friends, or let the game randomly pair you with 3 other players. I heartily recommend the former, as the game suffers from a complete lack of vote kick function. Whilst party leaders can remove troublesome members, they seldom do. Given the amount of times I experienced players going AFK midlevel or even spinning around refusing to get on a button, it’s really needed. When one of the spinning players went one stage further and proclaimed he was just being a Beyblade, my laptop very nearly took a swift trip out the window.
The main issue however is the energy system. It’s frustrating to the point of being game-breaking. There are two types of energy: mist energy and crystal energy. Whilst both can be used to do anything with an energy cost, they’re obtained in different ways. Mist energy is capped at 100 and regenerates over time. Crystal energy must be bought, either with in-game crowns or via credit card. The problem is if you’re trying to play Spiral Knights without buying energy, then you’re essentially condemning yourself to play sessions lasting an hour at best. Here’s why.
At the start of the game, all you’re going to have to work with is mist energy. This regens at a rate of 1 energy every 13.2 minutes. It takes an agonising 22 hours to regen to full. To do a depth in the clockworks, you have to spend 10 energy, whilst the whole first tier requires spending 70. You can play the game and burn through all your energy in about 45 minutes, and then sit on your arse for 22 hours unable to play.
That’s not the worst part though. Progressing beyond tier 1 is a herculean task. If you run the clockworks using 100 mist energy, by the end you may just have enough crowns to trade in for 100 crystal energy. So then you have 100 energy again. But you’re still no closer to gearing up and progressing onto tier 2. To do that, you need to spend crowns on buying recipes. Which means you can’t spend crowns on buying energy. Which means you can’t play. And when you finally do manage to get the recipes you’ll have the joy of discovering that they all cost 40 energy to craft. Recipe costs ramp up violently the further down you go as well, perpetuating the choice between progressing and playing.
It’s the most ferocious energy gating system I’ve ever come across. I would call it dastardly, but that adds a layer of whimsy I didn’t encounter at all during my playtime. It’s a shame, as whilst Spiral Knights was never going to set the world on fire, those first 10 depths when you still don’t quite understand how energy works are really enjoyable. But, too soon, looking for energy in the game becomes like looking for water in the Sahara, only even less enjoyable.
Read more of our comprehensive review of Spiral Knights on page 2!