At this year’s GDC, I finally had the chance to take a look at The Chronicles of Spellborn. Ever since last year, when Managing Editor Jon Wood went to the Netherlands to tour the Spellborn studios, he’s been telling me I need to see this game in action. One reason Jon encouraged me to see this game is because it’s one of those games that doesn’t get a lot of attention compared to other MMOs of its calibre. Spellborn is nowhere near as hyped and publicized as other triple A games that are currently in development. The other reason Jon has been bugging me to see this game is because it’s full of innovation. There isn’t really one big innovative game mechanic, or revolutionary idea in Spellborn, but more of a collection of small improvements and tweaks to the standard quest based MMORPG model that look like they add up to something special.
My tour of the game started with character creation, so that is where I’ll begin as well. Character creation reminded me of City of Heroes, but in a fantasy setting. The games are similar, both in the number of character creation options the player has and in a game mechanic sense as well. In both CoH and Spellborn, your clothing has no statistical value, and is purely for style. There are ways to enhance you equipment using sigils, which can add statistical bonuses as well as cosmetic enhancements like a colored tracer following every swing of your sword, but the point is that your base equipment has no intrinsic statistical bonus. I’m personally a big fan of games that allow the player a high degree of freedom in character personalization, and the Spellborn system is so open that that you can be as cool, or not cool, as you want right from the start. Mages can even wear armor if they like.
When we had finished character creation, my tour guide, PR Manager Pierre Deslandes, loaded up a pre-made high level character and it was off to the wilderness. Before we jumped into combat, Pierre gave me a quick rundown of the inventory system. The character’s backpack had a number of items that were of no real use to the character other than to be sold for cash. The nearest town was a long way off, as was the nearest vendor. Conveniently, in Spellborn, you can break down unwanted inventory directly into cash, saving players the hassle of running back to a vendor. Another nice touch of the inventory is a separate inventory tab for quest items, which helps to keep important quest items conveniently organized. Both of these features are minor, but the hassles they eliminate are also minor. They demonstrate the way the Spellborn team is working to tweak the genres standard features to eliminate the genre’s usual annoyances.
After a brief look at the inventory it was off to fight some of the local creatures. There are a number of things I like about the combat system. One thing is that you can manually dodge attacks. There are no hidden die rolls going on behind the scenes, if you’re not in the attack’s range, you don’t get hit. The same is true when the player attacks; you must have your crosshairs over the target or you miss. This form of attack system adds a simple layer of complexity to standard MMO combat.
Another part of the combat system that I would describe as a simple layer of complexity is the ability interface. At the bottom centre of the screen, where you normally have an array of attacks and abilities, there is instead a cylinder with several tier one attacks on it. After you fire off a tier one attack, the cylinder rotates to display your tier two abilities. You use the tier two attack and the cylinder rotates to the next tier, and so on until you get back to tier one again. If the cylinder display’s a particular tier for too long without a power being used, it automatically rotates back to tier one. This description sounds a bit complicated but it’s actually fairly intuitive. I call it a simple layer of complexity because it simultaneously adds a layer of strategy to combat while at the same time making combat intuitive and eliminating the feeling of over stimulus that can lead to wild button mashing. Really, it’s just a way of organizing your abilities in a simpler format, which opens doors to new types of game-play.
That extra layer of strategy I mentioned comes in with combos. You can set up a custom made attack sequence called a combo. There are abilities you use as starting moves, and abilities that are finishers, with the remaining abilities to be used in between. Once you’ve set up your combo you activate it by firing off you abilities in the correct sequence. What I like about the combos is that they aren’t pre determined by the developers, and choosing from an open array of possibilities to find the best strategy is left up to the player.
So what happens if your combo fizzles and you missed your target because you weren’t aiming in the right direction? Well, you’ll probably end up dead. But don’t worry, there’s no XP debt or penalty. When you die in The Chronicles of Spellborn there’s no penalty at all… sort of. Instead of a penalty for death, you get a bonus for living. The bonus for living comes in the form of a buff that increases over time. The longer you go without dieing, the bigger the buff gets. If you die the buff is reset and you have to start avoiding death all over again to get the buff back. Some people will argue that it’s all just semantics and splitting hairs, but I say this is another one of those minor tweaks which takes a penalty and turns it around into positive reinforcement.
I’m not going to say anything here about the game’s graphics and style. If you want to know more about that, just look at the screenshots. I have no idea what the specs were on the machine that was running the demo, but the graphics were of the same quality as the many screenshots that are already in our TCoS screenshot gallery. One thing about the games visuals that Pierre mentioned that you won’t get out of the screenshots is how they handle body slots. The Spellborn enhancement system is similar again to City of Heroes. When equipment has no stat value, it makes sense that enhancements to the character would come in the form of enhancement slots. Body slots work in more or less the same way as the item sigils for gear, except body slots have a graphical representation on you character depending on your class. For example, the rune mage gets tattoos, the blood warrior gets scars, and the ancestral mage gets pets. Each of these scars/tattoos/whatever is an enhancement.
All in all I was impressed with what I saw. The team at Spellborn International seems to be more focused on the art of game making rather than the commercial side of game development. I find this approach refreshing as it makes The Chronicles of Spellborn look more like a piece of playable art rather than your typical MMO.