At this week's Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco, freemium publisher Kabam showed its latest project, a soon-to-be-released fantasy action-RPG called Spirit Lords. A few hours playing the Spirit Lords beta revealed that it's a vivid and humorous dungeon crawler that successfully combines traditional role-playing mechanics with the quick-play sensibilities of mobile games.
Graphically, Spirit Lords is very reminiscent of Blizzard games, World of Warcraft specifically. (Not surprising. Creative Director Daniel Erickson told me the Executive Producer and Senior Art Director are both ex-Blizzard guys.) Its menus and environments are saturated and stylized, even cartoony. There's also a bobble-headed blockiness to the characters that's typical of Blizzard's design. Where Spirit Lords asserts its own personality is in its monsters, which frequently elicit a chuckle due to their sheer silly-weirdness (when's the last time you laid eyes on a bear-caterpillar?) Spirit Lords also goes its own way in terms of hero abilities, which rely on upgradeable relics.
Relics come from an age gone by when the land of Arborlith was ruled by ancient races of sentient animals like birds and cats. Though these races are long extinct, their wisdom remains in the form of stone jars hidden across the kingdom. These jars contain elemental spirits that people like you (so-called Spirit Lords) can absorb to become more powerful. And why would you want to become more powerful? Because your world is under threat: besieged by some kind of nameless evil that's stealing the Relics. Your job? To find and stop whoever, or whatever, is behind the trouble.
The Relic system is the core of Spirit Lords, and I found it pretty entertaining. There are two classes thus far in the game, Barbarian and Sorcerer, and both have distinctly different abilities. Spirit Lords enables the obsessive-compulsive in all of us by having us grow our skills by running dungeons and collecting Relics/Spirits of varying rarity. Relics/Spirits can be upgraded or used to upgrade each other, and this means running through dungeons repeatedly, in hopes of collecting more.
The good news for those of us who don't much like repeating ourselves is you can adjust dungeon difficulty on subsequent visits. A pre-dungeon meter lets you assess the likelihood you'll succeed at each difficulty level, and a useful graphic shows what you'll get if you make it all the way through.
Spirit upgrades work like a simple crafting system and require a stock of lower level Spirits and a good chunk of (in-game) cash. Once your Spirits are as powerful as you can make them, they can then be equipped in one of five slots, putting their powers literally at your fingertips. Powers are easy to use and are activated via gesture controls (swipes, taps, double-taps, etc.) or by tapping on-screen buttons. (I admit, after an hour or so the gestures for me, got tiresome and I resorted to using the buttons.)
RPG fans are likely to enjoy Spirit Lords' straightforward fight/loot/upgrade cycle and recognize immediately, the format of its dungeons. The main differences between standard Diablo-like dungeons and Spirit Lords' dungeons is that the latter are far smaller (each one takes about 3-5 minutes to complete) and you don't really own the loot until the very end. Since most of us want to use upgrades immediately, that “wait until it's over” approach takes some getting used to.
Anyway, outside of dungeons, you can do other familiar things like manage your gear and abilities (Spirits), sell items, send your Spirits out to perform missions, and create your own Guild. Guilds can have up to 20 members and are worth creating since they come with useful bonuses. If you don't want to bother though, finding random groups to adventure with is as easy as hitting the Invite button. In addition to Guilds and grouping, there's a chat system—although when I played it was nonfunctional—an Achievements system, and a Leader Board to check how you rank against other Spirit Lords players. [Note: Spirit Lords is in soft launch in Canada right now and has nearly 48,000 players. The top player already has 5.8 million XP, so you've got your work cut out for you.]
Though all this is good, from what I saw, Spirit Lords' real achievement is implementing free-to-play in a non-irritating way. The game's soft currency is earned by adventuring and is used to upgrade Spirits while its hard currency (bought with real money) is used to buy Moonstones. These allow you to buy various conveniences like rare Relics and faster Spirit upgrades, but buying them is not really necessary. I played for hours, and I didn't spend a dime.
When I spoke to them, the Kabam team said they'd set out to make a “real” 4-player fantasy RPG for tablets, and though its early to say for sure, its seems they might have done it. Though it's hard to say how deep the Spirit Lords experience will eventually be, the game's made a good start and has the potential to be just what RPG fans need when they don't have time for a three hour dungeon crawl.
Spirit Lords is set for release in April 2015. To keep an eye out for a specific date or for more information about the game, check out Kabam's Spirit Lords website.