There's something to be said for the rise of browser-based games. What once was an elephant graveyard of bad ideas, low-res graphics, and trite or incomplete game mechanics has now evolved into a veritable playground of new ideas and fun casual titles. Games like City of Steam and Drakensang Online continue to push the boundaries of what's possible in a browser window, delivering engaging experiences with depth and high fidelity.
Browser game represent some of the coolest technological innovations in the MMO niche. They also, often, represent the very worst in predatory monetization schemes and "pay-to-win" exploitation.
Spiral Knights does both. And it does both well.
Cuddly robots and a strange alien world
The first thing you need to know about Spiral Knights is that it is exceptionally charming. When you sit down to make your pint-sized robot fighter, you'll quickly see that there is no combination of helm, armor color. and body type that don't leave you with the cutest little MMO character that ever did live. Spiral Knights was developed by Three Rings -- the same company behind Puzzle Pirates -- so it's no surprise that the aesthetic leans toward cute and cuddly.
Once you've created your metallic hero, you'll be dropped into the game world and walked through some early bits of the story. It's your basic video game plot: You, as a Spiral Knight, are stranded on a strange alien world. Your ship is busted, so the only solution is to hack and slash your way through the world's inhabitants until you figure out how to get it working again. The story is presented through a series of conversations with other crash survivors, and as you meet new people in the world, you'll learn more about the Knights and the world on which you've found yourself.
In the early moments of the game, you'll be treated to some in-the-moment tutorials that help you understand how to explore the environment and make use of your abilities. Every Spiral Knight has two attacks: one primary attack with a melee weapon and one special attack. You start with a gun but can later gain access to bombs, and your arsenal is constantly changing as you defeat new enemies and learn to manufacture new weapons. Combat in Spiral Knights is simple but rewarding. In most cases, you'll run up to a bad guy, smack him in the face with a sword, and call it a day.
Moving and fighting in Spiral Knights is a joy. The items, movement speed, different attacks, and wonderful animations all mesh perfectly into the universe the game attempts to create. If you sit down with Spiral Knights for a few minutes, I can promise that you will have a good time clicking around the environment, bashing up rocks and laying the robotic smackdown on bad guys. There's something pure and simple about the game's mechanics that will resonate with most gamers, regardless of age or experience.
A beautiful, ever-changing universe
One of Spiral Knights' greatest strengths is its art direction. Enemies are somehow a combination of threatening and adorable, armor upgrades make your Knight look both tough and huggable, and every environment you visit has tons of cool elements that make it interesting and distinct from the others in the game. In an industry where "gritty realism" is often the gold standard, playing a game based so heavily on bright colors and family-friendly action is an incredible relief.
After completing the initial few missions, you and your Knight will discover Haven, the main hub town of the game. From Haven you can launch new missions, form parties, chat with pals and do everything else you'd normally expect from an MMO. Crafting stations and real-money vending machines are all on site. Haven is the game's overworld; missions are all instanced and there's no open exploration to speak of.
There's more to this world than meets the eye. Underneath Haven lies a cavernous network of world fragments known as the Clockworks. These fragments are the Spiral Knights version of dungeons and can range from open, grassy fields to cold steel mazes. What is most interesting, however, is that the fragments move around the Clockworks in real-time. As the week stretches on, pieces of the Clockworks move and rotate, changing which missions and areas are available to players.
There are three tiers of Clockwork fragments, with the lowest tier bringing the toughest challenges and most dangerous monsters. The constantly shifting world, massive number of dungeons, and multi-leveled tier dungeons ensure that when you play Spiral Knights, you'll always have something new to do and investigate.
Assuming you have the money.
The Energy trap
Spiral Knights is a wonderful game. It is beautifully designed and fun to play and offers hours of interesting combat in a variety of environments. As far as browser games go, it's one of the best I've ever played. The game offers top-notch production value and near endless fun. But there's one enormous catch: You absolutely have to pay real-life money to play Spiral Knights if you plan to play it for more than an hour at a time.
Here's how it works: Almost everything you do in Spiral Knights costs Energy. Want to run a mission? That's 10 Energy, please! Need to go to the second level of the dungeon? That'll be 10 Energy! Oh, did you die? That'll be more Energy (the cost increases with each death). You start every day with 100 Energy, which you will quickly consume through normal gameplay. Once you run out of Energy, you are done doing things in Spiral Knights. You can't buy upgrades, you can't craft items, and you certainly can't run more missions. In my stream of the game, I found that the daily 100 Energy is good for about an hour or so of gameplay.
There are layers to the Energy mechanic. The Energy you get free each day is known as "Mist" Energy; you can have only 100 Mist Energy at a time, and it takes about 22 hours for your tank to refill. There is also "Crystal" Energy, which serves the same purposes as Mist Energy but can be stored in higher quantities and is available only via the cash shop. The exchange rate is currently $9.95 for 3,500 Crystal Energy. Not highway robbery, to be sure, but a little bit of a bummer for a game that is clearly designed to sap players of their actual dollars or force them to quit playing.
What's most concerning about the payment model is that Spiral Knights is pretty obviously aimed at children more than adults. And the forced-payment structure -- along with "convenience" options like the cash shop saving your credit card information by default -- certainly hints at an intention that's less than noble. Still, no one is forcing parents to enter their credit card info, and maybe it's not such a terrible thing if your kid can only play his favorite game for an hour or two at a time. Investing in the cheapest Crystal Energy package would give someone about a month of gameplay at 200 Energy per day (2-3 hours), so it's not too bad when compared to subscription-based MMOs.
Overall, Spiral Knights is a fun, engaging, pretty game that is hampered by its own restrictive payment model. While it offers one of the smoothest and most attractive browser-based experiences in the MMO niche, it also falls into some of the most common and most hated free-to-play traps. It's a great game with horrible monetization -- something with which we MMO gamers are all too familiar.
Spiral Knights is a game you will enjoy. It is colorful and enjoyable. Just don't expect to enjoy it for more than an hour without raiding your wallet.
MMOs are constantly changing, and our opinions can change with them. That's why we're here to give some beloved (or not) games a second (or third) look. Has that game that was a wreck at launch finally pulled itself together? How do the hits of yesteryear hold up today? That's what we're here to find out as Massively gets its Second Wind!