The launch if Verminitide 2 is, if nothing else, an example of how to craft an absurdly satisfying take on an existing genre. Now, while my guildmates launch sword first into the world of Warhammer, I spent the weekend getting to grips with an altogether type of battle. Out now, Spellsworn is an indie brawler, developed by Frogsong Studios AB and just out of early access. In time for its full launch, I jumped into an online arena filled with dangerous terrain, incendiary explosions, and the kind of wizards who do not do party tricks.
I first came across Spellsworn when it came into early access and was more than impressed by the idea behind Spellsworn. For anybody that has played Warcraft 3, Spellsworn might feel awfully familiar and would be entirely correct. Just like DOTA, Spellsoworn is based on a classic Warcraft 3 mod and, just like DOTA, the team at Frogsong are spinning this off into its own online arena. For the uninitiated, the original Warlocks mod pits a group of players in an online fight for supremacy, wielding furious spells and massive explosions in their effort to win a free for all, while the terrain around them steadily depreciates.
Frogsong is not shy about paying homage to this inspiration. Logging into Spellsworn presents the main menu and a character screen that certainly seems to take some direction from World of Warcraft. The same stylistic shading that is instantly recognizable as Azeroth is present and as battle commences, I can’t help but feel like the arena is a modern take on the Warcraft 3 mod that it owes so much to.
Spellsworn provides easy access to death and destruction with two play options plastered across the top of the home screen. Players looking for a more intimate bout of face smashing can host or join custom games via the Servers option. Those of us willing to wade into the unforgiving waters, and whatever disasters that lie beneath, can flail around in hot join matches. These are available via the Quickjoin button.
Matches in Spellsworn are almost always a chaotic free for all, based on several rounds of competition and cramming in up to eight players. To win each round and accumulate points, players must eliminate their competition. This uses a variety of offensive skills and surrounding environmental hazards to steadily deplete enemy health pools. The verdant forests and creepy graveyards that play host to Spellsworn are surrounded by encroaching pools of acid, lava, and malevolent spirits. These keep rounds to a satisfyingly short, and sometimes frenzied, melee of spell effects and explosions, pressing players into deciding if they want to run, hide, or go for broke as the ground beneath them steadily dissolves. Winning a round will reward players with a hefty point bonus, hopefully propelling the deadliest player to the top of the leader board by the end of a match.
Before even commencing battle, the game’s skill system prompts competitors to pick a loadout. Unlike some of the most popular online FPS arenas, Spellworn provides an impressive level of freedom to players. Characters skins in Spellsworn are entirely cosmetic, with load outs purchased, sold, and upgraded at the opening of each round. The skill load out provides five distinct type of ability; offensive, defensive, area of effect, utility, and travel. A dizzying 27 skills are present, and include temporary cloaks, chain whips, speed boosts, and massive fireballs that plummet down on players. This provides an option to build towards any number of playstyles. While damage is an obvious approach, knockback skills might prove decisive as lava closes in on the action.
This flexibility and equality of opportunity is a refreshing approach to a competitive experience. Rather than lock a particular playstyle to specific avatars, causing just as much competition for character selection as any kill streak, Frogsong has stripped this back to focus on skill and tactical understanding rather than player perception of the most overpowered personality.
Frogsong clearly has a tendency to balance skills rather than characters, providing at least one viable counter to every scenario, and skills did feel useful. While I tended towards some of the easier to control abilities, with large areas of effect and assisted aiming, more experienced players are able to utilize much deadlier spells that require a higher degree of accuracy. It is a risk reward pay off that gives everybody a useful way to play and speaks to the effort that has gone into balancing Spellsworn.
In order to avoid being the entire arena’s primary target practice, you will need to learn to defend yourself. Spellsworn’s controls are relatively intuitive, thankfully. Right-click serves to move a character, while the camera follows the mouse cursor around the map. A series of keybinds can select a skill, while left click will unleash its impact upon your opponents. This is a common default control system and mixes some of the more recognizable MOBA control elements with those found in something like Warcraft 3, or even DOTA.
Assuming you accumulate points and don’t stand in the fire, then Spellsworn provides rewards. Player accounts gather an adequate amount of experience, based on their performance, and even relative newcomers will find they clear several levels in the first few hours. While level appears to be nothing more than a number, the real rewards are delivered via loot chests. Loot chests are a grubby word of late, but to their credit Frogsong has restricted them to cosmetic items. After just an hour or so of play time, I already had several skins, two new weapons and a couple of characters. Rewards are distinctive and the drop rate does provide a positive feeling of reward.
At this stage, Spellsworn has no cash shop and it doesn’t appear that any is on the way either. So, despite my natural aversion to this delivery model, it appears that there is really little to complain over.
However nifty and original Spellsworn’s roster initially seems, at its heart, this is a calculating game of skill. While other competitive indie titles like Brawlhalla try to endear some emotional response from players, I felt like Spellsworn’s narrative was decidedly empty. Skins look neat but they have no meaning to characters. Weapons really are just cosmetic and seem to have no discernible influence, even on a skill’s visuals. Even a character’s audio feedback seems to be lacking any personality. In an age where Overwatch generates Reddit sub forums and Tumblr threads that seem to gather more momentum than an average avalanche, the world of behind Spellsworn needs to work harder to engage its audience.
The lack of any obvious social system is just another serious issue I have with this title. While integration with Steam’s systems seems to work, plastering my face all over scoreboards, it breaks the game’s immersion and continues to fail to engage players in the world.
While the game’s core components are in place, Spellsworn’s peripheral systems feel sketchy at best. Progression looks to be pretty linear, there is little to no social engagement and, I just do not feel invested in the world. It is a prize fighter that just needs to be smoothed out around the edges and given some finesse, If Frogsong can get a handle on this and garner good emotional investment in their title, Spellsworn does have a chance of succeeding. This has a great combat system and a solid concept, resulting in some frenetic battles and fun times. If you’ve got some time and fancy a new way to incinerate your friends you could do worse than heading over to Steam now.
- great combat
- lots of flexibility
- easy to access
- limited number of arenas
- short on content
- a bit rough around the edges