Spellbreak is a fantastic mixture of the inevitable. Battle royale games for so long have focused on guns and modern or futuristic tech, but what could the last-man-standing genre do with magic and ancient ruins? That’s one question among many that developer Proletariat set out to answer, resulting in the fast-paced open-world arena shooter battle royale that sees magic as the weapons players wield against one another. I had the opportunity to hop into a party chat and play a few matches with Proletariat CEO Seth Sivak to get the full rundown on just what makes Spellbreak a unique amalgamation of familiar elements.
Having been around in closed alpha on PC since mid-2018, Spellbreak is currently in its second beta phase, a semi-closed beta that is now available to PS4 players as well. To join the beta on PS4, you’ll need to purchase a Founder’s Pack (or perhaps win one from a certain PlayStation-centric site sometime in the near future, eh?) which will entitle you this early access phase (and future beta/test phases), upgrade to the full release at launch, and bonus items exclusive to Founders such as outfits and in-game currency to be distributed at launch later this year. Cross-play is supported for this beta phase (though you can’t yet squad up with PC players) and in my time with Spellbreak so far, I’ve matched up with and against plenty of players from both platforms.
Let me allay any concerns about controller vs mouse and keyboard matching right now. Spellbreak is focused on big magical abilities and their various effects. Precision aiming for headshots isn’t what’s going to win you a fight in Spellbreak, and I’ve come out of plenty of fights victorious using a DualShock 4. Right now Proletariat has no plans to limit matchmaking based on control input—especially due to the smaller pool of players as it’s in beta—but this battle royale isn’t Fortnite or Call of Duty: Warzone. Magic isn’t particular about whether it gets a headshot or strikes center mass, and when you’re unleashing area-of-effect thunderstorms and walls of fire, precision aiming isn’t going to matter.
Due to this chaotic nature (and rapid movement, which I’ll talk about more below), Spellbreak isn’t going for massive player counts. Once again, this isn’t Call of Duty: Warzone touting 150 players on a single map, but Proletariat has done an excellent job adapting battle royale for their specific vision. Sometimes it’s not about how many players you can cram into a map, and more is not always better. For its purposes, Spellbreak lobbies currently cap at 42 players; a great number for quick matches that match the gameplay flow while still feeling like battle royale.
Spellbreak – The Magic of Battle Royale
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Spellbreak “high fantasy.” The high-flying gameplay feels a bit more grounded than that. There aren’t any dragons or orcs or elves. Spellbreak is simply the cracked ruins of the world post-cataclysm and wielders of magic gauntlets. But you aren’t going to find any guns or technology here, and the developers at Proletariat have even gone so far as to make sure the magical abilities don’t just feel like the magic approximations of guns. While some are obvious (ice magic forms a kind of bow and arrow, great for long-distance sniping), the bigger magical effects are really the focus. The aforementioned ice arrows, for example, leave behind an icy trail that you can skate along or combine with other magicks for various effects.
So while simply hitting your opponents with an icicle or a fiery blast purely for damage might be great, understanding the bigger effects of magic is imperative to winning any skirmish. When you begin a game, you select your main hand class. This is a permanent gauntlet for that match that you can’t change. Controls for the main gauntlet are mapped to the right triggers—both its main damage dealing shot and bigger Sorcery ability—and the secondary gauntlet is put onto the left triggers. Selecting Conduit as your main class, for instance, gives you the lightning gauntlet which can shoot rapid-fire bolts of lightning to deal damage. The Sorcery ability summons an area-of-effect lightning strike from above that will also deal damage and stun, though it can affect you and your squad as well if you are in the blast radius. You can pick up any other gauntlet as a secondary, swapping them out at will as you find more in the match.
The benefit of selecting a main class is in the inherent class abilities that you wouldn’t get otherwise and can progressively level up throughout each match. Using the Conduit as an example again, picking it as your main class gives you the ability to hold down R2 to cast bolts of lightning quickly. Picking up the lightning gauntlet as a secondary gauntlet wouldn’t give you this same effect. Any secondary gauntlet can be picked up (provided you can find them on the map while looting), and your main hand gauntlet can be upgraded if you find higher-tier versions of it out in the wild.
There are six elements in Spellbreak: Ice, Fire, Wind, Lightning, Toxic, and Stone. Getting to know each one of these is crucial to victory, not just in how to use them, but in understanding how your opponents might use them against you. Even more important is learning how to combine the different elements for various effects. Skirmishes may seem like pure chaos, but good players are paying attention to both their own and other players’ gauntlets and attacks in order to either counter them or use them to their advantage. Fire can turn ice into steam which can be electrified by lightning. Toxic puddles can be lit ablaze. Some attacks can punch right through walls of fire. There are a lot of ways the different elements can interact, which alpha and beta players have compiled in the game’s wiki. Learning the information might be easy, but utilizing that knowledge in the moment is the challenge.
Spellbreak – Classic Arena Shooter Inspired
Aside from the obvious magic abilities replacing the traditional guns and tech, what really sets Spellbreak apart from other battle royale games is its rapid and vertical movement system. Proletariat’s Seth Sivak told me it was inspired by classic arena shooters, and bringing that feel into an open-world environment. And in no uncertain terms, it feels great. Spellbreak is fun to play just to move around the world, using magic to leap to the tops of crumbling towers and feather your way across deadly chasms. But of course, these movement antics also come into play in battle as well. Like I mentioned earlier, precision aim isn’t going to help much here and staying on the ground is likely to get you killed. Skirmishes were often multiple players leaping through the air and hurling magicks at one another, effects combining with both intended and unintended consequences.
I immediately drew a comparison to Destiny, another game in which movement is a key factor in how good it feels to play. Sivak surmised that I must play a Titan (true) because that’s the most similar to how Spellbreak’s high-flying jumps work. Using mana, players can essentially do a kind of boosted hover (momentum-based) until the mana bar runs out. Because leaping around pulls from the same mana energy bar as your main attacks, it creates a great balance and ongoing magic resource management between jumping and using magic to attack other players.
The world design is built around this movement, with a lot of verticalities, rolling hills, sharp cliffs, and pointed remains of kingdoms long forgotten. At a glance, I have to admit that the world seemed relatively dull to me—a broken and desolate landscape seemed to be just that, broken and desolate—but the more I got to play and experience the world, the more hidden details I was able to find that brought this dead world to life. In fact, many elements of the world are actually quite striking, and the character animations and magic effects layered on top of it give Spellbreak the appearance of an animated film that looks great both in screenshots and in motion. Proletariat is still working to refine and add additional biomes and elements to really set each portion of the map apart. The biomes that are there necessitate very different gameplay styles too, which makes each and every skirmish feel unique based not only on the magicks used but the location that it takes place in. Spellbreak is still the beta phase, but I hope on its full release that Proletariat considers additional objectives or elements to prompt exploration of the world.
Once you really start diving into Spellbreak, there are a number of other elements to consider. Runes grant you an additional ability outside of your gauntlets and can be found and looted in the world. Equippable talents give players an incentive to play a lot and level up various classes. Sivak told me that the whole talent system is new to this beta—Talents were previously randomly part of items you found in the world—the team is trying to simplify the looting and inventory management while playing, keeping players on the move instead of in menus figuring out their build. Every player can now tune their build from the main menu before ever starting a match. Talent upgrade scrolls are then found in the world while playing which can improve your equipped talents for that particular match. There’s also lootable gear at different tiers that will prepare you for any battle by increasing your shields, mana, and speed.
Remembering the Spellbreak is still in beta, there are still a few things that Proletariat can improve on, but as I brought up my concerns, Sivak reassured me that the final release will have a nice layer of polish. Things like certain UI elements and menus leave a little to be desired, but the developer is currently working on refining gameplay systems for the long term (like the above-mentioned Talent rework) and UI and other polish will come as the game heads into its full release. He also clearly hinted that Proletariat plans to support the game long term with additional content, modes, and events. Keeping a living game like this fresh with updates and changes is vital to its life, so I’m glad to hear Proletariat already has plans in place for the future.
Spellbreak is a promising new take on battle royale; a game that feels familiar, yet all its own. It concocts a variety of elements together into a brilliant potion that simply feels good to play. It’s an easy game to just get a few quick matches in, but it’s one that will keep you playing for hours. Proletariat struck gold with this amalgamation of battle royale, magical fantasy, and fast-paced arena shooters. Their continued refinement, care, and passionate community will buoy Spellbreak as a game to keep an eye on.
Spellbreak doesn’t yet have a firm release date, but Proletariat is targeting 2020 to bring the game out of beta and to full release.
Spellbreak Founder Pack provided by developer for beta access.