Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, Switch, PC
At this point, it seems like there’s a battle royale for every interest. Want to play something silly and laidback? Go with Fortnite or Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout. In the mood for a more strategic game? Hop into PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. The free-to-play Spellbreak is one of the latest newcomers to the genre, and it sits somewhere between those two extremes.
You play as a battlemage that fights against other magic users (up to 42 players) on a huge medieval-themed map. Instead of scavenging guns or melee weapons, you’ll find mystical gauntlets that determine the type of elemental-based spells you can cast. The action moves quickly and matches usually last around 10 minutes or so, making it easy to jump back in for another round to level up your character.
Unfortunately, Spellbreak isn’t the most polished battle royale option out there, but it does have a lot of potential.
The best defense is a good offense
You have six classes to choose from before a match: Frostborn (ice), Conduit (lightning), Pyromancer (fire), Toxicologist (poisonous clouds and puddles), Stoneshaper (earth), and Tempest (wind). Each class comes with its own corresponding gauntlet, and each gauntlet has two spells: a basic attack and a more powerful ability that requires a cooldown. Once you’ve dropped into the map, you can equip a second gauntlet of any type by finding them in chests or pilfering them from fallen foes.
This is where Spellbreak’s combat really shines because you can cast different types of spells in a fight, and some of them can even be combined together. For example, if you have both a fire gauntlet and a wind gauntlet, you can cast the Tornado spell and then use Fireball on top of it to create a damaging Fire Tornado. Or, if you pair your wind powers with a lightning gauntlet, you can electrify the Tornado instead.
Some combos can also give you more defensive options. One common strategy is to use the wind gauntlet’s Wind Shear attack to quickly dissipate a deadly Toxic Cloud, or the ice gauntlet’s Ice Lance to just freeze the cloud in place. Part of the fun of Spellbreak is to experiment with the different gauntlets and see what kind of combos you can come up with (or if you’re impatient like me, just consult the exhaustive wiki).
You’re only limited by the amount of mana you have, which you’ll always see via a curved bar in the middle of the screen. Casting any spell will cost some mana, as will your levitation ability (a skill all classes can use). While mana does regenerate over time, you can find and equip amulets that increase the length of your mana bar for the duration of the match.
Gauntlets also come in different rarities, and the better the rarity (such as in the “epic” or “legendary” tiers), the less mana your spells will consume and the more damage they’ll do. On top of that, you’ll find special Runes that give your character support abilities, like allowing you to turn invisible or giving you the power to fly for a short time. Keeping track of the different pieces of loot was a little overwhelming at first, but I eventually came around to it. Ultimately, it means you can customize your fighting style in a lot of different ways, making each match feel unique and unpredictable.
The late stages of a battle are fun because it often resembles a chaotic Dragon Ball Z fight, with the surviving mages unleashing all sorts of magic into such a small area. Huge boulders, walls of flame, and other attacks seem to appear out of nowhere, and you have to use every ability you have just to stay alive.
An intriguing world
The backdrop for all this fighting is the Hollow Lands, a region that consists of vast canyons, dry deserts, and castle ruins. It has a lived-in feel to it, and you can tell that something catastrophic took place here some time ago. The map reminded me of a lot of the world from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild -- not just because of the topography, but also in its artistic style. It’s as if developer Proletariat gently filled in each verdant hill and rock formation with a paintbrush.
The battlemages also have a striking, cel-shaded look to them, which blends in well with the Hollow Lands’ environments. There’s something cool about watching your character dodge fireballs in a dilapidated courtyard or soar through a valley while trying to escape the deadly Spellstorm (a circle that shrinks the map and hurts you if you stay outside its blue boundaries). The Hollow Lands is such an interesting world for a battle royale game, and I hope we find out more about how it came to be.
Just short of a magical experience
My biggest gripe with Spellbreak is that it’s just not as polished or fully featured as some of its competitors. Take the ping system, for instance. While you can ping items and points of interest for your team, there’s no way to properly tag enemies. The lack of character voice-overs, which is crucial for pings in games like Apex Legends and Call of Duty: Warzone, doesn’t help. It’s also difficult to tell when teammates need reviving. There is a workaround you can use if you’re down -- just spam the ping button over and over to get someone’s attention -- but it’s annoying and clunky.
The map interface is rather unintuitive as well. You can’t zoom in, and unless you read the small text on the side of the screen, the game doesn’t tell you how to select which area to drop into at the beginning of a match. Icons, which can indicate pinged loot or just a class designation, are also tiny for some reason. I played Spellbreak on my 50-inch TV, and there were times where I had to squint really hard at the icons in the menu or at my team’s pings to see what they mean.
Spellbreak will need some quality-of-life improvements before it can truly stand out in this crowded genre. But Proletariat has an excellent foundation in place, and I can’t wait to see how the game evolves in the months to come.