Spiral Knights review
Calling All Energetic Knights


Yes, it’s here. The long awaited review of Spiral Knights, the MMO project developed by Three Rings and published by Sega. That’s quite some backing when you’ve got one of the most recognizable companies in gaming behind you so expectations tend to run quite high. At this point you’ve probably already glanced at the score so time to explain just what makes this game so good and just what manages to knock those few precious points off.

You've crashed onto an alien planet with no real means of repairing either your little craft or the big ship only ever heard about. With the help of some local friendly residents of the planet you set about exploring the Clockworks to retrieve the minerals that should help you survive.

While that is a little shaky the intricate backstories woven into the game are very nice. The bosses of the game involve retrieving recon modules left by the "Alpha Team" who apparently went into the Clockworks ahead and leave recorded messages of what they have found. You also get to learn more about the different races and NPCs, like the gremlins that strive to keep the Clockworks running. The mission structure helps feed the story through in a more coherent manner than was previously done.

The game looks pretty good graphically. Spiral Knights opts for a decidedly cutesy approach with character models resembling chibi style. What's nice is that the appearance of your knight also changes with their equipment and you also have the option of applying armour and helm costumes so you get the stat benefits of one item while visibly showing something else. However, that is really where character customization ends. There's no shield or weapon costume slots and the only other things you can fine tune about your character is their name and colour.

There are plenty of different enemy models to admire as they try to beat you up, such as mechanical knights, little devilites that jump around and stone dog statues that spit energy balls at you. Everything is animated quite well and you get to see some impressive special effects like electrical explosions or pulsating energy orbs zipping across the screen. The HUD is also very clear and keeps a good amount of screen space relatively free of clutter. The graphics customization options are nice but could use with being extended a bit more. You can't really control much outside of resolution and a generic quality slider. Inparticularly a zoom option would be good, because while the ingame camera is good there has been the rare time where having it zoomed out a bit more would have helped me deal with threats that were just off-screen.

The music is quite good as an accompaniment to the events that are happening. Step into an enemy ambush and expect the music to crank up the tempo to reinforce the fight for survival. Enter a boss's lair and the music invokes despair and gives them an air of power. Sound effects are solid, giving you the myriad of gun blasts, sword swings and explosions you would want from it.

Spiral Knights is a nice change of pace from most MMOs which normally seem to fall squarely into either the RPG or FPS camp. Instead it delivers a more hack and slash action experience. Players band together to form adventuring parties in order to explore the Clockworks dungeons, defeating enemies and solving puzzles in order to grab the loot scattered throughout each floor.

Unlike other MMO games your adventuring party is limited to a low number of four people maximum. However, this is not a bad thing as generally the level design is tight and I feel too much more would make things a lot more awkward. I do like the way the whole party system is handled. When entering one of the Clockworks gates or starting a mission you have an option to join or start a party. Joining will pop you into a random party that has space, which makes adventuring so much easier since you don’t have to wait until people you know are ready to accept invites. Just click and off you go. Of course, random joining does run into the problem of not being able to control who you team up with. From experience you’ll run into a wide range of people from the talented professional players that make this look easy to people getting in over their head and really being horribly reckless to the point of suffering numerous deaths.

Fortunately you do have an option for a more standard party building system. You can choose to start your own party, which you can leave completely open for a random party experience or can choose to lock it to friends and/or members of your guild. Players can also use options like join and invite in order to easily establish a custom party, and the party itself can be locked and unlocked as you go so you can invite friends and then let random people join to fill the slots. The party leader also gets options such as being able to kick players. Of course, not being able to do it the other way around is a minor issue in case you get a poor party leader but at least you can opt to go solo at any point.

Work together or risk getting overwhelmed, especially in arenas.

What is great about this system though is that while the game is designed for multiplayer gaming it is still entirely possible to go do some solo runs as well. It’s harder, because even though the game scales the level’s hazards based on the number of players present you tend to find that you’ll still tip the odds more in your favour with more players. However, the point is that it is possible just in case you don’t feel like tagging along with other people.

A chat log is mainly used to communicate with other players. Bringing up the text box is easy so you can shoot out quick remarks as you play. There are also various chat commands like /follow to indicate people should follow you or expressive things such as /laugh if you want your character to express amusement. The chat log really can’t compare to using a headset to verbally chat, but how well this works depends. The game only really supports it ingame via Steam’s ability and for randoms I find most of the time they don’t really seem to know how to use it, especially when they have it set up so it transmits everything from comments to breathing. It leads to me just ignoring it, or in the worst cases muting it entirely (thank goodness that option exists). Playing with people you know (and who have figured out the joy of “push to talk”) is a lot more fun since you can chat easily with them. I think it would be nice if the game supported voice chat natively though instead of relying on the Steam function for it.

There’s also a private messaging system that players can use, although it generally isn’t as useful as chat log, especially as it costs 25 crowns per message. It basically acts more as an announcement system when Three Rings does an update, an Auction House sales change happens or things like that.

When doing a Clockworks run you always having four gates to choose from that will determine the sets of levels you play through and each gate is split into 3 tiers (rising in difficulty the further down you go), of which each tier is further split into 2 stratums each containing a number of levels. The actual levels are composed of entirely preset stages and “random” ones that mix and match pieces together to form levels. In additions many floors are connected to multiple levels that cycle as time passes, meaning that even running the same gate won’t necessarily mean encountering the same levels. There are also four inactive gates at any given time that will eventually cycle into use as the old gates disappear. In these you can deposit minerals collected during playthroughs which will earn you crowns (this game’s main currency) and can help determine the theme of each part of the game. It’s near impossible to really manipulate a stratum’s theme without having an entire guild or something work at it but it does help keep things varied as gates cycle in and out of use.

A recent patch introduced the concept of missions to the game. Whereas the Clockworks form a sort of random feel to gameplay, the missions offer a more structured style. Rank missions are the main course, as completing these will net you some rewards and go some way to increasing your rank. Missions give you objectives and then give you a handful of levels to complete for it. Most of the missions still revolve around completing levels normally but you do get some interesting alterations such as rescuing NPCs or taking an item to a certain location. Additionally, these rank missions serve as a handy guide for new players.

As well as rank there are also prestige missions which gives random levels or conditions and are currently just for something to do (as prestige does nothing at the moment). Expansion missions are typically missions you pay for (such as the Operation Crimson Hammer content) and are meant to provide even more content.

There is a wide variety of enemy types to deal with that will challenge you to learn their patterns and adjust accordingly. Gun puppies tend to be quite easy as they stagger from any attack and have short ranged attacks. Skeleton mechs are harder to deal with as they rarely stagger from normal attacks and gain longer range attacks the deeper you go. You’ll also find some using some interesting traits beyond attacking, like healers will try to undo the damage you’re inflicting on their allies or Quickslivers who benefit from being shocked by regaining health and shooting around the area.

The actual tactics involved is great. In Tier 1 areas (the easiest area and where you first gain access) you can reasonably get away with recklessly charging in swing a sword and smashing most enemies away without too much trouble. Try that in Tier 2 and expect to get your ass kicked. It encourages a lot more thoughtful play as enemies get tougher and gain new attacks. Ambushes become more dangerous and you’ll find you take more damage from getting hit.

Roarmulus - bigger than your average Construct.

So far there are four regular bosses in the game at various tiers that all generally involve some specific strategy. Of them all the Royal Jelly is my least favourite because the strategy doesn’t extend much beyond “hit it until it dies and hope you can outpace its regeneration”, and the fact it heals means if you don’t have competent partners then it pretty much becomes unwinnable. Other boss fights do at least remain possible even if allies are a bit hopeless and come with some interesting tactics like striking a stun bell when the boss comes near or switching gates so that one boss hits the other with its own attacks.

Status effects also play a role, and what is nice is that while some immunities do exist you’ll find that everything can be hit with some status at least, players, enemies and bosses alike. Of them all sleep seems the most pointless since no enemy uses it and while it does stop enemies moving it also heals them so I feel there are better ones to inflict. Others are generally more interesting like poison which causes damage when they try to heal and drops defence or fire that inflicts a steady amount of damage. All status heals naturally or can be instantly cured with a specific item. This range of statuses helps make fights all the more interesting, although sometimes can lead to a bit of rage in specific circumstances. Anyone caught in a shock arena or danger room and finding themselves in a constant shock-stagger-shock reapplied cycle will gladly share their war stories of that.

Other hazards exist in the levels too. Explosive blocks, spike floors and missile launchers are some of the other elements that threaten to drain your health bar as well. Generally these just require some timing to get past but do help increase the challenge, especially when enemies are scattered amongst them. You also tend to have some puzzle obstacles to get past, although these are never that difficult to manage. Usually just a case of pressing switches or grabbing keys to open lock gates in order to move on, but it’s nice to go beyond the idea of just fighting enemies.

When fighting players have 3 weapon types to pick from where you can either produce fast weaker attacks by tapping (except for the bomb) or charge an attack to produce a single more powerful strike. The sword is one of the starting weapons and lets you attack up close with swift powerful attacks but obviously puts you in harms way. The gun is the other starting weapon and lets you happily shoot enemies at a safe distance but is tricky to use against fast moving targets. Bombs are useful for dealing with groups of enemies with their area of effect attacks but have to be charged to use them. Chances are there is a style you’ll take to and you have complete freedom to have two styles to hand or to go entirely for two weapons from a single style.

What I really like is the sheer range of equipment available and the differences it has on gameplay. The actual charged attacks of swords for example can range from spin attacks that hit everything nearby to launching a projectile ahead. More passive traits exist too, like an increase to damage against certain enemy types or a chance to inflict a bad status. These things extend behind the weapons to your helm, armour and shield too, offering various defensive bonuses to deal with different threats. A basic levelling system is used where “heat” collected in stages will level up equipment, increasing their performance and offering preset bonuses based on the item type.

You can buy equipment or get some as rewards for collecting boss tokens (which are usually exclusive to being rewards). However, the real way people go about new equipment is through alchemy. Players can forge new items by obtaining a recipe, the necessary materials that are randomly dropped in the dungeons and building up enough crowns and energy for it. The main benefit of doing this is that it is far cheaper to forge items than to buy them premade from the NPC vendors, but in addition each forge attempt has a random chance of adding up to 3 Unique Variants to it. These are generally extra boosts that stack on top of any existing bonuses such as reducing the time taken to charge an attack or increase the attack speed. It’s rare but the bonuses are enough to encourage people to try the forge. A NPC merchant does also offer to add up to 3 random UVs to a weapon but the fee for this can be costly, especially if you go for 3 UVs (250k crowns, bearing in mind you would probably earn about 4-5k crowns per dungeon run).

Spiral Knights does allow the selling and trading of equipment for ingame returns with other players through various methods. The Auction House will generally reach the highest number of players, where you can list goods for sale and set a start price, buy now price and the length of the auction (although you can limited to 2 days maximum). The downside of this is that you are charged either a listing fee or, if the item sells, a seling fee as a percentage of the final sale price. Some players will also opt to hang around the Auction House and attempt to generate sales directly using the chat log, which helps avoid selling fees but does mean reaching few players at a time. Also if there are a lot of traders present it can lead to chat log spam as sales pitches compete to drown each other out. Some people will also use the official forums to conduct sales and then complete them ingame, but obviously this means only reaching people who frequently visit the forums.

Apparently warfare factories don't have to worry about health and safety regulations.

There are also limits of what you can trade in terms of equipment. Any item you have personally equipped because “bound” to you. You can unequip it but you can’t sell or trade it at that point unless you purchase an unbind ticket (which can be a bit costly). This does prevent people from using items and then selling them on when bored. Some items also bind on acquiring them (such as the equipment gained by trading in boss tokens) which tend to fetch quite the premium if unbound and sold.

As well as crowns the game uses energy as a separate type of currency. You won’t amass this in quite as large quantities as crowns but it is vital for several things. The most notable uses are for using the lifts in dungeons to head to deeper floors and for forging new equipment, but you’ll also find uses for doing things like unbind items, buying equipment slot upgrades and self reviving in dungeons too. To maintain its stance as a “free to play” game all players get free mist energy. This refills as real time passes at a rate of about 100 every 22 hours, but 100 is the maximum you can carry at any given time. This will get you as far as playing tier 2 dungeons and forging 2 star items but that’s it. Crystal energy (CE) is the other type of energy. It’s used interchangeably with mist energy but unlike mist energy it has no maximum limit and is generally required for the more expensive services like forging equipment 3 star and up. At first the energy system seems a little daunting and expensive, but much of this seems to come from the alchemy system. Well, trying to forge 5 star equipment is still expensive regardless but as your equipment increases and you have less need to forge anything you tend to find that the energy costs don't quite impact as much as they did. Well, unless you feel like changing equipment since you'd have to start the process over again. Additionally, you'll find that buying energy is less troublesome from tier 2 upwards, so play time needn't be quite so restricted.

You can buy this range in specific sets, either at preset numbers or as part of promotional packs, using real money. However, I wanted to see how far I could stretch this without spending a penny. The result? Pretty damn far. Almost all content can be reached with enough time, aside from a few promotional items and the expansion missions. Players can buy and sell energy for crowns either through the energy depot (at a cost the seller pays in crowns) or trying to sell directly. The price goes up and down depending on demand, like at the moment it is hovering around 6.5k crowns which is just a bit more than an average Tier 2 run but there was a time it had climbed to around 8k crowns. Ultimately though, it gives free players a means to access content that would otherwise be locked to paying players and for that I am really thankful. Paid players generally get it easier since with a little real money they can pad out their finances in the blink of an eye, but free players can get there too with a little grinding.

The mist energy setup generally means dungeon runs are limited to about one per day, which can last about 1-2 hours depending on your party members and just how many floors you intend to go through. You can use CE to gain additional playthroughs if you want, but obviously you have to pay for this with money or ingame crowns. Still, given how addicting the game can be then maybe the limit is a good thing for our health.

Having said that, Three Rings have recently added a PvP element. It’s more minigames than actually fighting each other in the regular manner but it is a fun time killer and you spend crowns to play instead of energy. Blast Network is where you plant instant charge bombs that explode in cross shapes to try and defeat other players. Yes, it’s pretty much Bomberman but it is still a lot of fun. Lockdown is the more straightforward versus style where teams of players aim to capture control points and defeat the other team. A number of different levels are in there and you can equip yourself however you like (if you have the items in the first place). Rewards can be earned here too, like the top 1-2 players (depending on the number of participants) earning crowns back and Krogmo Coins as well (for playing and for winning), which can be exchanged for some exclusive items and recipes.

Spiral Knights does suffer from some lag issues at times though. It’s not a crippling problem but there are times when you’ll have brief freezes and then suddenly be across the other side of the room or in Blast Network where the game doesn’t quite seem to receive the command of legging it away from a blast quick enough. A few other areas like Shadow Lairs and Ironclaw Munitions Factory also seem to run a bit slow; not to the point of dragging but it seems things like shielding don’t respond as quickly.

Despite that though, Spiral Knights has successfully eaten up so much of my time that I cannot give the game anything but a high score. It loses out on some points due to the lag issues and that it isn't that accessible to begin with due to the energy system, but with plenty to do, an excellent item system, solid party system and a setup that lets you experience almost everything with some patience without spending a penny then I can’t recommend this game enough.

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