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Battle royales have been all the rage since PUBG’s meteoric rise in 2017. But, except for the occasional vehicular royale, many of them have been shooters. It is a natural fit, however, that doesn’t make the general statement any less true. Spellbreak is a battle royale trying to change up the formula with its magical, spellcasting gauntlets taking the place of traditional firearms. It’s a novel take on a crowded genre, but it’s got to pull a rabbit out of its hat in order to realize that potential.
Those magic metaphors got a little mixed there as Spellbreak is more Harry Potter than Harry Houdini. It’s not typical for magic to be at the center for a battle royale game, but, according to Proletariat Games CEO Seth Sivak, the idea sprouted before PUBG was PUBG.
“We were watching early mods of battle royales and how it was a competitive roguelike for people who don’t play roguelikes and we embraced the idea,” he said. “And we wanted to do action spellcasting, which hadn’t been done before.”
Spellbreak Preview | Unreal inspirations
He also explained how the team took inspiration from corridor shooters like Quake and Unreal Tournament, which is apparent in its movement systems. Battle royales are often methodically paced to build tension whereas Spellbreak is all about hovering, jumping high, and using movement abilities to zip around. It’s refreshing to speed up the pace of the battle royale as it slices the average match runtime by a fair bit; something that is also aided by its modest 42-player limit. Hunkering down in most battle royales can get old and such agility here is appreciated, especially as one of the runes you can find basically lets you fly for a short period of time.
There is a circle that closes in and some light looting that make it a battle royale but spellcasting is where it most cleanly splits from its influences as combat is defined by its gauntlet system. There are multiple types of gauntlets that all have different specialties and powers. Players pick a class that locks them to one gauntlet, but they can also pick up another and freely switch that one out.
There’s an earth one that sends shockwaves on the ground and also big boulders. The fire gauntlet tosses fireballs and creates firewalls. The lightning one sends a quick burst of lightning shots while its more powerful secondary fire creates slow but large lightning strike. There are currently six in total and that only gets more impressive once you start combining them.
For example, rolling a boulder through a firewall makes a flaming boulder. Casting electricity on a tornado makes an electric tornado. Almost every gauntlet mixes with the other gauntlets and adds a few more layers of strategy and unpredictability. For example, you could be using a poison cloud to go invisible but then a fireball can detonate the cloud, harming you in the process in a way that adds to the unexpected chaos that good multiplayer games thrive on.
Combinations are an organic way to add more strategy to the game and have the ability to further change up how you play, and those combos naturally fell into place while developing the game.
“We had all of these different kinds of spells and then we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you could combine them?’” recalled Sivak. “Then we got a prototype of that working and it crystallized from there. It added a layer of depth and variety and was a natural progression of the elements.”
Spellbreak Preview | Appealing to those outside of shooters
It’s one of the most noteworthy unique aspects of Spellbreak as other battle royales usually depend more on your marksmanship. In Spellbreak, your loadout is smaller, but how you use the tools you’re given matters more.
Obviously, given these changes and the overall aesthetic, it’s a game that diverges a lot from its genre peers. And, according to Sivak, that quality has attracted people from other types of games. He claimed that many of its fans were from fighting games or other titles like League of Legends. League players apparently tend to enjoy ability management in Spellbreak, which stems from constantly monitoring cooldowns in Riot’s popular MOBA. Players also upgrade their class abilities as the match progresses somewhat like a MOBA, too.
“It’s for the competitive gamer that likes PVP that aren’t shooters and there aren’t many of those types of experiences especially on console,” said Sivak. “We’re not trying to go head to head with Call of Duty or Fortnite. We’re appealing to a different audience.”
Spellbreak Preview | If only a spell could fix the frame rate
A lot of audiences do overlap and Spellbreak will have to make that argument for the player’s time no matter who jumps in. But it’s going to be harder because of the game’s shoddy technical performance (at least on PS4).
The game is still in beta and won’t come out until later this year, meaning there is time to address technical issues, but the game is almost unplayable in its current state. The frame rate hovered inside of a pretty low range for most of the match, devolving into slideshow when only a few spells flooded the screen. Given the speedy traversal abilities, hitting moving targets became nearly impossible as it stuttered at the mere sign of an incoming battle.
The constant texture pop-in and shimmering would have been more problematic if they weren’t being overshadowed by the subpar frame rate. Sivak said Proletariat is targeting 60 frames per second on every platform and has been steadily improving the console port with its many patches. That smooth 60 frames is probably possible, given how much time the studio has to address it. However, the undeniable presence of those issues brings now into question why the game is playable to those outside the team.
Because of these performance-related problems, much of Spellbreak’s appeal is in the abstract. The speed of the game and eccentric gauntlet spells hold promise yet can’t hit their full potential at the current frame rate. Spellbreak isn’t coming out until sometime later in 2020 so the game is not at all doomed. But it will take some magic to get to a good spot and Proletariat better start reciting some ancient spells.