When I first wrote about Spellbreak, the battle royale whose battles royale evoke Avatar: The Last Airbender more than Battle Royale, I said that its combat was so good that it could form the backbone of a myriad of other kinds of games, including a more traditional deathmatch. Now that’s exactly what’s happening. And by exactly, I mean sort of.
Tomorrow, developer Proletariat Inc is dropping Spellbreak’s first big content update, “Prologue: The Gathering Storm.” The biggest addition is a new mode called Clash, which I got to try out in a recent play session with developers from Proletariat. On paper, it sounds like team deathmatch: two teams of nine players throw down until one manages to score 50 eliminations. “Last person standing” rules go out the window in favor of rapid respawns that see players soar down from on high like avenging angels. The map—still Spellbreak’s main map—is sectioned off to create smaller arenas that are larger than the final couple circles in battle royale mode, but not by much. It’s very fun, the sort of mode where you can just cut loose and fight like an idiot instead of cautiously skulking around, gripped by the ever-present fear of inevitable death.
Much like Spellbreak itself, though, it’s still its own thing. Players begin matches in a battle royale-like fashion, with a brief period of time in which the map is more open, and players roam to collect gear and level up their abilities. Then the circle closes and fences players into one of several developer-curated locations. When players die, they hold onto their hard-earned loot but also drop a copy of their loadout, ensuring that other players can rapidly gear up, too. Midway through pretty much any Clash match, everybody is rocking legendary-level gear, meaning they have plenty of mana and brief cooldown times on abilities that let them dodge, leap, fly, turn invisible, and all that other good stuff.
If the goal is quick, immediately gratifying combat, though, why the build up?
“We actually tried a version where everyone started at level four with all legendary gear,” Proletariat CEO Seth Sivak told Kotaku over a Discord voice call. “And it was just like, chaos—complete chaos in like a really small area.”
“It’s good to have a relatively low-stress [option],” said design director Jesse Kurlancheek. “You’ll see players start their sessions with a round or two of Clash and end their sessions with a round or two of Clash, just because it’s a good ramp in. You don’t have to worry too much if you die off the bat or whatever.”
After playing for about an hour, I found this to be true. The stress that sometimes plagues me (and causes me to fight like a flailing dummy) in battle royale mode was nowhere to be found. I racked up kill after kill. It felt great, especially when I was using my rock gauntlet/Featherfall rune combo to soar over an especially hilly arena, spot active skirmishes, and slam down into them. There, I’d pick up a kill or two, or if things got too hairy, I’d use Featherfall to twirl-dance my way back into the sky and begin the process anew.
The number of skirmishes going on at any given moment meant that it actually was chaos, but a manageable sort where, if worse came to worst, I’d just get another chance to make my mark a handful of seconds later. For those who were initially turned off by Spellbreak because it’s a battle royale, this will likely be the mode for you. It is all pretty mindless, however, so I could see it getting old fairly quickly.
That’s where the other portion of this update, the Prologue Chapter, comes in. To start, the game’s “Chapters” mode will be a dressed up battle pass, with weekly in-game quests that feed into a reputation system, which will in turn allow players to unlock outfits and other cosmetics. However, there will also be characters and an overarching plot, beginning with Avira Emberdane in the prologue, who will introduce you to things called “the Order of the Vowbreakers” and “the Hollow Lands,” neither of which mean anything to me, but hopefully they will be cool. This prologue will last seven weeks, after which Proletariat hopes to release meatier chapters that last longer and dig more deeply into the story.
Over time, the goal is to evolve Chapters mode into something almost MMO-like in nature.
“I think the way you see a lot of the quests play out in the Chapters will look very familiar to [MMO players],” said Kurlancheek. “So today we were just talking about this with one of the quest designers: What happens when two groups of players meet at this quest object? What do we want to do? Do we want it to be a friendly thing or a less friendly thing? It’s very reminiscent of how quest NPCs in MMOs or more traditional RPGs give you a quest, then you go out and accomplish it. And then it can segue into a quest chain or further exploration of the world.”
“In Apex Legends or Fortnite, you get a lot of the challenges kind of all at once,” said Sivak. “There are multistep quests for some stuff now in Fortnite, but what we’re trying to do is make it so that every week, you come back, and there’s a story quest chain for you to play that unlocks and kind of moves it forward.”
It all sounds like it could be interesting, but the question now is one of execution. In these saturated times, releasing a new multiplayer game is a contradictory proposition: On one hand, you have to make a splash and break the mold—do something different enough that your game stands out as a viable alternative to the Fortnites and Leagues of Legends of the world. But then you immediately have to turn, on a dime, into a consistent content factory, a reliable pillar of a community that could leave and play something else at the drop of a hat. Proletariat, a studio significantly smaller than Epic or Riot, has a tall task ahead of it.
“We try, but don’t always succeed in having sane work hours,” said Sivak. “The challenge in covid of shipping a game simultaneously with updates across four platforms is not easy, no matter what, especially for a smaller studio. But a lot of it also came into how we thought about the design of the game. We thought about what will be impactful, meaningful updates for players that won’t kill us in terms of the content we have to make.”
He pointed to talents—game-altering abilities that nevertheless don’t require many development resources—as one example. Proletariat also divides up production teams so that different groups are working on different sets of content, meaning that everybody isn’t sprinting toward release at the same time. Story, too, plays a role in keeping things (hopefully) manageable, with this first update being a proof of concept on multiple levels.
“In the future we’ll add whole classes and new gauntlets and stuff, but that’s obviously really expensive,” said Sivak. “So there are other things we can do incrementally, like leaning into the story. Telling a great story is hard, but that content isn’t particularly difficult to build if you can do it well. Obviously, we’ll see how we can do on the storytelling side.”