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Sunday, December 10, 2023

'Spellbreak' Conjures Up a Unique Spin on Battle Royale

There’s a special bliss to the first few days of a new, popular battle royale game. After rapidfire releases like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Warzone, by now everyone knows the basic schtick, allowing genre devotees to float from game to game with minimal friction. You and your friends fight tooth and nail to be the last ones standing in a shrinking map crawling with strangers. The burst of joy comes from mastering from each game’s fresh take.

For most battle royale games, that comes from a new map, some special abilities, different guns. All safe. Spellbreak, the latest battle royale entrant, swerves delightfully. In a genre crowded with dusty, militaristic tropes, Spellbreak is a whimsical fantasy game built on sword-and-sorcery combat. It’s colorful, addictive, and also free, with crossplay between PC, Xbox, PlayStation 4, and Switch.

Out September 3, Spellbreak trades gunfights with euphoric elemental wizardry. After choosing your first gauntlet—spellcasting categories including ice, fire, toxic, stone, lightning, and wind—players explore stories-high collapsed castles and ruined temples, looking for magic upgrades. You can acquire a second gauntlet, strategically pairing elements. You can also summon runes, which gift the powers of flight, dashing, invisibility, and so on. There are other items, of course—healing potions, armor, scrolls that unlock talents—and everything, including magic, upgrades in traditional battle royale fashion. With its relatively late arrival in the genre, Spellbreak has the expected quality-of-life upgrades, like teammate revival and sounds signaling loot chests. (You can play in solos, duos, or squads.)

Spellbreak fights are absorbing. Blasting enemies with long-range fireballs or ginormous boulders feels incredible after years of ferreting through postapocalyptic whatevers for gun add-ons. If you spray a toxic cloud with one gauntlet, you can light it on fire with the other. Your teammate can cast a fire wall to herd opponents into your lightning death tube. In a recent game, I invisibly entered a fight to toss a tornado onto an ally’s fire spell, whisking their opponent into a painful whirlwind. Characters can all levitate, so fights shift dynamically from on-ground to mid-air. You’re always moving, balancing survival strategies with various cool-down timers.

Even within the fantasy twist, Spellbreak is refreshing. Fire isn’t just boom boom; there’s an area control strategy integral to the pyromancer gauntlet. Wind pulls opponents in instead of pushing them away. It’s like everybody is Storm from X-Men or an Avatar: The Last Airbender protagonist.

Freed from the tyranny of headshots, Spellbreak lets players focus on more meta aspects of fighting. Where will your opponent be two seconds from now, and can you reach them in that tower with a lightning bolt? Will pursuing that Legendary Flight Rune put you in range of an opponent’s ice field? It still feels deeply satisfying to lob someone in the face with a boulder mid-air, and aiming still matters—Twitch streamer Dr. Lupo recently nailed an opponent far across the map with a lightning bolt snipe. Spellbreak is just more accommodating of different proficiencies.

Everything about Spellbreak conspires to be low-barrier-to-entry. Unlike most other battle royale games, you can immediately hop into a round with your console (or PC) buddies instead of waiting months—or years—for cross-play. But will it last? Spellbreak lacks the polish and balance of a competitive esports product. Its premium costumes aren’t hype or cute, like Fortnite and others of its ilk—so I’m not motivated to grind out games in exchange for in-world currency. None of developer Proletariat’s past games garnered much traction, so there isn’t much of a track record to point to when it comes to ongoing development.

My view: Who cares? Another battle royale game will come along in a couple months, probably, and we’ll all rush there to chase the high. But right now is a lonely time to be on Earth; you can do worse than spend it playing wizard with friends.

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