Free to play . . . to a point
When Steam announced free to play games I figured I’d check some of them out ― it should be safe because I’m too cheap to pay for whatever’s extra. Spiral Knights looked a little cartoony for my tastes but sounded like it could be entertaining so I installed it. It was moderately enjoyable for a while, but once I got far enough it started to feel like I had to either pay or keep repeating the same parts of the game to collect enough credits to buy what other players had bought with actual real money.
The gameplay is a lot like most other hack & slash / dungeon crawler type games, but Spiral Knights limits you to two actions (typically melee attack with a sword or projectile attack with a gun). This leads to easy to master gameplay but also not all that much strategy. The height of strategy I encountered was during a boss fight I had to strike a bell with my sword to stun the boss and then attack the boss directly. If you didn’t pay attention and went straight for attacking the boss, it remained impervious to your attacks.
Advancing to the next set of dungeon levels (called the clockworks in Spiral Knights) requires that you have a certain level of equipment. It took me many runs through the beginning levels to get good enough equipment to get down to the next set of levels. This limit seems arbitrary or possibly a greedy money-grab (since you can get better equipment faster if you pay real actual money) since the increased difficulty should be enough to keep you back. Maybe it’s partly so new players don’t try to go to the bottom level and just hang back in safety to later share in the profits as more experienced players clear the level.
The multiplayer aspect of the game has you working with up to three other people as you progress through each level. Or rather you’re in the level with up to three other people trying to grab one-time use items before they do. Anything picked up in the levels that can be taken out of the levels (credits, “heat” which levels up your weapons, and materials) either go to everyone or are randomly given to someone from the party. The random thing affects materials, and until you realize what’s happening the game feels buggy since you pick up some useful-looking thing but the guy standing in the corner gets it somehow. There’s little incentive to actually work together except where it’s forced via everyone-must-stand-here-to-open-the-gate buttons, which is unfortunate because then most people won’t since they don’t know each other.
Items are rarely dropped (in fact I never saw any), preferring materials that can be used in crafting. Characters don’t level up or have any sort of stats but instead collect enough credits to purchase better equipment. Then the equipment can level up as you have it equipped while trawling the dungeons for more credits so you can afford even better equipment. For me this is a little too simple, and I find random equipment drops more fun than having to buy or craft all of your equipment.
The game also features an auction house for player-to-player trading which serves as a third way to obtain equipment in addition to buying at a fixed price from vendors or crafting (I’m ignoring that you can allegedly find equipment in dungeon drops). It also allows recipes and materials (required for crafting). The auctions are very simple though ― however many credits you put in is your bid so no ebay-style lowest bid that will have you winning until your maximum is reached. There is a purchase price option though, which is a lot easier to use if you don’t feel like keeping the game up waiting to see if you get outbid. Generally purchase price at auction is cheaper than the vendor price. Vendors have a random selection though (even the recipe vendors!) so often if you want something specific your options are to get it from another player at the auction house or try again tomorrow.
Spiral Knights uses a concept it calls energy that you need to spend to do things like advance to the next level of a dungeon (each time you play) or craft items from the materials you find in the dungeons. Energy regenerates fully in almost a day and is capped at 100, or you can use either in-game credits or real actual money to buy as much energy as you can afford which is not capped in any way. Using it to advance through the dungeon is actually nice ― it limits how much you play the game each day to a satisfying amount. Using it for crafting on the other hand feels really greedy on Three Rings’ part since anything past 2-star items (items range from 1 to 5 stars) require more energy than the 100 cap. It cost 800 energy to craft a 5-star item, so subtract 100 for your free energy and you’d need to collect 7 x 6000 = 42,000 credits to buy the rest at in-game auction. That takes a really long time!
I really wanted to like this game more, but Spiral Knights and I just grew apart. It kept trying harder and harder to get real actual money from me without giving me much of an enjoyable experience. I’d recommend this game if you have a lot of time to kill and no money or if you play Team Fortress 2 and want a medieval-style helmet for the soldier (but then only play the very beginning until you achieve Mission Accomplisded). Three Rings has been adding to the game though, including PvP that was added after I stopped playing but before I wrote this, so maybe they’ll add something I would like, but I probably won’t find out about it.