Spellbreak is a game trying to pull away from its genre: the battle royale. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds remains para-military, the most grounded of the bunch, with no mechs, no building towers out of thin air, and no special abilities to pull out of a clutch situation. But even Fortnite and Apex Legends don't step too far from the "people with guns" bedrock established by PUBG. Spellbreak wants you flying through the sky, causing massive explosions with a wave of your hand.
There are no guns in Spellbreak. Instead, you start each match as one of six classes of elemental battlemage: the shocking Conduit, an icy Frostborn, the burning Pyromancer, stoic Stoneshaper, the high-flying Tempest, and the poison-dealing Toxicologist. Each has a different feel, with the Conduit doing smaller, more sustained damage, while the Toxicologist aims to hide from conflicts and whittle down opponents with poison.
Your chosen class determines your basic attack and one additional ability. The Frostborn has the Ice Lance, a precision attack that can be charged for more damage, but also creates paths of ice for quick ground movement and leaves puddles of water behind. The class' secondary ability is Flash Freeze, which freezes the area around the Frostborn and slows enemies caught in the spiraling winds.
The Hollow Lands, where all the fighting takes place, is a region that was destroyed by a magical calamity. There battlemages fight in last man standing brawls, albeit slightly smaller than other battle royale titles. "We're playing with a smaller group of people. Matches usually go to 42 people," says Proletariat Inc. co-founder and CEO Seth Sivak, who is showing me what Spellbreak has to offer.
When you land in-map, you can find a second gauntlet that will impart the basic attack and special abilities of one of the other classes. That gives you a total of four attacks to work with, which seems slight, until you realize you can combine them for unique effects. The Stoneshaper's Boulderfall ability shoots a giant arcing boulder that can catch fire if it passes through the Pyromancer's Flamewall. The Toxicologist's Toxic Cloud poisons those who pass through it, unless you light it on fire with the Pyromancer's Fireball.
Proper Spellbreak play is hoping you can find the right second gauntlet to work with the one you choose before a match, and whatever spells your partners have available. You also have to be cognizant of the equipment that you find on the battlefield. You might prefer a Conduit gauntlet to go with your Frostborn, but that doesn't mean you'll find one. You may also be forced to pick a gauntlet up if you find a rare version; items in Spellbreak have five levels of rarity. A Legendary Stone gauntlet is more mana efficient and does more damage overall, compared to the Common Lightning gauntlet you might prefer.
There's also various movement and support Runes that can be found. Every battlemage can float after jumping, but this draws from the same mana pool as your basic attack spell, meaning you sometimes have to choose between attacking and making a hasty retreat. The Runes—you can only have one at a time—are only contained by varying cooldown timers. More useful Runes like the long-range teleport have a 21 second cooldown, while the straightforward Dash is a scant 8 seconds. Some provide a quick double jump, others make you entirely invisible for a short period of time, and one allows you to see enemies through walls.
Instead of a host of weapons, Spellbreak has a tighter focus. Fully equipped, you only have five attack buttons to worry about, moving you toward finding the right weapons and equipment to augment your style of play. It also makes it easier to read your opponents. You only need to see an attack or two to have a firm understanding of what's going on in any encounter. That's good, because actual combat is full of color; bright green clouds of poison, burning walls of flame, lines of cracked earth, and other mages flitting about in the sky with purple trails behind them.
It feels… pretty goddamn anime, all things considered. If you've wanted to step on the shonen battlefields of Black Clover, Fullmetal Alchemist, or Fate/Apocrypha, this might be the game for you. Instead of hiding in ruined buildings or staring down iron sights, you're throwing massive lightning storms and rolling boulders around. You can fly or blink around your opponent to trap them within a frozen hurricane. Or you can go invisible and drop a tempest to cut off their retreat. And to be honest, skating around on ice trails is damned cool. Spellbreak is faster and more immediate than some of its fellow battle royale brethren.
It also has a good system for increasing tension during a match. Not only can you take gauntlets and equipment from fallen enemies, but as you reach the inside of the shrinking circle of death, you gain a level, becoming more powerful and gaining an additional perk on your primary class. If you're a Frostborn, your first level gives you Tundra, which makes you invincible when you use your Flash Freeze ability. The fourth level of Pyromancer causes your Fireball to split into additional Fireballs when it hits. As the circle shrinks, the battles themselves get bigger and wilder, and that's before you get into additional systems like talent progression.
The entirety of Spellbreak is wrapped in an aesthetic that roughly reminds me of Netflix' The Dragon Prince. The developer showed me the Outfit system, which changes the skin of your character, but there were also unknown cosmetic sections, notably "Artifact", "Afterglow", and "Cloudburst," which I was unable to access. "This is the biggest single feature that we've added in this next phase of development. You'll unlock cosmetics for your classes, and you'll also unlock talents, which you can then choose in order to augment your loadout," says Sivak. He points to the cosmetics he's using, which are all unlocked through Stoneshaper class progression.
The unlock system is a nice idea, but I do wonder what sort of monetization system Spellbreak will have in the future. Currently, players can join the beta phases by purchasing its Founder's Pack on the Epic Games Store or the PlayStation Store. (Spellbreak is only aimed at PC and PS4 at the moment.) Just because it costs money now doesn't mean it won't potentially be free-to-play. Proletariat isn't talking about making money at the moment. Instead, it's focused on improving the game; a second Closed Beta phase is starting next week on PlayStation 4, complete with cross-play functionality with the PC beta.
At least Spellbreak is trying something new with the battle royale genre. The core of that genre is the survival aspect, and there's definitely more to play around with what you're doing while you're surviving. (Take Tetris 99 for example.) Flying and teleporting around, dropping boulders and flame walls on people is infinitely more interesting than just shooting them with an assault rifle or shotgun. It speaks to the shonen anime lover within my heart, and Proletariat Inc. is hoping it'll speak to you too when it releases sometime in 2020.