Chronicles of Spellborn Impressions

I took much of Friday and Saturday off to give Chronicles of Spellborn a spin.  Though released November 27th in the United Kingdoms, in the United States this is quite a new game, released April 23rd, just a few days ago.

It might look like just another MMORPG, but after a thorough investigation of a dozen hours or so, I can firmly state that it’s a meaningfully different MMORPG.  What’s more, it’s actually reasonably good.  In a genre largely saturated with EverQuest clones, this is major.

False First Impressions

Before trying the game, a first blush reaction would be that this might be yet another low quality free2play game, probably developed for Eastern audiences.  This impression is backed up by a somewhat scant character creation system.

However, this impression would be mistaken.  Though Chronicles of Spellborn is hosted on Acclaim with another of Eastern imports, it’s actually developed by Dutch development house Spellborn Interactive.

Furthermore, this is not a Free2Play game.   Though they are offering 2 weeks of free access to players now, soon players will be restricted to only leveling up to level 7 unless they pay a standard $15/mo subscription fee.

It might seem a little unusual that you can pay in Acclaim Coins and that you have the option of earning these by answering marketing questions, but it’s not too unusual when you do the math and realize it’s still $15/mo worth of Acclaim Coins one way or another.

The European Influence

The flavor is similar to many European games I’ve seen in that the focus on high end graphics was second to one of having a bit of substance behind the style.  There are patches of overly pixelated textures here and there, a certain behemoth encountered at the end of the tutorial looks more like a puppet, and that’s okay because (again) it’s more about the substance.

That said, Chronicles of Spellborn doesn’t look bad at all – it uses a modified Unreal Engine to great effect – and the environment is quite unique in that it takes place in a post-apocolyptic fantasy world of floating islands against a backdrop of wild magic.  The very sky is suspended rock with mysterious light peering through holes in it, and this is one if many fairly breathtaking scenes.

My only real complaint about the appearance of the game is that their method of character equipment wearing is too compartmentalized, resulting in having to wear a number of strange incomplete armor and clothing pieces.  I suspect something like a flowing robe would be impossible for them to do.

The Cutting Edge Question: Is It Really Different?

For many cross-MMORPG nomads, the important thing to wonder about Chronicles of Spellborn is simply this: “Is it yet another clone of the games I’ve already become bored of in the past?” The answer is “No and yes.”

The developers behind Chronicles of Spellborn have rethought many aspects of MMORPG design and tweaked the core game mechanic accordingly.  Amongst some of the more prolific examples:

  • Mana or Energy have been done away with entirely – attacks can be done with no restrictions to them, although the health bar remains.  There are now three new bars that grant bonuses or penalties depending on their current level: Physique, which affects movement speed, Morale, which affects damage output, and Concentration, which affects attack speed.  Buffing these while debuffing the enemys’ has a major affect on having an upper hand in a fight.
  • Experience points have been replaced with Fame Points and Personal Experience Points (PeP).  Fame points are earned mostly from doing quests (though defeating monsters will earn a few) and these are primarily what drives leveling up.  Personal experience points are gained primarily from slaying monsters, and modify your maximum physique, morale, and concentration state.  Being killed when fighting monsters will cause you to lose a PeP level.
  • The hotbar has been changed to automatically rotate so you can set up combinations of attacks that work well together.   You pick one new skill a level (up to 20, then a new skill every 2 levels) and the hotbar will periodically increase in length of combos (eventually up to 5 skills) or number of combos (eventually 6) for a total of 30.  Customizing your chains of attack has been compared to collectible card game deck customization, not unlike Guild Wars but with a significantly different implementation.
  • Autoattack is gone, as are rolls to hit or miss, in place of a full-contact combat system requiring having your crosshair on an enemy for an attack to connect.  Whether it’s PvE or PvP, dodging or putting others between you and the enemy makes a big difference.
  • Though there are familiar character classes in that Chronicles of Spellborn features Warriors, Rogues, and Spellcaster base classes which split into 3 disciplines each, they don’t play as you would expect.  There can be spellcasting warriors or durable front-line spellcasters.  A lot of this depends on how the player has chosen to customize their specific character’s skill choices.
  • There does not seem to be any taunting abilities or direct healing abilities (at least that I’ve seen).  Instead, all skills are centric on players connecting with their opponents, and anything else that happens is secondary.   (e.g. In order to heal, I use Righteous Hunt, wich lands a Life Tap on enemies that heals anyone who hits that enemy with a melee attack.)  Aggro control is completely omitted, forcing players to stay wary of hard-hitting foes.
  • Amount and number of NPCs does not seem to majorly impact their danger level because of how well one can exploit positioning and skills.  Played well, I’m able to take down a half dozen foes of same level because they’re not able to all reach me in melee and I’m continually healing or buffing myself.
  • Equipment is largely cosmetic.  Anyone can use any weapon or any armor, but these weapons and armor don’t carry any statistics.  At most, you can slot some sigils (which grant certain buffs) on your main weapon and bow.  Most real power comes from good use of skill attack chains.

Overall, there’s so many differences to the way Chronicles of Spellborn plays that it really feels quite weird for established MMORPG players.  However, I would argue that it’s a good kind of weird in that it reflects that we’ve finally run into something relatively new and interesting.

But, as I said, it’s a “yes or no” scenario, and this is because Chronicles of Spellborn repeats some of the same old mistakes we were hoping to have evolved past by now:

  • “Tagging” monsters by landing the first hit and then sitting back as other players finish them off will grant you full credit for the kill while the players who did the real work get nothing.  This not only opens the road for grief play, but also is fairly exploitable for power leveling’s sake.
  • A great deal of the game is spent walking from place to place attempting to finish quests.  There are currently no mounts in the game, at best you can hope to garner a 30% speed boost from having accrued enough PeP levels, or have certain skills that grant you faster movement speed (not available to all disciplines).
  • The travel delay is further exuberated by slow monster spawns.  Some of this is just the glut of newbie problems you can see in most MMORPGs, but to an extent this is just the way the game is set up.  This is particularly in the case of named monsters (needed for the highly lucrative wanted poster quests) where it can take 20 minutes for the monsters to respawn.
  • The grind is quite protracted.  It took me, a fairly experienced MMORPG player, all day to go from level 5 to 10 and this is mostly sticking to the game’s most lucrative method of gaining levels – performing quests.  This is unfortunate because the players really need to build up a good skill and combo base early on to properly appreciate the combat system, but the speed of the grind is such that reaching the needed level 10-20 will alienate many players.

In the end, Chronicles of Spellborn emerges as one of the most innovative MMORPGs to be released in a long time, but not a perfect game.  Veteran players may be delighted by the highly interactive combat system but, without a significant outpouring of patience, it’s inevitable that they will be frustrated by the stolen kills and long travel times.

As for me, I’m not sure if I’ll bother to subscribe to the game or not when my two weeks are up.  Probably not simply on the grounds my time is better spent developing a game of my own.  Still, Chronicles of Spellborn is definately a good try, and an encouraging sign of change in a genre often stagnant with clones.

3 Responses

  1. Sounds watered down to make it accessible to newbies

  2. Looking down the list, I can see why you’d say that. No mana or energy to worry about? Hotbar only shows 6 things at a time? Only 3 classes of 3 flavors each? No aggro to worry about? The mobs are wimpy enough you can take several at once? Equipment doesn’t do anything?

    However, in execution, it’s only simple on the surface, it’s much more complex as you get into the depth of it.

    Mana and energy are taken out as unnecessary GUI elements because additional excuses for downtime are unnecessary and there’s more important things going on. The physique/concentration/morale measure is a perpetual secondary focus that turns the tide of battle, and the between battle resetting of these bars is all the downtime you need.

    The hotbar only showing 6 things at a time is because you’ve locked yourself into setting up decks from a pool of skills: you can’t switch which hotbar is available, so you want to build yourself alternative move queues in which case something happens in mid-combo. The overall flow of combat is significantly more complex by the time you factor in all the different kinds of hotbar interplay on top of manual aiming and dodging.

    The differences between the classes and disciplines are actually quite diverse. Even with equipment out of the picture, even sharing nearly half their skills, by the time you factor in bodyslots there’s more differences in how two disciplines of warrior in Chronicles of Spellborn would play than there are a Paladin and Warrior in WoW. There may even be more difference between two characters of the same discipline by the time you factor in the variety of skilldecks.

    Aggro is not missing, it’s just different. There’s 3 models of AI in the foes, and the humanoid AI will do things like try to kite you. They’ll lash out on whoever they feel like lashing out, not just who hit them the hardest, and it makes dealing with them very unpredictable.

    Funny enough, considering I can take a group of mobs on, other times I die to a single one. I’m not sure why exactly, but I think it’s because you can exploit the foes’ positioning in such a way that they have to get through eachother to get to you. You have to stay on your toes in this game, if a battle is turning sour you do have some recourse, and different enemies’ skilldecks will affect you in different ways – it’s a rare two types of foe who fight exactly alike.

    Like in City of heroes, equipment being scrapped down to cosmetic doesn’t hurt the core game mechanic much. We like getting loot, it’s true, but loot is a no-brainier in terms of gameplay. At most, there might be multiple sets that have different purposes, a certain stat you want to pump, but it’s remarkably rare that the deluge of MMORPGs out there even bother to have two or more viable sets at the same level. The free sigil assigning in Chronicles of Spellborn are all the equipment you need.

    So, yeah, this game’s not trying to make itself simpler than other MMORPGs. Not that I blame you for the assumption considering just about every other MMORPG has, in fact, dumbed itself down for newbies.

    All that “defending” aside, am I really sold on the game? Meh – you know what? I don’t think I have time to play MMORPGs anymore. I’m planning on giving it a try for a few more evenings, but I’ll be surprised if I bother to drop $15/mo on it. It’s not the game, it’s me: I’ve not the time or cash to spare. If I had a job, on the other hand, maybe I would go ahead and subscribe to it on the grounds that money is more readily available and I’d want an activity to unwind with afterwards.

  3. […] not to say Chronicles of Spellborn is prefect.  I’ve been over the reasons why in the last entry: the kill crediting, the travel time, the grind.  However, it really is a game […]

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