I think that a lot of us gamers have an extensive pile of “when we have time to actually play” titles, and in mine for a while now has been The Chronicles of Spellborn. Now yes, the game only lasted about two years (2008 to 2010) and has since faded into the past. It always looked really fascinating to me, although apparently not enough to get me to try it out when the game was live. But thanks to the tireless efforts of fans, an emulator called Spellborn Reborn emerged in 2018 and racked up… um… 900 accounts? That doesn’t seem like a lot, to be honest, but this is a pretty niche game. And at least the emulator allows me to visit a game that I missed the first time around.
Getting set up with Spellborn Reborn was remarkably easy, and within minutes I was inside of this odd fantasy universe.
While under the “fantasy” umbrella, traditional Tolkien/D&D fantasy this is not. If I recall correctly, Spellborn takes place in a hollowed world that saw some sort of fracturing apocalypse, so there’s not so much sky as the underside of other places. The art style is pretty strange, too, slightly reminiscent of Ryzom with exaggerated looks and hairstyles. I think I can land small aircraft on mine.
One cool thing about this MMO is that you get to pick out your outfit right from the start, so there’s a bit more dressing up than usual. I made something that wouldn’t make me embarrassed to be seen by other players, went with a spellcasting class, and jumped into the tutorial.
And what a weird tutorial it was! About half of it — the first half — was overly concerned with teaching me how to move. You know, WASD and all that. Over and over it kept telling me to move to this part of the room and then to that part and then up on a crate and then down again. Maybe Spellborn got a lot of first-time video game players, I don’t know, but it was laughable how long this went.
After attacking hay bales on an understaffed shardship, some Lovecraftian monstrosity flew out of the mist and started spewing babies from its mouth. Nature!
So Spellborn’s combat system takes a bit to get used to as well. As you level up and collect different moves and spells, you can assign them to a rotating hotbar. As in, once you hit one key for the first hotbar, it rotates to the second, and so on. So I guess you can set up different chain combos with it so you can spam “1” all the time and have your character go through them all without having to move your finger. Combat also lets you freely choose between bow, sword, and spell attacks, and while I thought I’d be loving spell damage, sword attacks simply got the fight done quicker.
Coming in for a landing in the post-tutorial docks area…
…and finding that there was absolutely nobody there. I don’t know if you’ve ever played an MMORPG where no players exist, but DANG if it isn’t eerie. It’s really creepy. I kept sending out little messages over the different channels to see if anyone else was on, but nobody replied and during all my time playing, I never saw another player character.
On the plus side, the visuals and sound design were very striking. You quickly get the sensation that this is a much different and more “alien” world than normal, and it made me curious to explore it.
I also liked the cartoony warping of the buildings and structures. In my opinion, stuff like this holds up better over time than proper (but boring) fantasy houses that use straight lines and dull color sets.
There was a mix of familiar-looking fauna and some more exotic ones, like these… angry turkey dodo Shriners? It’s like they were slapped together with leftover parts and then rejected from biology classes thereafter.
Just to say that I really liked the wild trunk and leaf patterns here. If nothing else, Spellborn did have some good artists at the helm.
But was it enjoyable to play? I’m… probably not going to extol the gaming virtues of this one. After a couple of hours, I just couldn’t see the interesting aesthetics overcoming what was a pretty dull questing and combat loop. Fighting felt like a chore with unresponsive hits and sounds, the story (other than the terrific narration in spots) was vague and dull, and without other players around, I didn’t even have the social element to connect me to this title.
At least I scratched a curiosity itch and have some sort of feel for what this game was and what it offered.