Chronicles of Spellborn: Better late than never

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.

Chronicles of Spellborn: Resurrection Imminent

It’s actually kind of funny that Spouse Aggro is reporting on Chronicles of Spellborn’s potential relaunch.  Funny for me, that is, since I downloaded the client last week and mulled over playing it or not.

I’ve heard good things about the game, particularly in its art style and unique combat system, but I’ve been holding off because the title is in a weird sort of limbo.  Spellborn launched almost a year ago, struggled to find footing, and then admitted that it wasn’t cutting the mustard a few months later in June.  Instead of canceling it outright, they “froze” the title’s development and let people play for free while the title went into “Re-Development” to become a free-to-play MMO.

Presumably, once Spellborn re-launches, all previous characters will be wiped, hence why I’ve been waiting.  I am pretty psyched that it does seem that it’s going to happen, however.

One Year of Free-To-Play Fun

In an exercise designed to satiate a whiff of whimsy, I wanted to plot out an entire year of MMORPG gaming, where each month a player would hypothetically play a different title for free, paying $0 for their year’s experience.   What would I recommend starting with December?  Hang on to my every word, faithful readers, and let’s see:

December 2009 – For the Yuletide season, I’m going to recommend an old favorite of mine, Dungeon Runners, a sort-of snarky Diablo clone that enjoyed exaggerating and mocking RPG conventions while feeding your desire for mayhem and loot frenzy.  Since the title is being shut down on January 1, 2010 (with a nuclear explosion, as a matter of fact), this is the absolute last month to play it, and perhaps the best — they’re really jacking up the loot drops and XP rewards for DR’s final weeks.

January 2010 – Why not use the first month of the new decade to reconnect with a MMO of yore?  Anarchy Online has been running free-to-play for a couple years now (although with certain limitations if you don’t subscribe).  It may not have the glitz and glamour of more modern MMOs, but it’s one of the only “old school” titles that let people tromp around for nothing!

February 2010 – Assuming that Chronicles of Spellborn is still in “redevelopment”, or whatever that means, you can play this recent title for absolutely nothing — and that includes the full game!  Of course, there’s the very real chance that some day they might pull the plug or wipe the servers, but it’s a small price to pay for free fun.

March 2010 – Get your Harry Potter on by signing up for Wizard101, the acclaimed title that mixes together turn-based combat and bright wizardy venues.  They have an unlimited free trial that certainly gives you a nice big chunk of the early game, which took my wife and I a few weeks to run through earlier this year.

April 2010Warhammer Online’s “endless trial” is next up for your gaming pleasure — the full Tier 1 experience, with 24 classes, PvE and PvP is yours for the taking.  If you’re willing to roll up a few alts, then this will more than meet a full month’s worth of fun.

May 2010 – Ever since switching to its hybrid free-to-play/microtransactions/subscription model, Dungeons & Dragons Online has earned the title of the best free MMO you can get your grubby mitts on.  It comes highly recommended from myself, and the free content is quite expansive, certainly more than a month’s worth.

June 2010 – Cute little Asian MMOs that are funded entirely through microtransactions might not be your thing (and they certainly aren’t mine), but Maple Story is one of the best and most beloved if it is.  So enlarge your eyes to 500% of their normal size, color your hair bright blue, and embrace 2D zaniness.

July 2010 – An Adventurer Is You!  Or so proclaims the folks over at the long-running Kingdom of Loathing, one of the wittiest browser-based MMOs in the world.  There’s no catch on the cost (players who want to support the game can purchase special items in the shop), and the wordy game has enraptured many a soul — including mine.

August 2010 – We’ll assume that by next August, Allods Online will have left beta and gone into full launch, in which case you might already have heard the siren’s call to play it.  It’s been getting excellent press so far, and for a free to play title, why not give it a whirl in the dog days of summer?

September 2010 – Many a MMORPG player has cut their teeth on Runescape, the free to play browser MMO that showed how far the limits of Java could go.  It might not be the most polished or good-looking title, but it’s had a number of overhauls and revamps, and hey — it’s light on the wallet.

October 2010 – Speaking of runes, Runes of Magic bowled a lot of people over in 2009 as both a decent WoW clone and an excellent free to play title.  They’ve already released their first expansion (also free), and you could certainly do a lot worse than give this a try, particularly if you are a current or former WoWhead.

November 2010Sword of the New World is one of those odd little MMO cult hits that you know, intellectually, are better than the rest of the pack, but may have yet to ever give it a whirl.  So why not, in this last month of our hypothetical experiment, do just that?

She’s Got The Look

Worst.  Hat.  Ever.
Worst. Hat. Ever.

With some exceptions, most of us care how our avatar looks in game.  Even the most ardent min/max stat cruncher is not immune to outfits that look “cooler” than others.  But a tug of war ensues, as the visual aesthetics of a MMO outfit often becomes secondary to its practical value — either boosting your character’s stats by just wearing it (one of those odd online staples we don’t question, but makes absolutely no sense — why should underwear make me run faster?  A scarf make me more intelligent?) or granting us special abilities.

Thus, we’ve grown up in virtual worlds where our characters are a clashing mish-mash of clown outfits, as we’re slave to the stats.  If you translated that to a real world setting, it’d kind of be like putting on a life preserver vest, a beanie cap, moon boots, swim goggles, spandex biker shorts and a halter top — no matter what your gender — just because it would somehow make you smarter and allow you to do a double-flip over oncoming cars.

I’ll pause as you conjure that mental image.

Out of all of the nonsensical elements of RPGs, I think that clothing and armor somehow boosting your abilities, other than the ability to not die instantly when someone hits you with a maul, is nigh-ridiculous.  Yet it’s been in place since the earliest of days, when a +5 Helmet of Far-Seeing entered into the lexicon of role-players, and we haven’t looked back since.

So let’s look back.  Let’s not be afraid to challenge conventions and standard cliches.  Why do we need to cobble together mismatching outfits (or, even worse, spend buttloads of time in a hair-tearing effort to collect an entire armor “set”) just for the stats?  Why can’t clothes be clothes, and statistic boosters be independent of that?

The obvious reason is that loot acquisition is one of the primary carrots that drives players onward and upward in MMOs.  Loot is good if it looks nifty, but it is double-good if it looks nifty and gives you a +10 bonus to your Charmisma (“Hey there cutie, I bet you find me more irresistable now that I have this CHA-boosting axe!”).  Looks and stats are like the Siamese twins from Hell, inseperable for years upon years.

Except that we’re starting to see signs that MMOs are willing to experiment away from this stodgy outfitting system.  City of Heroes, Champions Online and Chronicles of Spellborn all allow you to fashion an outfit and look for your toon that is independent of stat boosters (which usually come in the form of other unseen gear).  Other titles, such as EverQuest 2 and LOTRO, allow you to maintain two sets of worn gear — one purely for visual aesthetics, and one for statistics.  Heck, Second Life (and this is the ONLY time you’ll hear me talk about that cesspool of a virtual world on this blog) is pretty much all about dressing your doll up just so.

These are steps in the right direction, to be sure.  As the flexible character creators that Cryptic have designed prove, players are absolutely bursting at the seams with the desire to make a unique-looking character, something that not only looks good, but allows the player to express a bit of who they are and what they like with their avatar.  I just hope we see more of this sort of thing in the future.