Spiral Knights is a free-to-play MMO that plays like Diablo on fast forward. But this hack-and-slash RPG action is tempered by a spiteful pricing system that seems determined to stop you playing just as you're starting to have fun.
The party I'm playing with is currently careering through a dungeon. As members of the Spiral Knights stranded on an alien planet, it's our mission to hunt for the materials needed to get the Order's spacecraft up and running so we can return home. That means fighting through The Clockworks: a series of layered dungeons leading to the core of the planet.
It's my job to shoot out exploding blocks to clear a path ahead. As the barriers dissolve in flames, a turret springs up and starts spewing rockets. I distract the robotic gun as my companions close in for the kill. Enemies attack from all angles and explode in a shower of coins. We scoop up the items they leave behind and gain temporary health buffs to toughen us up for the levels below.
The Clockworks are vast, and full of nasties that vary according to the theme of each level. Forest areas contain wolves and pack rats, while electric zones will have more robotic foes. Each level is full of spike traps, turrets and 'danger rooms' – arenas that go into lockdown and spawn waves of enemies once a central switch is activated.
Each Knight can carry two weapons at a time, melee or ranged, and switch between them at will. Controlling your tiny warrior couldn't be simpler. A quick click will swipe or fire your weapon, you can hold down the button for a charged attack or press 'X' to throw up a shield. From the safe hub of Haven, you can form a group of up to four knights, dive into a dungeon and immediately start your hunt for items. Every reward feeds back into the complex levelling system.
Progression in Spiral Knights is all about crafting. The level of your armour determines the depth you are allowed to reach. Higher tier weapons can be bought at massive prices, but it's much more sensible to make them. If you don't have the materials you need, you can combine crystals collected in The Clockworks to craft your own dungeons and control the type of loot that drops in each level.
We head into the elevator at level nine. The boss level is next. We huddle for a moment and form a plan. I hit the down switch. It doesn't work. Because I've run out of my daily allotment of energy points. I can either buy more to continue, or come back 24 hours later. And it was all going so well.
In Spiral Knights, everyday actions such as pressing a button on an elevator, crafting new items and reviving your knight all cost you energy. As soon as the counter at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen reaches zero, you're done for the day. Unless, of course, you choose to pay. The default 100 energy you start with is used up after a couple of dungeon runs. Another 350 energy costs about £1.50. It doesn't sound like much, but Spiral Knights will keep asking for more.
When an energy drought stops play halfway through a session with friends, it's like being poked in the eye. Free-to-play should mean just that: free, unrestricted play time. As much fun as the dungeons are, Spiral Knights ends up feeling like a confused demo. One that will keep asking you for money for ever and ever and ever.