You would be forgiven for dismissing Spiral Knights as yet another free-to-play MMO. The cute visual style suggests a game aimed at adolescents, with dumbed-down, uninspired gameplay to match. But spend a little time with it and you'll find a fantastically addictive game that's both fresh and familiar all at once.
During the tutorial level, you'll immediately notice that Spiral Knights doesn't resemble a standard MMO. Instead of a numerical hit point system, your health is designated by hearts in much the same way as The Legend of Zelda series. The combat borrows liberally from Zelda as well, with responsive sword swinging at the click of a mouse and super attacks that you charge up by holding the button down.
And you'll often have to pick up and throw things at enemies, including bombs and attack vials that have special effects like freezing enemies. Structurally, the game plays out like Diablo where you're expected to dive deeper and deeper into an all-encompassing dungeon until you reach the bottom. Gathering progressively better equipment is the key to success, especially when you take into account that your character doesn't level up, but your equipment does.
Even if you somehow manage to make it far into the dungeon using inferior equipment, you're eventually going to run into a gate that blocks off the next tier of floors until your equipment is up to snuff. This creates a very Diablo-like rush to finding the best gear, but here you have to buy recipes and gather components that enemies drop, forcing you to constantly dive into the dungeon over and over.
However, while it's completely indebted to its retro inspirations, Spiral Knights combines them in a way that feels very modern and compelling. Instead of just throwing you into passages full of enemies, each floor has compelling a level design, with level hazards like spikes, secret passages to find, and light puzzle elements to solve. And since this is still an MMO, Spiral Knights forces you into a party before you can go into the dungeon.
You can still play solo once everyone else in your party leaves, but you will quickly get killed if you attempt to progress alone. The dungeon floors are designed in such a way that, unless you have gear far above what's required for the specific dungeon, you have to cooperate with someone if you want to survive. Not since Left 4 Dead have a seen a game so reliant on teamwork for survival.
Tying everything together is the steampunk aesthetic. The oversized gears littering the levels are charming on their own, but they feed into how the pre-made dungeon floors cycle their order and appearance each time you enter the dungeon. The story, where the Spiral Knights have crashed on an alien planet and must mine the depths of the planet for resources in order to survive, informs the mineral-gathering metagame: the net total of what everyone playing has gathered determines what new level sequences are possible in new dungeon entrances.
The true genius of Spiral Knights, however, is how it handles its free features. Rather than offering optional advantages for a price, Spiral Knights integrates real-world currency into the experience in a way that doesn't shut out cheapskates. Advancing to the next floor in the dungeon and creating equipment from recipes require Energy, which comes in two varieties: Mist Energy, which regenerates one unit every fifteen minutes and caps at 100, and Crystal Energy, which can be purchased using real money.
Shell out the bucks and you can explore more floors and do more alchemy per day. The kicker is that you can also trade Crystal Energy with other players in exchange for Crowns, the in-game currency. This creates an interesting, all-inclusive economy that feeds into every aspect of the game. Of course, you can still get a decent amount of play time out of your default Mist Energy, but don't expect to be playing for more than an hour or two per day.
This leads to Spiral Knights' biggest potential flaw: You're going to find the game limited in one way or another. Unless you're spending piles of cash or Crowns, your play session will always have a built-in expiration date. And when you run out of fresh levels to play you might start to feel repetition setting in. But combined, these two aspects actually play off each other if you let them. By forcing players to pace themselves, the levels take longer to get repetitive. And the fact that levels themselves are constantly cycling means you won't necessarily waste time going through levels you've already beaten if you start over from the top. It's an ingenious pay system that is integrated into the gameplay in a smart way, though people who want to play it all at once without paying anything will be understandably annoyed.
Even if you don't like how limiting the pricing structure is, you'll still want to experience Spiral Knights. Above all, it's a really fun MMO that isn't based on the tired model World of Warcraft perpetuated. If you're an action RPG fan, don't make the mistake of ignoring Spiral Knights just because it's an MMO, as it is a sublime example of where you can take the genre.