Spelldrifter is the first self-published title from Free-Range Games. After creating a VR meditation app, the folks at Free Range decided to go in the opposite direction and give the world a head-banging sword-and-sorcery adventure. Spelldrifter seems to have flown under a lot of players’ radar since its release in February, which is a shame because this game rules.
It’s certainly not perfect, but the fast-paced tactical battles and extensive character customization make Spelldrifter an addicting grid-based deck builder. The “just one more battle” feedback loop is strong in this game – each fight only takes a few minutes, and you’re constantly receiving new cards which of course you’ll want to try out, earning more cards and suddenly it’s 2 AM.
Spelldrifter follows the warrior Korghan Twice-Born, a muscular wanderer in the vein of Conan or Imaro. It’s established that he’s already had enough adventures for two lifetimes, having fought his way out of the land of the dead after being killed in a faraway land. He arrives in Starfall, a sprawling city built around the source of the world’s magic, just in time to see the whole place descend into chaos and violence.
The game’s prelude, which also serves as a tutorial, introduces Korghan and the heroes that will form the core of his party as they set out to right wrongs and avenge misdeeds. Korghan and his crew battle corrupt nobles, mad wizards, greedy merchant barons, and bloodthirsty cultists in their campaign to (violently) free the people of Starfall from their many oppressors.
The main party members include Faydin, a nimble mercenary who’s crossed plenty of bad people in Starfall; Lavella, a priestess whose visions have led her to Korghan’s side; Renna, a pyromancer who accidentally trapped her brother’s soul in an elemental being; and Rohin, the self-proclaimed greatest thief in Starfall. Several other heroes join the party as the game goes on, with unique abilities and card options that offer variety to the four playable classes.
The story is told in short snippets throughout the adventure, and there is plenty of side content to explore in each district of Starfall. While Korghan’s tale doesn’t exactly break new ground it uses tried-and-true sword and sorcery conventions without making them feel stale or overdone. The addition of the Engineer’s Guild, an antagonistic faction of megalomaniacal steampunk bureaucrats, helps bring the game in line with more recent fantasy tropes.
There’s plenty of room in the setting for future expansion, which is always a plus. The previous adventures of Korghan and his companions, or events at other locations in the world, would be ripe for DLC or even spinoffs in Free Range decides to go in that direction. Wittier characters like Faydin and Renna give the story heart, and I’d love to see more of them.
Each playable hero has a deck of twenty cards, chosen from a pool based on their class. Most cards can have up to two copies in a deck, but some rare and powerful cards are limited to only one. In combat, characters play cards from their hand to perform actions; they can also make a basic attack or guard without using cards.
The cost of an action is measured in ticks, units of time equivalent to about a second. The more ticks an action takes, the longer it will be until the character can act again. Despite using a time-based initiative system, Starfall is decidedly turn-based; the game checks to see which characters are set to act on the current tick, and when there are none left it moves on to the next tick. If you’ve played tabletop games like Exalted or Scion, or the (also very good) video game Iron Danger you’ll have a pretty good idea of how it works.
Each character can also move on their turn at no cost. Movement is generally limited to two or three spaces per turn, but some cards allow for extra movement. The blend of tactics and card management is the soul of Spelldrifter‘s gameplay and its primary challenge. The variety of battles within the game is excellent, and a team that works for one engagement could easily struggle with the next. Hordes of minions, armored soldiers, debuff spammers, and giant monsters are all frequently encountered, and require very different tactics to handle.
For this reason, it would be nice if there was a feature that allowed players to preview enemy team composition before entering a new area – with no information to go on, the first time playing any battle is a roll of the dice in terms of whether or not the heroes have effective counters.
The tutorial does a decent job of walking you through the game’s systems, but it gets a bit text-heavy and goes on a bit too long. Additionally, there is a sharp spike in difficulty once the tutorial ends and you’re thrown into the actual campaign, which can come as a shock for players once the training wheels come off.
The game’s four classes are fantasy staples; Warfare (fighters), Faith (clerics), Wizardry (mages), and Skulduggery (rogues). Each has a unique resource that powers its signature cards, which the player can utilize as much or as little as they like when designing their decks. For example, Renna is a Wizardry character; the longer a battle goes on, the more powerful her cards become as she naturally builds up Focus. Wizardry has cards that build Focus faster, but since Renna gets a damage shield whenever she casts a Fire spell, it’s better to build her deck around that ability.
Moordiar the Sorcerer, on the other hand, is a Wizardry hero that shows up partway through the game. He gets an armor boost every time he gains Focus, so cards that build it up faster are much better for him, especially when paired with cards that reward a high Focus total. The difference in character abilities makes for two vastly different builds within the same class once your card collection is large enough.
Spelldrifter‘s pacing and progression are just a little grindier than you might expect from a game like this. Any previously-completed battle is replayable, but loot (in the form of new cards) is only available the first time around. Subsequent completions gain experience for participating party members. This serves two purposes; for one, each time a character levels up they unlock new cards for their class. Some of these can be used by any character of that class, while others are unique to that specific hero. Leveling up also earns a character more Artifact slots, allowing them to equip powerful relics that enhance or change the text of their cards.
Unfortunately, any newly-recruited hero starts at Level 1, regardless of how far along the rest of the team is. While there are no level restrictions on cards, the lack of Artifact slots means new characters are at a disadvantage until you spend time leveling them up. In some cases, this is worth it – Kylee the Engineer is a much better Skulduggery hero (in my opinion) than Rohin thanks to her ranged attack options and more efficient resource management. In others, it might only be worth leveling up a character for the cards they unlock.
Characters don’t gain any additional HP, armor, or attack power as they level up, so grinding to overcome a challenging fight is more a matter of unlocking new cards and refining your decks before trying again. Luckily, characters still gain experience after being defeated, but only if you see the fight through to its conclusion – ending a battle early by retreating yields no reward, so sometimes you have to play out a losing fight just to keep the earned experience.
Graphics & Sound
Spelldrifter‘s design team is to be commended; they’ve created a fantasy world that oozes coolness. The characters, monsters, and environments all have a great old-meets-new fantasy feel – it can be tough to take the time to appreciate this mid-battle, but the work is definitely there. Free Range Games is an indie studio so the graphics aren’t going to compete with any triple-A titles, but they don’t need to. Spelldrifter brings the player into the seedy, grimy underbelly of Starfall one back-alley brawl at a time.
The music in Spelldrifter deserves special attention. The game’s heavy metal soundtrack makes the player feel at all times like they’re in the middle of a high-concept music video or a rock opera. It blends perfectly with the setting’s aesthetic and the story’s tone, and the game is able to recognize points during a battle where a musical shift is appropriate.
During most encounters, the music will vamp until something happens – attacks are punctuated with jarring chords, with different instrumentation for each class. If things start to go particularly well, triumphant rock kicks in. If the battle turns ugly, the soundscape is filled with tension. It’s especially exciting when both sides are down to their last few hit points – the game brings in a mighty crescendo to see the battle through its final few turns.
Spelldrifter definitely grew on me as I played. The longer the campaign went on, the more I found myself enjoying it and wanting to come back to it. While the game is slow to start thanks to the smaller card pool and long tutorial, it rewards players who stick with it. This game is more than worth the 20 USD price tag, so check it out if you’re looking for something new to play.