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A Month Full of Indies Week Two: ‘Space War Arena’ Review

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I’ve always loved strategy games. From sitting in my dad’s lap and watching him play Master of Orion 3 on an old Dell CRT monitor to losing dozens of hours of my life to Hearts of Iron IV, strategy games of all kinds have always appealed to me. The genre forces you to think, overcome, and adapt to the situations involved; it makes you feel smart after beating any enemy or conquering a solar system. It’s just so satisfying.

From Wargroove to Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and the upcoming Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the Nintendo Switch has become a powerhouse for strategy aficionados looking for their next great adventure. That why when I saw Space War Arena, a real-time strategy game from Ecco the Dolphin creator, Ed Annunziata, I was excited. After all, what could be more exciting than a real-time, space strategy game on a console that can be played both in both portable mode and on the couch?

It turns out: a lot of things.

The Plight of Randomness

In Space War Arena, the goal is to destroy the enemy’s base before they can destroy yours. You accomplish this by sending out units to engage the enemy and attack their base. The game has you select eight units to engage the enemy in each battle. Each unit you send uses a certain number of “warp” points that regenerate every couple of seconds; if you don’t have the “warp” points, you can’t build the unit. Typical strategy fare. 

Until it isn’t.

See, the computer in Space War Arena randomly selects four of your eight units for you to use at any given time, not only at the beginning of the mission, but throughout it as well. That means that, when you go into any match, you’re essentially guessing what you’ll have at your disposal.

What, you expected to have that one, key unit to destroy the enemy’s fighters at the beginning of the mission? Nope, you’ll have to randomly spend “warp” until you get it. Start off with only missiles and defense turrets when you need to rush the enemy? Too bad. Adapt or die is the name of the game in Space War Arena and the game is all the more frustrating for it. 

Most of these screenshots, like this one, aren’t a reflection of actual gameplay. It’s a lot harder to get units fully leveled up, like they are in this picture. After four “Evolve” missions, I had less than a fifth of this experience.

When you win in Space War Arena, it doesn’t feel earned (perhaps the enemy just got a bad draw). When you lose, it doesn’t feel like you did anything either because, given the circumstances, there’s likely a chance that you began the mission with a bad roll and you had no shot of beating an already advantaged enemy.

To top it all off, the units feel incredibly situational. Some, like the Banshee, which destroy fighters, feel completely useless in some circumstances and overpowered in others. Units that counteract other units are commonplace in strategy games. However, not knowing what units your enemy will have before fighting them adds to the aggravation.

There were times that I brought carriers to a match only to have their fighters completely obliterated by a turtling enemy. Other times, I tried to rush the opponent, only to have my own base destroyed in the process. The randomness serves as yet another notch of frustration in an already aggravating game.

A Struggle Against Oneself

Space War Arena is one of the hardest games that I’ve played in years; not because it’s legitimately challenging, but because its difficulty curve is poorly designed. As a result, it’s an absolute chore to play through. The AI on both player and enemy units is some of the worst functional AI that I’ve seen in a strategy game. With no ability to control your units’ behavior other than marking the direction and location of their spawn, it feels like there are two enemies whenever you play Space War Arena: the opposing base and your own AI.

The player’s AI doesn’t seem to make distinctions between unit types. Some frontally shielded units, like the Crusader, routinely stop and turn around to fire at enemy ships, exposing their unguarded flanks to enemy fire. Similarly, carriers send wave after wave of fighters to suicide missions against the enemy base instead of sending them back to protect the home base from capital ships.

If the game allowed me to control the way that the units moved or somehow bypass the terrible AI, that would alleviate many of the issues. However, it doesn’t and that makes the game that much more frustrating. I’ve never had a strategy game feel so little like strategy and so much like randomness than in Space War Arena

Another misleading screenshot. The player (left) is using units from late in the game to finish off an opponent from earlier in the game.

The aforementioned difficulty spikes are a major pain as well, mostly during the “upgrade” missions present in the main story. In these scenarios, your opponent starts off with upgraded stats and you need to beat them in order to augment your own stats. The enemy will seem almost unfairly overpowered, dominating you in as little as a minute or two. It seems like this was the developer’s attempt at getting the player to gain experience for their units via these “Evolve” side missions, since units don’t level in the main story (which is, in itself, a major oversight.) However, it comes across more as needless padding meant to artificially extend the game’s length than anything else. 

Instead of feeling like a unique challenge, these random difficulty spikes are perhaps the game’s most major source of frustration, grinding your progress to a halt and forcing you to play side-missions in order to have a prayer against an overpowered enemy. Some series, like Fire Emblem do a great job of incorporating fun side missions that allow chances to meet new characters and level up. Space War Arena is not one of those games.

A Small, Shining Hope

That’s not to say that every aspect of Space War Arena is completely without hope. The technical side is, perhaps, the game’s highlight. Firstly, while the game’s visual design is incredibly generic, it runs at a smooth, consistent 60 FPS, which helps to maintain clarity in the middle of battle. When most Switch games struggle to hit 30 FPS, much less 60, this is something especially praiseworthy. Similarly, the game also runs at a pretty high resolution. Whether or not it’s running at native resolution when docked or handheld, it looks good in both modes.

Note the health disparity between the player’s base (left) and the opponent’s base (right.) Unless you’re playing an older mission after going through the game, there is never that big of a health difference in your favor.

On occasion, the game’s design does come through. When the frustration has dimmed down, there’s a faint glimmer of fun that comes through the disappointment in Space War Arena, a special feeling that can only be replicated given the game’s innate aggravation. When your back’s up against the wall, you’re about to lose, and you pull it off despite the odds, there’s nothing quite like it. The common thread between these scattered moments of joy was that, in each one, I felt like I actually had control over the outcome of the battle (not a feeling that comes often in Space War Arena, given the game’s innate randomness.) There aren’t many games that I can say make me feel that same way, for better or for worse.

Conclusions

Where many well-designed strategy games make you so engaged in the process of playing that ten minutes quickly turns into three hours, Space War Arena is the exact opposite. Playing this game for as little as ten minutes feels like an hour. 

It’s a shame, as there are some flashes of brilliance in this game, sometimes when it’s legitimately fun to play and satisfying to win. But, sadly, those flashes are hidden beneath a sea of problems. Artificial difficulty, poor unit AI, lack of player control, and no leveling-up during main story missions drag down Space War Arena.

The sad fact is that all of these issues could be easily fixed with a patch. If developer Playchemy could nerf the overall difficulty, fix some of the buggy AI, and add some quality-of-life changes (such as earning experience from story missions), the game could be a whole lot better.

However, as it is now, I can’t recommend Space War Arena to anyone. Even hardcore strategy fans are unlikely to find any joy in this mess of a game. You’re better off spending your $15 on any of the myriad other acclaimed strategy games than you are trying to squeeze an ounce of enjoyment out of this.

Although a gamer since before I can remember, there is not a better definition of me than these three words: Christian, moderate, and learner. I am steadfast in my Faith, my Beliefs, and in my Opinions, but I am always willing to hear the other side of the discussion. I love Nintendo, History, and the NBA. Currently a PhD Student at Liberty University.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Ed Annunziata

    March 13, 2019 at 4:53 pm

    Good stomp! Fair points, but try 2p when you get a chance!

    • Izsak Barnette

      March 13, 2019 at 10:23 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to read my piece! I’ll definitely give multiplayer a shot when I can.

  2. László

    March 27, 2019 at 8:54 am

    Dear Izsák,
    You may miss the concept of the “Evolve”.
    The “Evolve” enemies ranks your units as long as their limit let them.
    So, it is reasonable to replay the first enemy, which can rank you up to ^ rank, again and again until all you units ranked ^.
    The 3rd “Evolve” enemy can rank the units up till ⩓ (rank 2), and so.
    If you want an easy gameplay, slowly rank up all units of your deck in Evolve before go back to the campaign.
    Its a little repetitive to beat the same enemy again and again, but after all units in your deck has rank 3, the campaign is a speed run.
    You mixed up the developer / publisher names.
    Twofish is the developer.

    • Izsak Barnette

      March 31, 2019 at 2:59 pm

      Thanks for your comment, László! The Evolve mechanic truly was a headscratcher for me while playing this game. However, now that you explain it, it makes sense. Still, I think it was poorly implemented and explained within ‘Space War Arena.’

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‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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