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




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.


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.



  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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Game Reviews

‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.



It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…

I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.

Coffee Talk
Some of the subject matter can be pretty serious in nature…

Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.

Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.

The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.

Coffee Talk
Appearances can often be deceiving in this game.

Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.

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Game Reviews

‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted



There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.

There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.

Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.

But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.

Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.

Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.

Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.



It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

Shovel Knight
Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

Shovel Knight
I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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