I have to admit that when this game arrived in my inbox for review I was uninspired. I imagined it would probably be just another mediocre game filled with good intentions that would never really able to spark. At a high level the concept of arena battles, puzzles, co-op play and RPG elements just smacked of it being a cheap mindless phone application. Wrong! I found it to be an interesting and compelling game that the advertising struggles to do justice to.
The premise of the game is that you live in a village trapped in a valley where people are bred solely to compete in a set of arenas in the hope of obtaining freedom. Okay, admittedly that’s never going to win any awards for the best story idea, but ultimately it serves to frame a game that is about competing in progressively more difficult arena battles. There are three distinct aspects within: arena battles, puzzle solving, and RPG.
You have the option of choosing one of four different classic fantasy character options. There is the archer, a hammer wielding fighter, a dual blade wielding rogue and a support cleric archetype specialising in cold based attacks. The arenas are broken down into sections, and first up you are placed in an antechamber where you can select which of the four characters you want to enter the arena as. This ability to chop and change between characters is refreshing, rather than being stuck with your first choice right through the entire game. This feature also supports the multiplayer aspect of the game; before entering the arena proper you can create a team based on the style of the players and the challenge you are about to face.
The game is played in isometric view with simplistic controls. You can choose to play either with a keyboard or a game controller. This will come down to personal preference, but the game seems most suited to the latter, as the keyboard setup can be difficult to manoeuvre with. This control scheme relies on you pointing your character in the desired direction and using the WASD keys to move. Left click uses the character weapon, while right click invokes the loaded special power.
The arenas themselves are quite tight with multiple doors and spawn points for the monsters. The monsters can vary from simple crawling beasts to huge hulking boss monsters. All have different powers and abilities but the real kicker is how the AI has them working in unison with each other. Staying still in the arena is tantamount to declaring a loss, as they can quickly surround you and swamp you before you can take them out.
It’s not all bad news though: in game you have a Spirit Mentor to guide and assist you. This sprite-like character is under your control to the extent that you can call him to the spot you are currently standing in. Herein lies the puzzle element. There are various shrines that only activate when the Spirit Mentor passes over them. The healing shrine for instance is activated by you positioning the Spirit on one side of it while you are positioned on the other. Call the Spirit and he shoots across to you while activating the shrine. It is a simple concept that can quickly become quite complex. A puzzle may require you to blow up a series of statues partly surrounded by walls. You need to pass the Spirit over a power shrine, and then guide him to collide with the statue while giving yourself room to avoid the resultant explosion. In between all of this you are trying to beat off the spawning monsters (and destroying spawn shrines). What makes this compelling is that you can repeat each arena time and again and then see how you rank worldwide based on the time you take to complete it.
The RPG element is based around crystals. Each time you win in an arena you gain crystals. These are used to unlock both active and passive powers which you can assign to your character. The skill trees are not massive but they are enough to make this aspect interesting. Chopping and changing between abilities can radically change how well you perform in an arena. Some powers are super sized by stacking up hits against a single foe, prior to releasing a super charged power to devastate a larger area. These powers are on timers however, so you need to be tactical on where and when you use them.
Graphically the game is great in style, likened to a more detailed version of Torchlight. All 25 areas are detailed and colourful, providing visual interest. Additionally, the skill effects are large and satisfyingly bloody.
This game is no easy beat. Playing initially on single player, the battles quickly ramped up. It is not unusual to die in the first few play-throughs in an arena until you get the hang of solving the puzzle aspect while holding off the waves of monsters. The challenge aspect of getting a better score also had me replaying the arena until I was satisfied I had completed it in my best time. Sadly, my rankings were nowhere near the top. Each battle was relatively short to play but can be deceptive; a four minute match can seem like a lifetime with so many things going on. The game also takes a huge step up once you play co-op multiplayer. Combining characters and skills opens the doors to different strategies and constant discussion on what will work best for any given arena. For example, one of you can stack marks on enemies while another concentrates on activating them.
I have to say this game pleasantly surprised me: simple in concept, but with an incredible amount of depth to it. I like games that I can pick up and play a few times in an hour either on my own or with friends. This is certainly the case with this game and I also like how I can readily repeat the challenges and match myself against a world ranking. Highly recommended.