I’ve only picked up my PSVR unit twice this year, which is slightly alarming considering it’s nearly the end of April. After the initial launch line-up the only game that’s caught my eye in 2017 has been the brilliant I Expect You to Die. Fortunately Sony are now pushing a new range of titles for their VR system, starting with Starblood Arena.
Immediately it reminded me of the 1995 classic PC game, Descent - one of the original first-person shooters to offer six degrees of freedom in zero gravity. Both Starblood Arena and Descent feature spaceship combat and are set in labyrinthian mazes, but obviously things have come a long way since the mid-90’s – and the addition of VR adds a whole new dimension.
Unfortunately for some, that extra dimension is extreme claustrophobia. The map design in Starblood Arena is impressively compact, requiring players to navigate tight corners and narrow passageways carefully. This sense of claustrophobia also leads to some minor motion sickness, as you’ll often rotate upside down thanks to the six degrees of freedom. It’s less nauseating than some other VR games because you have complete control over your movement via the two thumb sticks, but it takes a while for your brain to readjust. Often you’ll just want to stay stationary to get your bearings.
The problem is you won’t get a chance to stay still once the combat starts. Starblood Arena is frantic, requiring quick reflexes and some basic knowledge of the map layouts to achieve any sort of dominance in the arena-based deathmatches. It feels similar to last year’s PSVR exclusive RIGS, except giant mech-robots are swapped out for spaceships in zero gravity.
But it’s this factor alone that makes the experience completely different. Without being anchored to the ground, you need to forget the conventional idea of up and down, left and right. Direction in Starblood Arena isn’t orientated to the world because of that full 360 rotational movement. You’ll be spinning around in an almost constant manner, trying to locate enemies (or your waypoint) by looking all around – which is what leads to brain aneurysms for the VR-uninitiated.
It’s extremely disorientating, but after a few sessions your brain will calibrate itself. Weapon aiming is performed by moving your head, so what you’re looking at is where you will shoot your arsenal of weaponry. You can change this in the menu, but the look-to-aim method feels the most natural.
Starblood Arena takes some inspiration from games like Overwatch and Twisted Metal, bringing together nine unique pilots into a tournament of death-by-combat for fame and fortune. Each of the pilots have their own personalities, but unfortunately they lack any real appeal, topped off by two irritating commentators who yap in your ear between games. They do however have unique vehicles, and each one requires a different approach toward strategy to utilise their advantages. There are fast ships, which are light on armour; ships which suit long-range combat, and others that favour close-quarter melee attacks.
For example Dregg, a bald trench-coated guy with a pair of Beats headphones permanently attached to his head, is your sniper class who needs to keep his distance due to weak shields. Blade, a bipedal lizard creature, is fast but needs to get up close and personal to his opponents due to short range attacks. Alice is the accessible one, with explosive weaponry which work at mid-range for a variety of different gameplay styles and is probably the best character to start with.
These nine pilots are all worth trying out, and each ship also features distinctive cockpits which are always fun to look around in your immersive VR view-point. While cliche, each pilot’s personality comes across during in-game banter that you’ll hear as you play - crying out when someone else steals their kill, or celebrating when their team wins.
StarBlood Arena comes with four main game types, starting with a free for all deathmatch mode, and a team version where up to eight players can battle it out. To mix things up, both these modes inject modifiers at around the halfway mark of each match to add some random gameplay variations such as turrets in the arena, or repair drones that you can track down to heal with. They provide a bit of variance to the experience and can even turn the tide of a deathmatch to keep players on their toes right to the very end.
Another mode is Gridiron, where players grab a ball and shoot it into their opponent’s goal for a single point, or attempt to hold onto it and drive through for three points. Opponents can still shoot you, but instead of dying and respawning, you will be disabled for a few seconds while you wait for the ship to repair itself – losing precious time, or leaving a gaping hole in your defence.
Finally there is a co-op mode called Invaders, where up to four players must defend an objective against waves of enemies. Before you enter a competitive multiplayer arena online, you can practice against computer opponents. It’s a good place to get to grips with the controls, and a beginning tutorial mode helps, but the real thrill (and challenge) is chasing down and eliminating real human players.
Like any competitive shooter, Starblood Arena comes with a loot system as well. As you progress you’ll be unlocking customisations such as new ship skins, toppers, or costumes for your characters. However you could argue that putting a funny hat on your spaceship is a slightly pointless affair. Unlike the cuteness of games like Rocket League, which did the same thing, Starblood Arena’s aesthetic doesn’t really pull it off.
At first I was surprised at the visuals in Starblood Arena - the game looks dated compared to other VR titles, lacking some of the lighting and texture detail that would make this game shine. However the core gameplay is solid and the controls are polished and easy to pick-up.
The game does come in at a mid-price point of $69.99 though, which could be a factor when considering another PSVR shooter, Farpoint, comes out in May. If you remember Descent fondly, or enjoyed RIGS, then Starblood Arena could be worth checking out, but it’s hardly a PSVR seller. It’s a shame Sony don’t encourage playable PSVR demos to allow owners to at least try out a game before investing, because this is a game that’s difficult to recommend to everyone.
Angus received a digital copy of StarBlood Arena from PlayStation NZ for review.