It’s still early days for PSVR and Sony’s bid to make PlayStation 4 the go-to platform for virtual reality. Since it’s launch in November and that initial cascade of launch titles, the software lineup has petered out somewhat. Notable, AAA show pieces like Resident Evil 7 and Farpoint are few and far between, leaving smaller studios to fill those idle gaps.
Created by WhiteMoon Dreams and backed by Sony, StarBlood Arena is easily the most fun I’ve had while strapped into a virtual reality headset. Hell, I’d even go as far as saying it’s one of my favourite games of 2017. However, with a wealth of factors conspiring against its success, StarBlood Arena looks to be dead on arrival.
Dogfights and space battles are a natural fit when it comes to VR. Unrestricted player movement paired with head tracked weapon aiming creates an incredibly smooth and immersive approach to gameplay. However, where titles like EVE Valkyrie and Ace Combat are looking to create huge or authentic sky duels, StarBlood Arena goes for something a little more arcade-y. Think of it as the Unreal Tournament or Quake of its genre.
Pilots from around the galaxy have been summoned to battle for fame and glory across a series of scrap-littlered killzones. There’s a claptrap feel to the game’s aesthetic that straddles the line between Ratchet Gladiator and Wacky Races.
StarBlood Arena also shares some similarities with Blizzard’s Overwatch and other character-led multiplayer games. Each pilot is defined not only by their look and personality, but also through a combination of weapons and abilities. For example, skulking assassin Dregg excels at hiding away and sniping foes, with his Ghost Gun able to shoot through walls and terrain. Meanwhile, Blade loves to get up close and personal with his lasers and a melee-like wing attack.
There’s a surprising amount of depth and nuance to each of the available pilots. Where I had expected a simple cosmetic change, each character and ship adds their own subtle changes to StarBlood’s core gameplay. Through playing matches and levelling up, you’ll unlock mods that allow for an even greater degree of customisation. There’s a minor learning curve as a result, though it’s one that never feels needlessly bloated.
Controlling your ship is done by using both sticks in conjunction with L1 and R1 to spin, granting full three-dimensional control at every angle. It’s a little tricky at first, but I soon found myself weaving between pillars and performing barrel rolls like a pro. The shooting holds up just as well thanks to smart head-tracking and generous hitboxes.
As I’ve mentioned in other PSVR reviews, I can often suffer from headaches and queasiness when strapped into the headset. However, despite being the fastest, most frenetic game I’ve played in virtual reality, I didn’t have a single issue playing StarBlood Arena. As with Fated: The Silent Oath, I suspect this is partly due to vibrant visuals instead of attempting a hyper-realistic look for the game, but it’s without doubt that developers are getting better and better at creating nausea-free VR. Having a condensed UI arranged around the centre of screen is another great touch.
StarBlood Arena features a basic yet fun spread of modes including your traditional deathmatch and team deathmatch options. These are accompanied by Gridiron, a mode that looks to combine american football and capture the flag. To score a point, you’ll need to hunt down the ball and launch it into the other team’s goal. It can also be passed between players, bounced off surfaces, and intercepted by enemies, allowing for some degree of tactical depth.
At roughly five minutes, matches run for just the right amount of time. The depressing thing about StarBlood Arena, however, is the time it takes to find these matches in the first place. While playing with bots is enjoyable enough, battling with and against other humans adds that unpredictable edge no AI grunt could ever hope to recreate.
During launch week I only managed a couple of online games at peak times, and there were periods where I sat patiently waiting for 20 minutes without a single connection. Wanting to try out the game’s wave based co-op mode, Invasion, I focused much of my attention on trying to get a match here, but even after a few days I’ve had no luck.
As we saw with RIGS and how Sony abruptly axed its life support, the same could very well happen to StarBlood Arena and that’s a bloody shame. I want this game to do well, I really do, but as a multiplayer VR title with a non-existent server population and an exorbitant price tag, it’s fighting an impossible fight.
Version tested: PlayStation 4 Pro