Love it or loathe it, the battle royale genre is still the shiny new thing in video games. It seems like everyone and their dog is trying to figure out ways of morphing their multiplayer game into a large scale winner-takes-all fight for survival. That seems pretty simple and obvious for first person shooters to achieve – the technical challenges of huge maps and player counts not withstanding – but Shadow Arena comes from a completely different angle, building out from the MMORPG Black Desert.
Shadow Arena is currently in its final closed beta phase this weekend, the last opportunity to try it out before it goes into Steam Early Access. Head here for info on how to sign up.
The big advantage here is that Pearl Abyss are building on MMO foundations already well tuned to large open maps and high concentrations of active players, but they’ve had to spend more time figuring out how to blend those RPG roots with battle royale tropes.
It’s a curious blend, to say the least, and definitely feels odd as a round starts. You begin in a central gathering area, mindlessly bashing into and duelling other players without consequence until the server decides it’s close enough to having 40 and fires you out into the map as a bunch of balls of black smoke. You have a degree of control over where you land, shifting your arc of travel a little as you look around you, and then having 20 seconds to remain as a fast-moving smoke monster to seek out somewhere that you’d quite like to spawn.
Wherever you decide to return to human form, the most confounding thing is that the world is inhabited by random shadow monsters, just chilling out, maybe wandering around a bit. They barely react to your presence, but if they do notice you, they’ll amble after you and try to attack. These are the adds from a MOBA like League of Legends, where you have to defeat en masse in that genre to gather experience and rank up. They have a similar role in Shadow Arena, but also provide much of the battle royale looting.
As well as there just being chests for you to smash, each enemy drops loot, and it’s the act of picking this up that incrementally starts to award you skill points. That loot can also be quickly equipped to improve your character’s loadout in a fairly mindless fashion, but it can also sometimes take the form of a Skill Book that instantly gives you an extra skill point.
Perhaps the biggest problem with all of this is that introduces an awful lot of gameplay noise to the experience. There’s a purity to most battle royale games, an isolation that you get as you tramp across large open spaces, and a distinct sense of paranoia that you’re being watched. Sure, some are more front foot experiences where speed and eagerness to engage the enemy pervades, but there’s still this sparseness of combat.
Shadow Arena loses that feeling through having all of the shadow enemies just milling around, and each enemy dropping a thing that you then need to engage with to pick up. Farming enemies means there’s something to do as the rings close in and force players closer together, but it also leaves you with busywork that can distract and leave you disadvantaged in combat.
The actual head to head battles against other players can be tense battles of cat and mouse. Your basic attacks string together in an endless swiping attack, and this is alongside a character-specific natural ability, such as Jordine’s shield or Haru’s stealthy Shadow Step. In battle, you’ll mainly be biding your your time to try and unleash one of your four abilities for maximum impact. These are on a cooldown, so timing is everything to make sure they land.
Fights can easily run for extended periods of time, with characters having relatively deep pools of health and you can try to disengage while guzzling health potions. There’s a chance that you can turn a battle back in your favour, but I personally struggle to win a fight even if I’m the one getting the drop on the enemy!
Thankfully, the first stage of a match means that death doesn’t immediately knock you out of battle. Instead you’re fired back up into the sky to land somewhere else and try again. You lose some time, some of the ability to farm the shadow enemies, but it gives you a chance to recover.
The characters, all of which have been drawn from Black Desert, can sometimes feel a bit unbalanced with the heftier warriors able to charge in with slow, but wide sweeping attacks and abilities that can easily knockdown opponents in a manner that feels difficult to recover from. As an archer, Orwen also struggles, as her chip damage from range doesn’t really do much when enemies can so easily close the gap and start gleefully battering you. Pearl Abyss have rebalanced the characters for this final beta, but some certainly feel disadvantaged through their fundamental skillset.
There’s a lot of interesting ideas at play in Shadow Arena, and this could be a battle royale that suits fans of Black Desert, MMORPGs and MOBAs. However, those same RPG and MOBA gameplay foundations also mean that it’s not quite as easy to pick up and play as the FPS-based battle royales out there.