Shadow Fight Arena is a free-to-play multiplayer fighting game for mobile devices. It’s the fourth in the Shadow Fight series though the first not to be numbered. Over the years, I’ve sunk a fair amount of time into Shadow Fight 2, which was played primarily against AI and had a large selection of weapons too – not so many choose from, but eventually progress through. It was also F2P, much like Arena is, and characters were mostly dark silhouettes fighting against detailed backgrounds.
Shadow Fight Arena has abandoned the fighting silhouettes in favour of high quality character models and, whilst it might bring the “shadow” part of “Shadow Fight Arena” into question, it’s a stunning game. The backgrounds are just as pretty, whether it’s mist-covered mountains or a bamboo forest, and there isn’t a jagged edge in sight. Importantly, fighter animations are fluid and very smooth, which is helpful since reading them is a significant part of the game. It sounds good too, especially the music which varies from slightly serene atmospheric notes to tracks led by a distorted lead guitar without changing the mood too much.
Shadow Fight is a relatively simple game. It doesn’t use long combos or too many high-damage special moves – instead you have a simple moveset and success revolves around timing and patience. If you go into Shadow Fight Arena button mashing you’ll likely hit a brick wall and stay there, because any attack can be avoided or blocked and a player that knows what they’re doing will then treat you to a face full of steel. Your moveset is limited, but it isn’t bare. You have a number of options: you can attack with your weapon and kick, each of these moves being modified when combined with a direction button, diagonals included. You also have a ranged attack, which could be anything as simple as a bow to spitting fire depending on the fighter, and you have a special attack that can be used once a meter fills.
The gameplay is incredibly satisfying, often slow and considered with the occasional burst of sudden panic as you swing slightly too early or late and await the inevitable riposte. But even after that riposte with barely a sliver of health left, you’re just a few well considered moves from victory if you can time them right. Tension ramps as you dodge an arrow and land a few hits until, just as your enemy goes into a rather flashy looking flip, you send your sword in with a quick stab that catches their skull mid-flip and they fall to the ground. This is what Shadow Fight feels like, it’s simple enough to be easily accessible but deep and strategic enough to keep you coming back for a long time.
Arena has changed a few things for the better as well. The biggest change is that you now choose fighters instead of choosing your weapon – three to be exact. Matches are 3v3, where you each choose one fighter at a time and then whoever loses moves onto their next chosen fighter and the winner gets a little bit of health back.
Each fighter has their own weapon and attacks, so this lets you pick fighters strategically – did your opponent wreck your samurai with some knives? Bring out the guy with the spear and you can attack whilst out of range. Alternatively, they’ve got a spear? Rapidly close that distance with your knives so they can’t get a swing in. It lets you further tailor how you play and it adds another layer of strategy over the rest of the match.
As mentioned though, this is a free to play game and that brings along all the usual F2P foibles. Fighters are unlocked by randomly finding their cards in a loot box not just once, but multiple times depending on the rarity of the card, and they level up the same way as well. You have two currencies, gold and gems, both of which can be slowly accumulated in game, but gems can be bought with real money and coins can be bought with gems. Gems go from £0.89 for 80 gems all the way up to £93.99 for 14,000. In terms of what you’re getting for your money, a Mythic Chest priced at around £20 will bag you 180 random cards. This strain of free-to-play monetisation doesn’t work so well well here, hindering progression and nudging you towards its microtransactions a little too soon.