As the match began, I looked like a small ball of shadow, moving across the battlefield with ease as I searched for an ideal spot to start. Obstacles didn’t deter me or slow me down. As shadow took form, the form of Harawen, I took my staff and began beating down a shadow combatant. As he crumpled to the ground, I turned to another shadow and used my staff to send a powerful burst of energy at my next opponent. As the shadow combatants around me fell like flies, I collected chests filled with buffs to prepare me for when I finally stood face to face against another player.
As I moved closer and closer to the center of play, I knew the match could end for me at any moment. Then very suddenly, I was fighting against Haru. She was fast and tried as I did to avoid the inevitable, I was down and Haru stood the victor. The thrill was over for the moment but I was determined to fight another day. This was Shadow Arena.
Shadow Arena is a new Early Access game from Pearl Abyss, the makers of Black Desert Online. What started as a game mode in Black Desert Online Remastered, the popular MMORPG from Pearl Abyss, has since morphed into its own take on the battle-royale genre. Shadow Arena artfully takes MMO elements and combines them with a Battle Royale setting. While still in early access, Shadow Arena’s take on the battle-royale proves to be largely enjoyable, though it is obvious that it’s still early on in it’s life.
One aspect Shadow Arena does well is making each character feel unique and powerful. Character-specific skills bring out different playstyles, offering various ways for you to approach Shadow Arena.
Some characters specialize in sorcery, slinging spells from afar, while others get up close and personal, using melee weapons or, like Badal the Golden, simply their fists to do their talking. As such, the skill abilities are set to compliment that character. As Haru, players are fast but need to be able to engage in close combat, using her shortsword or kunai to do her dirty work. As Herawen or Orwen players have ranged abilities but are moderately slower to control. Gerard Shultz is very powerful but also very slow. The characters were balanced well and gave a sense of diversity in the roster.
One of the greatest advantages of having so many characters with different abilities is that it really sets itself apart from the major Battle Royales, such as PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds or Fortnite. While the idea of different classes with skillsets isn’t new in Battle Royale games (Spellbreak for example), Shadow Arena’s diversity of character types really helps make this feel unique. In traditional royale games, all players start with the same abilities and luck of what weapons are where you land has a large stake in how well you do overall. Perhaps you’ll land near an insanely powerful weapon but maybe you’ll end up searching for too long in order to find something good to use.
In Shadow Arena, players start with the weapons they will use in combat. Buffs come from killing shadow combatants who have a variety of strength levels and abilities. The specific buffs are entirely forgettable in that they aren’t really highlighted as you collect them and a match moves too quickly to spend much time looking at them. After killing a few shadow combatants, you can combine these buffs with a hit of a button to improve your attack or defense rating. It works really well for a couple of reasons.
First, players, like myself, who aren’t as great in regular combat still have plenty of opportunities to be successful by killing these shadow warriors. I may not defeat a single player-controlled character during a match but these shadow warriors mean that I didn’t just run around and then die. While fighting the shadow combatants doesn’t win any extra points, it is imperative to begin killing them as soon as the match starts. I found it impossible to kill player characters if I didn’t have any buffs because the other players did have them. Second, it puts a new spin into Battle Royale, a game style that frankly has become overused and tired largely because of the lack of variety. Where in other Battle Royale games, your buffs are what you can find, this links the combat in Shadow Arena to the strength and defense of your character.
When Shadow Arena first starts a new match, players are but a black shadow able to move quickly and with no obstacles. This only lasts a few moments while players decide exactly where to begin. With a 4 minute grace period to collect buffs and be able to regenerate upon death, I found it very easy to get ready for the real combat to come. Like other games in the genre, as the match progressed, I was forced closer to other players. The relatively small scale of the map made for a better experience because I never spent long without seeing some action. Whether I was fighting shadow combatants or actual players, there was always something to do. In that way the game really shines.
One problem Shadow Arena had was one I expected due to it being in Early Access. While Shadow Arena has a 40 player capacity per match, it often starts in the waiting zone at a much lower number of people. The player count has to be 30 before a match will start and I’ve spent as long as 15-20 minutes waiting in the queue to finally be able to play. At my longest wait time, I simply gave up and turned it off. More recently, these wait times have been due to an extremely low player count where I’ve waited as long as 10 minutes with still less than 10 players in the lobby. If Pearl Abyss doesn’t entice new players to come to Shadow Arena, it may find itself dead before it’s even finished.
Other frustrating moments include when I opened the player menu and couldn’t close it because it didn’t all appear on the screen. I literally had to close the whole game through task manager and relaunch the game. Every single time I launch the game I have to agree to the TOS as if I didn’t do it last time I played. These may seem like small problems but enough small problems happening at once can really cause playability issues.
Errors like these are the reason I feel Early Access games can be damaging to the industry. Understanding that the game is labeled as Early Access, it still seems really wrong to charge money for a game that is not even finished. Shadow Arena did great with offering a free to play option but the game is really only free to start. While Shadow Arena includes an in-game currency you earn through playing, the faster way to access all the heroes on offer is through purchasing the day one DLC - a price that is incredibly cost prohibitive for many people at a whopping $89.99 USD. Currently you can try out heroes in a weekly rotation, and thankfully you can check out six heroes at a time. But for an early access game, to be charging more than your standard video game cost for access to all the heroes, it feels like a stretch, especially for what is, by all accounts, an unfinished game.
Shadow Arena is extremely enjoyable. I truly do believe many of these issues with Shadow Arena will be worked out with time and it really is an enjoyable game. That said, like with other Early Access games, be wary of what you’re getting yourself into. It can be a great experience or maybe just an expensive one.