Last week, Pearl Abyss allowed players to finally jump back into its take on the battle royale craze with Shadow Arena. The game was originally planned as a part of Black Desert Online but it suffered from some serious abuse. So, PA took the mode back to the drawing board and ultimately spun it off as its own game.Fortnite) and others with a less than stellar reception. I guess PA saw what happened to Intrepid Studios and thought, “Yes, please, I’d like some of that!”
I’ve spent the better part of the past week getting down and dirty with Shadow Arena, and I’m here to tell you: It’s fun, it’s fast, and it’s got some work to do to make me a believer.
Another twist on the battle royale genre
Our own BDO Columnist took a peek at the previous iteration of the game last April, and while much has remained the same, there are some differences.
We have ourselves a BR with just about everything we’ve come to expect from a BR. We have solo and duo modes. Matches begin by popping you out and allowing you to pick a starting location. You run around and search the arena for random loot to aid you in the match. Over time the arena gradually gets smaller as you run away from the ever-encroaching wall of death. Ultimately, the last player (or two) standing is the victor.
From there though, it feels like PA drew ideas from a hat to differentiate the game from other BRs. Mobs? Yes! Let’s add dozens of mobs to kill for loot. Gear? Well, instead of picking up weapons to fight with, your class determines you combat skills. So what do we do with gear? It’ll just increase your damage and defense. Levels? No, but if you happen to pick up a skill book, then you can increase a skill’s level (up to three times). Push it out!
Shadow Arena looks and feels polished
The game plays really smoothly. I actually experienced only one bug one time, where my game locked up as I was leaving a match. Other than that, I didn’t have any problems with rubber banding or players not being where they appeared to be.
I enjoy that simplified nature of the game’s combat too (compared to BDO‘s). While I don’t know every class’s moves yet, the animations are fairly pronounced, so you usually know when the pain is coming – although there isn’t much you can do about it (more on that later). On the downside, skills appear to lock you into their full animation, which isn’t always great. It’s nice to have some kind of feint or method of canceling a skill, even if it burns your cooldown. I tried to find something like this, but nothing seemed effective.
Pearl Abyss even added a practice mode too, which I really appreciate. You can jump into a small arena and simply learn all your class skills without a penalty. Honestly, that helps a lot. Few things frustrate me more than being dropped into a match with little to no clue what any particular weapon or skill does, then literally learning what each button does while attempting to survive an onslaught of attacks from others who’ve already gone through the process. The practice mode takes the edge off the learning curve, which is huge for a game that is all about getting in and competing quickly.
As in Black Desert itself, the animations and graphics are gorgeous. When you are able to cleanly land a blow on a foe, it feels good. It’s one of those semi-ephemeral things in gaming. It’s hard to pin down, but when landing a blow feels like it should, you know it.
I enjoyed most of my time in a match – right up until I got rekt. And (almost) every single time I got beat down, I just thought, “Boy that sucked. That really, really sucked.” I rarely ended a match excited and ready to queue up for another one. No, instead, I would debate with myself about whether I wanted to spend the next 10 minutes repeating that process. So, while PA has done a fine job and got a lot of things right with Shadow Arena, there is certainly room for improvement. Besides, if PA wants this to be a success, the studio doesn’t need to hear me tell it how great it is. The team needs to know how to improve it.
The gear needs to go away
Let’s start out with some of those unique systems PA has put together. As I mentioned above, the gear system is different from what’s available in many of the other BRs I’ve played in the past. In fact, it’s unique to the point that I think PA should just remove it – because it just barely qualifies as a gear system.
As you run through the arena, you’ll find chests to loot. Some of the loot is typical, such as healing potions, other minor boosts, and even the skill tomes (for increasing a skill’s level). However, rather than picking up different tiers of weapons and armor during a match and determining whether you would rather equip it over the gear you already have, you simply click equip and don’t worry about it. If the gear you picked up completes a set (three of a kind), then it will upgrade. There’s no actual planning or thought involved in the gear that you collect.
Let me paint a picture to explain just how pointless it is: As you roam the arena and kill mobs you’ll find chests. Simply spam to pick it up and immediately spam to equip. If the gear is better, it’ll equip; if not, then it doesn’t matter. It definitely makes me wonder what the heck the point of gear is. If every time I pick it up I don’t have to think about it but instead just need to spam to equip, then the game should automatically equip it for me. It’s just a click for a click’s sake.
Monsters add a unique element but need to be toned down
Next up are the mobs in the game. I actually enjoy seeing them and even beating up on them. It’s fun and keeps you on your toes – you need to be sure no one is going to gank you while you’re occupied. The problem is there are so many of them! You can barely move in any direction without running face-first into one. On top of that, their aggro and the distance they’ll cover chasing you is way too high.
In many other BRs, there is a certain level of subterfuge you tend to engage in. Not just hiding from opponents, but also when attempting to disengage and rest. With the current swarms and the AI of the mobs, there’s no escape. If someone actually attempts to disengage and peel away from combat, there’s no secret to where they’ve gone. Just look for the 10+ monsters chasing in a direction and you know where to go. Once, I thought I could be clever and pull a train of mobs onto another player – no such luck. These monsters don’t forget their primary target. So instead of pulling 10 monsters on top of my prey, I instead drew 10 monsters onto myself and let the opponent laugh and then smash me to pieces. Embarrassing.
More balance should be applied around stuns
My final note is by far the biggest sticking point for me: the stun locks, good gravy, the stun locks. I can appreciate combat that is designed with stuns, knockbacks, knockdowns, and other suppression skills in mind. However, there needs to be more counter play to actually make a fight meaningful. Currently, I’ve put meaningful time into only two of the classes, but the only stun breaker was the one that turned you into the black fuzz ball (black spirit) briefly – which was only a moment of respite. The majority of fights’ outcomes seemed predicated on who landed their stuns first. Yet, since there are so few stun breakers or meaningful ways of teasing your opponent into blowing all his cooldowns, it never felt good or particularly fun.
I think PA has done a lot of good with Shadow Arena. But a game centered on melee combat needs to really ensure that combat is balanced. Don’t be afraid of trying something radical either (fully removing stuns from the game would be an interesting test).
So how about all of you nomads out there? Did you take advantage of MOP’s closed beta key giveaway and play this past week? Did Shadow Arena hit just the right mix of BR and BDO to make you a want to play all day every day? Or did you walk away a skeptic? Personally – and I might be the only person on the planet who can say this – Ashes of Creation Apocalypse was a better take on the fantasy BR. Come at me!