Desert Arena: First impressions of Shadow Arena, the Diet Black Desert of battle royales


Did someone just cast Arcane Echo? Because this’ll be our second piece on Shadow Arena this week, following its deep-dive by our PvP columnist Sam earlier this week in Fight or Kite. But I just have to share my take on this game, especially since our PvP columnist found the game a little wanting!

Last week was the Shadow Arena beta, and I was completely hooked. I barely played Black Desert that entire week! You’ll recall that it was originally an extra game mode in Black Desert Online, but a major hacking problem ultimately led to the game’s closure. It’s now made a comeback as a standalone title, and it’s better than ever.

Let me note here that as a rule, I do not play battle royale games. They’re boring. I’d rather be shooting it out in a tightly designed map from Quake Champions, Team Fortress 2, Overwatch, or even Counter-Strike.

But Shadow Arena is different. I wish I thought of it first, but my brother called it “Diet Black Desert,” and by golly he’s right. MMO gamers who just want to kill monsters and PvP the occasional player who shows up without all the insanity of training a horse, building a boat, fishing, or enchanting will feel so at home in this game. Shadow Arena is the most distilled Black Desert experience you’ll get, and I highly recommend everyone give it a try.

By Black Desert standards, this is a pretty clean HUD

Matches run for about 15 minutes, but a majority of my games ran between 9-12 minutes. (I haven’t actually won a single game yet, though I’ve made it to second place.) All the battle royale tropes are there: a slowly shrinking stage, one life, item collection, and the fear that you’re being watched.

But Shadow Arena adds so much more to carve out its identity.

You begin by picking one of nine heroes, each of them representing a class from the base game. Black Desert players may see a few familiar names, including Jordine, Goyen, Orwen, Harawen, Ahon Kirus, and Gerhard Shultz. They’re all characters players can meet in the game, in the case of Ahon and Harawen, or they have items named after them, like Shultz. A few of them, including Badal the Golden, Yeonhwa, and Haru, make their first introductions. I’m still working through the game’s lore, but characters like Haru were instrumental in key events in the game’s backstory. (She was the one who kidnapped Heidel’s lord; this in turn helped Calpheon take over Heidel.)

This alone adds so much more flavor and character (pun intended) to Black Desert’s lore. The franchise never really had any named characters for players to attach to, and it’s one of the reasons the story’s received so poorly. But after reading through the official Discord, players are clearly starting to declare their mains with a level of attachment.

Jordine is much younger in this game.

Much as in a MOBA, every character has a predetermined set of skills, but players can pick only one when the game begins. In order to unlock the other skills, players have to find skillbooks through chests and drops. Each skill can go up to level 3, requiring more books per skill level. Along with skill books, players pick up items to improve their attack power and defense power, getting stronger.

But where do players grab all these neat drops? From killing monsters. And players, of course.

This is the first major MMO-ish hook. Instead of asking players to hack trees or enter empty houses, this game is filled to the brim with mobs. Since there’s so many of them, it really does feel like running through a mob rotation in Black Desert. As soon as the game starts, you’re hacking and slashing away at monsters, hunting for more gear and focusing on getting stronger. If a player begins to threaten your spot, you can run – or maybe it’s time to d-d-d-d-ddddduel! (Yu-Gi-Oh reference!)

And that’s encouraged too. Permadeath activates after four minutes. I love this: It guarantees that players get a chance to actually play the game, and if they have a weak four minutes, there’s still a chance to rally and take the ultimate win.

Running into the danger zone decreases your health, but killing enemies is there nets you health and better drops.

This simple change exemplifies a value the game’s designers prioritize: The opportunity to counter-play. This game provides so many opportunities to outplay or get outplayed and I love it. If I’m farming around and I get suckerpunched by a slippery Haru player, it’s not a death sentence. I’ll always have a few options available to escape or fight back and secure a kill. This needs to be the foundation for Shadow Arena’s balance tweaks. Every change should always have this in mind. Good thing Pearl Abyss had this beta because while the game’s foundations are solid, the balance needs some major tweaking. Especially when it comes to crowd control.

Sam and I agree on this: The studio needs to do something about the stunlocking. No other character best exemplifies this than Goyen, the great-sword wielding mercenary with attitude! (Power Rangers reference!) He has so many knockdowns, stuns, and boatloads of damage. Getting knocked down gives only one option: your anti-CC (Q). And that’s on a three-minute cooldown. That’s not enough. I actually don’t mind all the crowd control; my problem is that there’s only one option every three minutes. That was the part of an engagement where there was the least amount of available counterplay.

Farming in the main road is a risky venture- unless you’re Goyen.

I think Pearl Abyss should take a page from the big book of fighting games. Fighting games usually provide at least two options on the ground: a chance to roll away or perform a standing attack. For this game, I think there should be a roll option and a block option. The block could be a high risk-high reward option that allow players to escape and do damage on the aggressor.

Along with a few damage tweaks, I think more can still be done with what the game has. It can easily support multiple modes; a deathmatch mode would be nice for those who don’t like battle royale, along with the opportunity to do one-on-ones like how they do it in Blade and Soul or Black Desert Mobile. My goal is that this game hits the largest possible demographic because I really want it to succeed!

What do you think? Am I right on this, or should I curb my enthusiasm? (Larry David reference!) Let me know in the comments below!

The Great Valencian Black Desert is a dangerous place, but thankfully there’s always a chance for respite. Join Massively OP’s Carlo Lacsina every other week for just that in Desert Oasis, our Black Desert column! And don’t worry; he promises he won’t PK you. Got questions or comments? Please don’t hesitate to send a message!
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