ÆRENA is a free to play, turn based combat strategy game based in a rather unique and beautifully designed steampunk world. Developed by Cliffhanger Productions the game is hero-centric and revolves around your team versus another aboard an airship, sailing through the skies and battling out your differences along the way. The game is primarily intended for multiplayer matches and these matches tend to last between ten to fifteen minutes rather than long winded rounds that test your staying power over strategic prowess. Whilst ÆRENA is by no means shaking up the genre of turn based strategy games, that’s not to say it’s not a good game. In fact, the depth of strategy and the intensity of the game are incredibly addictive.
The story of ÆRENA is simple but appealing. You exist in a world where Æther, a rare and mysterious commodity, is highly sought after for its magical properties. It was discovered early on in the 20th Century and granted humanity the ability to harness immeasurable powers. On an Earth that is now devoid of resources, the race for Æther began in an attempt to stockpile this new power source as quickly as possible. Nations were pitted against one another to secure this substance and huge airships fueled by Æther scoured the skies, destroying everything in their path. The destroyed and devastated civilizations below were forced to come up with their own solution and that was when the United Nations was born. The UN took control of the few remaining Æther extractors and essentially stopped the wars but, instead, promoted ‘The Games’ to decide who took control of the Æther. This is where you come in. You are the captain of a team of airship-borne warriors who will battle it out against other teams within a series of Ærena that are situated high up in the sky. You’re not only in charge of these warriors but it’s also your responsibility to pick out a suitable battleship and to load it up with five champion crew members and three shells. This is where the tactics begin as this game, pitted against human opponents, is devishly tricky to succeed in.
It’s fair to say that ÆRENA plays very similar to a game of high speed chess as you are restricted to a tiled board with crew members that have limited moves that they may perform, though these may be changed by using an Æther. The game is played against other players with the objective being to destroy your enemy’s battleship. This can be achieved by either directly targeting the ship or by killing your opponent’s heroes a certain number of times. You and your opponent will start on opposite sides of a randomly chosen battle board whose shape and content varies with each game. Most of the battle boards come with a variety of obstacles, traps and powerup tiles that may help or hinder your crew. The way that these features are generated across the board changes with every match, forcing you to adapt your strategies or form new ones along with the shifting environments.
At the start of each match you’ll place three starting heroes somewhere on the board whilst taking into account the layout of the board including the position of your opponents. As is typical of this genre the gameplay is turn based and for every turn you can move and attack once or attack twice without moving. Despite the simple sounding gameplay there is an impressive variation of tactics that may be employed and, when you’re playing against seasoned players, it’s extremely difficult to win with only a sparse knowledge of the different tactics. Just when you think you’re getting the hang of the game you’ll be violently reminded that actually, you don’t even know anything about anything yet. Despite this there’s never the feeling that you’re doomed from the start and you’re always given a good fighting chance with huge potential to learn something new in every game you play. The progression from beginner to expert is slow but steady but you’re guaranteed to develop your own unique play style and be well rewarded for all your hard work. Even for experienced players there is often a sudden shift in the flow of battle that was completely unpredictable so, even when the odds seem completely against you, there is always the chance to pull it back and go for the win.
At the heart of it all of this super-charged, surprisingly intense gameplay are Æthers, that stuff everyone’s fighting over. Æthers provide crew members with not just additional abilities but how much damage they inflict and where enemies may appear on the board. Æthers may also be used on your ship allowing them to shoot powerful Æther shells at your rivals or, alternatively, battleship shells can be used to heal your flagging crew members and ship. The fighting is not just for fighting’s sake of course, as you battle your opponents you have the opportunity to acquire cash and experience that are used to level up your team members, acquire new heroes and purchase new battleships, Æther shells and a vast selection of items from the shop. What’s admirable about the game is the absence of ‘pay to win’ features that can give players an unfair advantage. That’s not to say there is no microtransaction system, there is, but all it allows for is the purchasing of additional champions, shells and ships that simply reduces the amount of time spent grinding as, essentially, you can still unlock all of these additional features for free. Other than this there’s no real advantage to spending any money in this game and for free players and causal gamers this is a breath of fresh air in a world of ‘pay to win’ multiplayer gaming.
ÆRENA: Clash of Champions is powered by a fairly robust game engine resulting in smooth gameplay and tight, 3D graphics in its self-admitted ‘Ætherpunk’ style. This rather classic feel is far from off-putting and instead enhances the atmosphere of existing in this alternate world where old, 20th Century Earth combines with new, futuristic technology. ÆRENA also manages to maintain the chunky, cartoony vibe that games like Team Fortress utilized so nicely and this animated form gives it an additional comic, light-hearted edge that’s a world away from extremely serious warfare games. Now and then there are some aesthetic issues such as the supposedly uber-powerful special moves which tend to feel on the bland side with a simple, uninspiring flash of light but overall its nothing really off-putting and the whole game looks great.
The soundtrack of the game could be better as often the tracks would repeat on themselves and, after some time of playing, the music becomes extremely monotonous. It’s not just the game’s background music that is repetitive, matches are often overseen by a commentator who will shout out the name of your champion whenever they are brought onto the field. Whilst this feature adds a bit of life and gives the game that stadium feel I would have preferred the commentator to have much more to say and several more lines of dialogue to keep the audio interesting. That said, the voice acting is done well and the actual music is suitably dramatic for such an intense game so really the only major problems are repetitiveness and a lack of variation.
As a free to play game, ÆRENA is well worth your time if you enjoy turn based strategy games. Hard to break into but extremely addictive and rewarding you’ll find what you’re looking for in this game, whether that’s bite size chunks of fast paced action gameplay or long hours of building up your crew and establishing complex strategies. Graphically it looks brilliant and though it lacks some substance in its soundtrack that only slightly detracts from the overall gameplay experience. Everything can be purchased using in-game cash making the competitiveness between players purely a result of gameplay and not about how wealthy they are in real life. Currently the community is still in the progress of growing and developing so at times there are quiet periods but, as this is free to play, I’m certain that will very quickly resolve itself and you should definitely give it a try.