Game Review #409: Space War Arena - Revisited (Nintendo Switch)
Updated: Sep 12, 2019
Reviewer: Joshua F.
Category: Multiplayer, Simulation, Strategy,Action
Release Date: 2.27.2019
Price (at time of review): $14.99
Buy Space War Arena from the Nintendo eShop here.
Note: We originally reviewed this game back when it was released and graded it a 7.5/10. You can read that review here. This review is a second look at the title and reviewed by special guest, Joshua F., founder of #SwitchCorps.
People know me as a collector and diehard supporter of physical games. Typically, if I get a digital-only release, it’s because I have some interest and familiarity with the title in question, and my purchase serves as a way to support the developer or be better informed when I advocate for physical release. For these reasons, it’s rare that I go into a digital release totally blind and even rarer to have one impress me as much as Space War Arena.
Having arrived exclusively on Nintendo Switch back in February 2019, Space War Arena is a unique blend of RTS and tower defense mechanics from famed producer Ed Annunziata, the creative force behind classics like Ecco the Dolphin and Kolibri. This is Annunziata’s first release on the platform under his company Playchemy.
STORY & TUTORIAL
Space War Arena is about sentient starships with the sole purpose of protecting their mother “Ark-Ship” and continuously upgrading themselves. They learn from battle, and when they’re destroyed, memory and consciousness are transferred back to the mothership [Cylon-style] so they can be rebuilt and redeployed. You play as one of these starships. At the beginning of the game, the cycle of synthetic evolution is broken by a race of similar beings that attack the mothership with weaponry superior to your own, so your objective is to assimilate their technology by defeating enemies of increasing difficulty in hopes of locating the source of their threat.
A handful of simulated battles help familiarize the player with basic unit types and how they’re used to combat enemy waves or take down the opposing starship. This tutorial section and the accompanying story intro can be replayed at any time. Once complete, the real battle begins.
Space War Arena is deceptively simple at first glance. All action takes place on a single screen. Your units are on one side, and your opponent is on the other side. In most cases, you’re facing another starship like your own, but sometimes you’re defending against a continuous onslaught with a wave counter instead, similar to tower defense games like Plants vs Zombies. Small and simple as it may seem, there’s an impressive amount of depth to be found here.
Units are deployed almost like a deck-building game. You’ll eventually unlock dozens of unit types, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and movement restrictions, but only eight of these can be active in your Shipyard at any given time. In between battles, you can change them out according to your strategy, and if you fail, you’ll have a chance to make adjustments to your “deck” before trying again. Each unit type has an associated cost and cool-down time, and as they’re deployed, a pool of energy is depleted. This energy regenerates slowly, so you might deploy a low-cost pair of fighters to hold off an enemy until you have the energy to send out a higher-cost brawler unit.
When selecting a unit to deploy, you can choose the placement and trajectory almost anywhere on your half of the screen, and since you can’t directly issue commands after they leave your ship, this can be critical to success. You might place turrets at the top and bottom of the screen to provide cover while fighters or siege ships are sent up the middle to take down your opponent’s shields. If enemy ships are bearing down on you, you’d want to direct drones to stick close, then push the line back with a sniper or two. It’s incredibly fast-paced and dynamic, so you have to think quick.
Going back to the deck-building parallel, units from your Shipyard are essentially drawn four at a time, and when you use one, it’s replaced by another. There’s a “Next” display at the bottom, so you can plan a little ahead. Additionally, each unit can be upgraded in a separate Evolve mode, perhaps my favorite aspect of the entire game. Here you select from preset opponents, each with a short bio and info on how difficult they’ll be to challenge in your current state. They also add to the lore of Space War Arena. Character portraits and background data on how they evolved are interesting touches in stark contrast to the cold metal fleet you command. Successfully defeat these characters, and units in your active Shipyard will grow and improve.
As for multiplayer, there are three Versus modes available – Classic for two controllers on a single system, Local for two consoles connected wirelessly, or Online with basic matchmaking. As an asynchronous online feature, there’s also a leaderboard for the unlockable Endless mode, showing top players who survived the highest number of consecutive battles.
It’s also worth noting that Space War Arena can be played entirely with button controls or touchscreen. I like using buttons and analog, but I am surprised at how well the touch controls work and have no doubt some players will prefer it.
AUDIO & VISUALS
Presentation in Space War Arena is clean and simple. Partially animated stills and text convey the minimalistic plot, while the entire soundtrack is comprised of only a few music pieces, all appropriately sci-fi in tone. Audio effects are great, especially with headphones. The ships and weapons have unique sounds that make it easier to tell what the little sprites are doing without hunting for them, and the thunderous clap of nukes and other heavy-hitters is immensely satisfying, especially once an enemy ship collapses under your barrage and explodes.
In later battles, there can be a lot happening on-screen at once, but the game seems very well optimized for Switch. I played almost entirely in handheld mode, and I never experienced any major slowdown or crashes. There may be an occasional frame that gets dropped, but it’s not persistent and likely won’t be noticed by more casual players.
I was also quite pleased with the intuitive UI. Menus are straightforward, allow for easy management of your Shipyard, and provide button prompts to quickly jump to other selections that make sense in context. For instance, if you lose a battle, there’s an option to quit back to the main menu, restart the battle, or jump directly to Evolve where you can upgrade units before retrying the battle you just failed. It’s a minor touch, but one that indicates thoughtful testing by the developer.
Space War Arena is much more than the sum of its parts. By mixing old-school design philosophy with modern conventions and presentation, it offers a fresh and instantly addictive gameplay loop that’s perfectly suited to the pick-up-and-play nature of Nintendo Switch. Genre inspirations are familiar and approachable on their own, but they take on significant depth when blended seamlessly into a single experience. While it can get a little repetitive in extended play, the mode variety is definitely appreciated. Online leaderboards, PvP multiplayer, and Endless modes make this an easy recommendation as a game you can play with friends or keep coming back to on your own.
Buy Space War Arena from the Nintendo eShop here.
*Review Copy Provided by Playchemy