By Stephen LaGioia 08th Mar 2019 | 2,437 views
The name “Space War Arena” alone might invoke a certain presumption of this game being a dull, cliched sci-fi experience - and at least thematically, this may be the case. But thanks to its 'easy to learn, tough to master' mechanics, satisfying shooter gameplay, and constant action, it proves to be a surprisingly fun and addictive RTS. The handheld functionality and intuitive touch-screen support fits the fast-paced, accessible gameplay like a glove. At the same time, with varied tools at your disposal to play around with, there’s enough complexity for true strategy tacticians to get at least something out of this title.
The end result is a solid entry-level RTS that proves more enduring than its minimalistic 2D visuals and sound design (as well as its humble indie origins) would indicate. Though, considering this was made by Ecco The Dolphin creator Ed Annunziata, it perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that Space War Arena is looking like one of the better Nindies of the year. It’s certainly one of the most fun times I’ve had with a console strategy game in recent memory.
That isn’t to say this appraisal doesn’t come with a few caveats. Fans of, say, a Civilization level of RTS complexity might find a lack of substance in Space War Arena. The concept - opposing Death Star-esque battle stations spawn a barrage of battleships and other offensive/defensive units to fight eachother - can feel a bit surface level and repetitive at times.
To illustrate, you’re granted a handful of spacecraft, structures, and weapons to provide firepower and shore up your defences, unlocking up to a couple of dozen as you progress. Each come equipped with different types of weapons and behaviors, and are given an array of varying stats, in the form of health, firing range, and damage.
However, you’ll soon find that you can coast through most of the brief campaign simply by focusing on roughly half of the choices provided, simply cluttering the screen with your preferred units. There were a handful of units that I didn’t even have to use at all. If you’re struggling, you can simply delve into Evolve mode, where you take out a series of unique enemy forces. This allows you to level up the units you’ve deployed in these fights, which increases your muscle in the campaign, making things far easier. This xp system in Evolve mode is a neat feature that mixes things up, but it means you’re rewarded far more for tedious grinding than raw skill.
Thus, the name of the game often boils down to gaining power in Evolve mode for a bit, then re-entering the campaign and spamming as many of your highest level units as quickly as possible. You’re given a cooldown time that doubles as a "cost" to build each unit, which is contingent on how powerful each one is - making this the primary obstacle you'll need to work around. At any given time, you’ll only have access to 4 of the 8 units you chose at the beginning of each stage, and which you must deploy before another type will spawn, so there’s a bit of luck involved as well.
Of course, you’ll also have to mind your opposition positioned across from you, and respond to their moves accordingly. Both you and your opponent’s battle stations typically come laced with a layer of shields, which must be destroyed before satisfyingly whittling down their health to 0. This is achieved either through aiming and firing directly with your own weapons, or sending ships to automatically fly towards it and fire at it, along with enemy fighters. In a likely effort by the developers to break the tedium, you’ll occasionally be tossed into a survival-style mission instead. These missions will launch a handful of increasingly powerful enemy waves at you sans an enemy battle station.
You’ll find that you’ll often need a wide variety of units to be most effective, and will sometimes have to resort to specific types of weapons/fighters to overcome a plethora of conditions flung at you by the enemy. For instance, you might want a sniper unit to counter slow moving enemy vessels from range, or a flame-spraying Incinerator to easily take out a flurry of smaller enemy ships. You’d likely find it beneficial to place defensive gates to brace for a trigger-happy opponent that pummels your base with missiles.
Perhaps you’ll wish to unleash a powerful Revenant ship to hunt down similarly beefy spacecraft, or plant sentries to stave off pesky little swarms of fighters harassing your station. I was partial to dropping Drone Factory units near my base and letting these units spawn gaggles of termite drones, eventually overwhelming my enemy. There are a number of strategies like this, which you can implement to nudge momentum in your favor.
As the battle evolves and the screen gets increasingly cluttered, it begins to feel a bit like a chaotic game of space chess - at least on a simplistic level. Still, simply utilizing a mix of smaller and larger units that have been leveled up each match usually proves sufficient to win with little sweat. This simplicity doesn’t necessarily take away from the enjoyment; it’s just that the fun stems from more of an action-oriented chaos rather than interesting nuances typically found in an RTS. This is especially true considering how often your deployed units will be destroyed, forcing you to randomly crank out new ones frequently and with little thought.
While the game is on the short side, there is an Endless mode upon completion of the campaign, where you’re forced to survive against incrementally decked-out opponents. There’s also an enjoyable split-screen multiplayer, allowing friends to square off in a heated space battle. These features help round out the package, making for a fun and exciting little RTS action romp. Space War Arena quietly makes a name for itself on a platform which isn’t home to many similar experiences.