March 31, 2014 8:30 PM | Lena LeRay
MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) games can be difficult to get into because they typically blend real-time strategy and action gameplay, with a steep learning curve to round things out. They also tend to be very much alike. Yes, there are differences between DotA 2 and League of Legends, but they're really quite similar. Cliffhanger Productions, which is also developing Shadowrun Online, is trying to take MOBA games in a different direction with Aerena, a turn-based MOBA game whose matches don't tend to last more than ten minutes.
The build I've tried doesn't show off much of the setting's lore, but it does introduce us to a steampunk-like setting. Instead of steam, aether power is used, but the aesthetics are otherwise very steampunk in nature. There are flying ships and the battle arenas are all floating constructions. Player champions are all affiliated with one faction or another, though the factions don't seem to affect anything just yet.
Unlike your average MOBA game, in which you control one unit (usually called a champion), you have a team of champions to work with in Aerena. You can take several champions into battle, but only three can be on the field at any given time. The order in which champions take their turns is decided by the order in which they are placed, alternating between a champion from one side and a champion from the other side. If a champion is killed, then when that champion's turn to play comes around again, you can put another champion into play. It can be the same champion as the one that was destroyed or any other champion you don't currently have out.
The goal of a match is to destroy the opponent's flying ship, which rests just of the arena platform just opposite your own. You can deal damage to it directly, but the ship will also take damage when one of its team's champions is killed. A match can be won by getting a champion behind enemy lines to punch the hull out of the opponent's ship, or by efficiently killing the opponent's champions while keeping your own alive.
Right now the game is rough, but the core of Aerena is solid. They've got the start of something fun here, something that you could play for hours or just for a bit while waiting for dinner guests to arrive. Yes, there are some glaring balance issues and only a small selection of ships and champions to choose from. There are some things about the user interface, in and out of matches, that could use improvement. But the game also shows a lot of promise.
Aerena is currently only available for Windows, Mac, and Android. It does have cross-platform support. An iOS version is planned for once they hit certain milestones such as a major interface overhaul, reconnection capabilities, and audio options. There's an update this week whose major features include improvements to the in-match user interface, an improved tutorial, and the beginning of the single-player campaign.
A Steam code for the PC version (which comes with a second copy to gift) is currently available as part of this week's Indie Gala Monday Bundle. At time of this writing, the bundle can be purchased for as little as $1.89 with the minimum price set to rise in a little over 10 hours.