ÆRENA – Masters Edition

In an admirable turn against the tide of in-vogue business models, I was pleasantly surprised to see one of my favourite games of 2014 shuck its F2P status and go galloping into the realm of premium pricing. Yes, ÆRENA: Clash of Champions has thrown off the yoke of microtransactions and grindy business in favour of a princely all-in price tag on PC. Why should you care?

Because the freshly minted ÆRENA – Masters Edition remains a damn fine multiplayer turn-based strategy.

Two teams square off on an elevated grid of varying sizes and layouts, taking turns to wither down the opposing team via killing enemy combatants and destroying the carrier to the other posse’s rear. These are intimate affairs; timed for fluidity but measured by their tactical nature. ÆRENA revolves around a classic IgoUgo turn-based system, with players spawning, moving or attacking with a single character before an opponent takes their turn. Characters themselves tend to appeal to three particular generalised classes – the tank, the ranged and the melee specialist. Given the arenas themselves aren’t particularly large, ÆRENA really pushes the emphasis upon close-quarters troop placement and very much knowing who is capable of what.

The economy of combat is driven by æther. Æther powers every attack made by characters, as well as allowing for the deployment of Æther shells – offensive or passive abilities not specific to combatants. Characters themselves, if immobile during the previous turn, carry over their æther quota and allow for the use of more powerful attacks. Æther injections can also be administered by moving onto booster squares – denoted as either powering an individual unit or the æther pool of the team’s ship – or by utilising specific æther shells. One interesting aspect of ÆRENA is the way damage made against an enemy carrier reduces its HP, but generates a handsome burst of æther for that team. This helps to keep an ailing team from being completely steam-rolled; being able to spawn a last-ditch few characters and power an æther shell or two helps keep it interesting to the end.

The characters are varied and rather interesting, all taking curious cues from a weird and wonderful Victorian science-fantasy flare-up. Some are more grounded than others, but for the most part, there’s a strangeness to the roster that tickle my fancy. Moreover, their combat capacities are quite nuanced, especially coupled with two discrete æther attacks. It’s a seemingly tactically-lean game, but ÆRENA has a lot going on. Being able to consider the order of characters is essential to pull off some delicious high-level plays, revolving around getting both the character and ship’s respective æther pools built up. Do you power up a character via æther shell on a team mate’s turn, sacrificing said comrade’s turns but maximising the initial character’s combat when you teleport them to the enemy’s baseline to attack on their ship? Do you aim to win by blocking and sheering off the enemy character roster and damage their ship that way, or rush their carrier? Do you utilise the insta-death tiles and use knockback skills to shunt your opponents to their doom? It’s a very well conceived affair, with a hearty strategic depth to the battles.

The holistic approach in using æther as a common denominator helps not only to know what is within your capacity in a turn, but also in making educated guesses towards the opponent’s intent. The æther shells are certainly a welcome wildcard, and given the deterministic nature of the game, it’s a variable that helps to subtly shape the brisk bouts.

The presentation is also one of the stronger elements of ÆRENA. Crisp, inventive character models with crisp, inventive animations lumber and leap atop clean and concise combat areas. This is top notch visual design. While I’d like to see more bombast in terms of effects and environmental animation, the game has it where it counts.

With everything you’ll ever need straight out of the digital box, it’s hard to find much wrong with ÆRENA – Masters Edition. If a snappy and varied turn-based multiplayer game sounds like your bag, snag it. F2P editions still exist on mobiles and tablets, but for the wholesome longevity afforded without the psychological F2P ball-and-chain, I’d give the Masters Edition a nod. Just meaty goodness.