For all the creativity developers pump into them, most modern games are easily figured out—not in practice necessarily, but in principle. Platformer, shooter, puzzler, strategy, action, RPG: We have these genres for a reason; they describe common approaches to game design and the experiences they create. Even in principle, though, Aerena from Cliffhanger Productions is avant-garde to say the least. An ostensible hybridization of MOBA themes and turn-based strategy, Aerena flies in the face of the twitchy (i.e. reaction time-dependent) reputation of League of Legends and Smite, instead opting for concentrated and strategic gameplay.
Stop me if this sounds familiar: Two teams of champions face off with the intent of destroying the other’s base. As the game progresses, supplemental abilities can be purchased in order to turn the tide of battle. Attacking opposing champions often subverts base destruction as the current objective, but is ultimately a hurdle to that end. With that in mind, you’ll also want to gather resources by exploring the map and avoiding opponents, focusing on building your forces before you make your move.
Now take the three-lane, five-man, jungle-ridden, top-down chaos you’ve mentally concocted and throw it out the window.
This is Aerena.
Aerena battles are indeed waged between teams of champions, but they’re one-on-one matches in which you command all five heroes—the five that you carefully selected according to your strategy. Maybe you want a tank, perhaps a ranged fighter or two. Do you want versatile mobility or high damage? Broad but short-range attacks or narrow strikes from across the map? These questions and more are answered by what heroes you choose, all of whom can be unlocked via in-game currency (Shillings) or the cash-shop (trading real money for Aether Coins).
Heroes come equipped with two skills and a basic attack and are controlled in spurts of two—that is to say, you can take two actions per turn. Attack twice or cover some ground or somewhere in between; versatility is everything, so choose wisely. Every basic attack taken adds one Aether point to that character’s stock which can be used for devastating skills; but if a character dies, they will not retain their Aether points when they respawn (once the turn clock gets back to them). Also, when spawning a replacement hero, you’ll have the option to put in an entirely new combatant if you decide the fallen contender is out of their element.
And no, it's not pay-to-win.
This is turn- and grid-based gameplay, so you know the level layout is crucial. Sparse bits of cover create valuable defense points to be coveted and fought over; knock-back special attacks turn otherwise harmless ledges into guillotines, and once defensive walls into damage boons via “squash” damage; resource-granting tiles are the life blood of the battle, and if ignored, will leave you running on empty against a fed opponent.
Then there’s Aerena’s definitive feature: Airships, the “destroy that thing” of the game. Behind every team is one of many ships, each with their own unique abilities. High health, an early game advantage, evasion—as Creative Director Jan Wagner told me, “your ship changes your strategy, your heroes change your tactics.” However, your team isn’t the only thing onboard your ship; you also have an array of Aether Shells at your disposal, the variety of which turns the combat’s diversity to 11.
Let me put this in perspective: There are currently five ships, 10 heroes and 6 maps (all of which will be seeing a few additions per month, Cliffhanger told me).
There are approximately 40 Aether Shells.
Of course, you can only bring 3 into each battle, meaning you’ll want to tailor your arsenal to fit your overall strategy. Bear in mind, your opponent will be packing artillery as well, but you won’t know what shells they have equipped. Far from annoying, this adds an element of memory and risk to combat. If your ship is on three health and your opponent is sitting on high Aether with an Aether Discharge shell, you’re done for. But with that in mind, you can make more aggressive plays earlier on in an effort to close the game out early and in your favor. Think they’ve got a Shockwave? Stay away from ledges, a.k.a. environmental guillotines. So on and so forth, 40 times over.
Unlike other MOBAs, Aerena isn’t bound to PC. Once other versions of the game are completed, you’ll be able to log into the Aetherpunk universe (their term not mine—though I wish I’d thought of it) from your iOS or Android device. Don’t let that put you off, PC players; my experience with Aerena was on a high(ish, I tell myself)-end gaming rig and I experienced no issues. The graphics are crisp, the art style is delightfully gritty—an excellent match for the surprisingly deep alternative 1950s universe—and the UI is completely mouse-friendly. You click stuff, you click other stuff. Done.
I also managed to beat developer Loquee in a match… with a little help from the game's creative director.
With regard to Aether Shells, cross-platform support has been put to good use. You can buy Aether Shells, sure, but that’ll run you some serious cash after a while. Instead, why not let your Shell Generator pump a few out for you? It only takes two hours for a new one to spawn, meaning you’ll end up stockpiling enough explosives to split the continent throughout the day, just waiting to be thrown at enemy ships in the evening. It may sound annoying, but the Shell Generator actually makes the experience more enjoyable. It’s never limiting, if you’re worried; you’ll always have enough shells to fight competently. What’s more, it lets you experiment with shells that you may not be able to afford otherwise, and ensures that you never run into a “Meta” shell. It also gives further incentive to log in and play a round or two.
Aerena matches are like potato chips, and because they’re so satisfyingly quick, you won’t have a problem having more than one. Aerena is MOBA in a microcosm, trimmed of fat and mixed with speed chess. Full-blown matches run an average of 10 to 15 minutes, meaning you won’t get burnt out and you won’t get bored of facing the same opponent for a full hour. The competitive scene is fast-paced, dynamic and growing rapidly. It’s also not the only game mode; Cliffhanger is planning to add AI matches and missions—spontaneous scenarios built to the tune of “you’re here, with these resources, now win”—to the game’s currently stumpy campaign.
Load times are brief, and surprisingly helpful.
As mentioned previously, this is all wrapped neatly in a distinctly Aetherpunk universe, a retelling of the 20th century led by the power of Aether. The world of Aerena is surprisingly deep, complete with competing factions, a practical if a bit one-track cast of supporting characters, and colorful backstories to every ship and hero. References to Albert Einstein and Henry Ford, in particular, got a smile out of me.
Arguably most promising is how quickly Aerena is set to grow. Cliffhanger is planning to release at least one ship per month, with one to two heroes coming with it. The addition of a challenge mode and Mission system was also mentioned, the former allowing friends to fight whenever they want (the lack of which made my match with Product Manager Jonathan Riedler, also known as Loquee, quite difficult to finagle). Missions, on the other hand, will put players in a specific position and ask them to win from it—something of a "you have this, this and this; now do this" puzzle—and reward them for doing so. For those wondering: A 2v2 mode, while possible, is still a bit of a pipe-dream but may be added somewhere down the line.
I’ve always been put off by the emphasis that conventional MOBAs place on reaction time and mouse DPI and the like, sneering at their reliance on reflex and then retiring to my slow-paced cave of strategy. You say League of Legends, I say Valkyria Chronicles Online needs to be a thing; you say DOTA 2, I say Orcs Must Die. Now, however, I say Aerena.
Aerena is an unlikely but exceptional combination of heretofore disparate elements assembled on a stage grand enough to allow for real depth but compact enough to keep things tightly knit. It is a uniquely accessible and thought-provoking take on multiplayer battles that, as it continues to gain content and platforms, could easily turn the MOBA scene on its head. And above all, it is damn fun.