Starblood Arena (PS4 [reviewed with PlayStation VR])
Developer: Sony San Diego
Released: April 11, 2017
Starblood Arena‘s whole vibe feels like a less annoying Battleborn mixed with a cavalcade of [good] ’90s cartoons like SWAT Kats, and I dig it. It’s bright, silly, and has a good mix of macabre and cute concepts that do mesh well together. It does try to do a little bit too much in the end, as the rockabilly soundtrack feels out of place, and only seems to fit thematically with one of the cast members.
In fact, once you truly start to reside in its world the cracks start to show. The whole “asshole announcer” thing is so easy to screw up (just look at the flat Drawn to Death, also released this month on PS4), and Grox, the Jabba/Pizza the Hutt lampoon misses the mark with a weak script and an uninspired delivery. Does anyone else really miss the comedic stylings of Greg Proops and John DiMaggio from MadWorld? They would have been perfect here (or anywhere, to be honest).
Once you leap into the cockpit, things do cool off a little. Having to press different buttons to rise or lower your ship, as well as barrel roll or boost is tricky at first, but you get used to it — same with the utterly fantastic head aiming mechanic. If you aren’t prone to motion sickness you can easily spend most of the game upside-down, as Starblood offers a lot of freedom for its pilots. The same goes for its nine character-based ships (which remind me of F-Zero), with variations like snipers, machine-guns, shotguns, or hybrid weapons.
You’ll get the chance to use them too, as Starblood is mostly a deathmatch-based affair. There’s free-for-all and team variants, as well as a soccer-like gametype, and a horde mode. The latter I really appreciate given the lack of a proper campaign, and finding three other people to fight off an armada with is probably the best part. Everything is also playable offline, perhaps a sign of prescience in case the online community isn’t thriving months down the line.
On paper, Starblood seems put together. 12 arenas is quite a hefty amount to sift through, but many of them feel a little too small and uninspired. Weak gameplay is what mainly weighed on me over time, as combat simply isn’t as eccentric as the presentation would have you believe. Strategically, it ticks all the right boxes. I’ve gotten out of many jams with my wits and the tools at my disposal, plus counters are a thing and there is a meta at work behind the scenes — it’s not as arcadey as you think.
Yet, my biggest problem with Starblood is that flying simply doesn’t feel or sound exciting. The most obvious example is the boost system: if you click the left stick you can temporarily boost, which is par for the course for a shooter like this. But it’s just so…dull, even in VR. There’s no booming audio cue, no over-the-top Star Wars-esque light-speed light refraction. It’s so muted from a sensory standpoint that you can barely tell you’re even boosting. That principle extends to combat and flight in general, it has no weight to it.
Starblood Arena gets a lot of things right, but it failed to pull me into its world and feels dated on arrival. Although the fact that loot boxes aren’t tied to microtransactions is welcomed with open arms, it would have been much better served as a budget or even free-to-play game to help push the PlayStation VR. It’s weird to see the PlayStation VR launch with RIGS, an insanely polished game from a now defunct Guerrilla Cambridge, then put out Starblood months later.