Review: Arena of War

Edit: FYI this game is no longer available so don’t bother looking for it. 

A licenced D&D property, Arena of War is a mobile game for the iOS (and soon Android) set in the Forgotten Realms. It ties into The Sundering, where the gods are working through mortal champions to determine their future in the world. According to the Sundering website, the game will some influence on the final outcome of the Sundering, like the published modules (starting with Murder in Baldur’s Gate), and Encounter seasons.

Newly released, this game is a freemium time-waster game, best compared to the Angry Birds franchise and similar games. It’s also fairly similar to most Facebook games in that you can only play for so long before you run out of Energy – which regenerates in real time – and have to come back the next day to continue playing. It reminds me of a simpler version of Dragon Age: Legends, with less complicated gameplay (and no ability to do things like build castles or craft).

How You Play

You touch your character then drag back to launch them forward. Much Angry Birds. For melee characters they charge forward and attack. For characters with ranged attacks, they move forward based on how much you pulled back and then fired their ranged attack straight ahead.

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You can also use powers. On your character’s turn, at the bottom of the screen are powers usable by your hero. These last a certain number of attacks and recharge after a certain number of turns. They generally grant a percentage bonus to the damage of your next hit. I believe some also reduce damage. I’ll get more into powers later.

The gameplay does have a subtle complexity. If you bounce an enemy off a wall and they rebound back into you, you hit them multiple times. If you pinball an enemy into another enemy both take damage, and if you pinball an ally into an enemy (or enemy into an ally) the ally gets a free attack. This applies to enemies as well, who can hit multiple allies or strike multiple times. This creates a Conga Line of Death.

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The numbers can get pretty high pretty fast, so I’m not certain of the balance of these multiple attacks. You can see single attacks range from 20 to 30 damage and then spikes well over a thousand after explosive terrain, bouncing walls, and repeated blows. But your health ranges from 200 to likely 1000, so attacks that deal 3500 are excessive to say the least. If you are positioned poorly, you can get devastated pretty darn quickly.

Despite the deceptive simplicity there’s some strategy and tactics required for the gameplay. Grouping up on tougher monsters is handy, as you can get multiple attacks with a single action. But this is risky as it can leave you open for a painful counterattack. You’re told the next two creatures to act so you can weigh the benefits of grouping and likelihood of winning.

Launching your hero requires less finesse than Angry Birds, as you just need to get the direction right. This can be tricky across the screen but the majority of the time it is not hard to hit your target. There doesn’t seem to be any obvious benefit for pulling back just the right amount to reach your target rather than all the way, at least for for melee attackers. For ranged there can be a little more variety as you can choose to keep them out of melee.

The execution is inconsistent. Not every enemy will rebound as per expected, sometimes not moving at all. And if you launch in-between two enemies they won’t separate as in billiards: your character will just hit one and ignore the other.

The gameplay is also fairly static beyond a couple damaging encounter areas (flaming vents and poison clouds) and the occasional teleporter. One of the initial demo quests shakes up the dynamic by having a wall down the middle of the encounter map, but no other maps really change how you approach the fight. There are no puzzles or problems to think or strategize around.

Quests and Story

Like many RPGs, you have a map of locations called “Adventures”. Each Adventure contains around four zones, called both “Stages” and “Quests”. You cannot advance to later Adventures/ locations until you finish each Stage/Quest in an Adventure. Once you complete an entire series of Adventures a new region is unlocked, represented by a book.

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You can replay quests for lesser rewards and experience. However, replay is not identical as the location of bad guys seems to change between attempts (and even the bad guys in a quest are sometimes inconsistent). The random element keeps quests dynamic, as you can sometimes be challenged by lower level quests, but also means you can’t try and “perfect” a quest through repeated attempts. There’s also no visible scoring in Quests; either one character survives and you win or all die and you lose.

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So far there are three regions with increasingly hard monsters and longer combats. Monsters in Quests have a level denoting the difficulty but these are a rough guideline as much lower level characters can attempt a quest providing they have high stats. There is no real way to tell if a quest is an appropriate challenge save making the attempt.

There is also a fourth Region (Undermountain) that was unlocked during the time of this writing with special quests. These were higher level but offered alternate rewards (fewer treasure chests and more scrolls).

There is a story for each area and Adventure. But these quest dialogues are only a couple sentences long. The story generally amounts to “something bad is going on” which leads to four combats in four slightly different areas culminating in a boss monster that is a regular monster only 25% larger who can take a few extra hits. I’m not even particularly sure there’s enough content to even call the game’s narrative a “story”. I’ve seen more story in a fighting game. There’s not even static cutscenes of chapter ending finales. Just the single piece of recycled concept art of Isteval who comments on your previous quests like they were significant. (“Mind Flayers? That is a dangerous revelation of importance. I am certain it is vital. But let us never mention them or even hint at the Underdark ever again.”)

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Each time you attempt a Quest it uses energy. You start the day with 100 energy and a quest uses roughly 20, so you can attempt roughly five quests in a sitting. It takes roughly an hour to regain enough energy to attempt a new quest, but your energy fully recovers a couple times a day, allowing you to play before and then after work or school.

You gain experience for the successful completion of quests, which periodically grants you levels. Levels potentially increase your stats and give you a free power. There are other reward in addition to experience, with the most common being powers and scrolls. Occasionally you’ll also receive a health potion.

As is standard for this type of game, there is a daily rewards for logging in every 24-hours. And there are Daily Quests, which are options to replay earlier quests for better rewards than a standard replay. These pop up roughly 24-hours after the last time you attempted daily quests, so it’s quite possible for them to occur later and later in the day. My daily quests began at 4pm but are now closing in on 11pm. Soon I’ll either have to miss a daily quest or log in during the middle of the night.

Gaining Powers

The power system in Arena of War is similar to a trading card game. You get treasure chests for completing quests, and inside each is a power of random potency. There are Common powers, Rare powers, and Ultra Rare powers. And more potent versions of the three (Common+, Rare+, and Ultra Rare+). Commons, Rares, and Ultra Rares are different powers and do not share art or names. The + powers share names and art with their counterpart. For every Common power there is a Common+ variant with slightly better stats and slightly modified art: different colours, flipped icon, more dramatic spell effects, etc.

Powers have two effects. You can activate them for a bonus in combat, typically a percentage increase to damage with a duration based on its rarity and level. As a static benefit they increase your stats (attack and hitpoints). You can have two active powers (ones usable in combat) and several passive powers that just boost your stats.

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The rarer the powers the better the stats and the longer the combat effect, but also the longer the recharge. Rarer powers will also sometimes have an Area Effect. Although there are a few “meh” combat powers in Rares; I initially have poor Rare powers and used Common+ powers for my attacks and relegated my Rares to stat boosters.

As your characters share powers, the stats of all your characters will be roughly the same. There’s not much difference between a level 1 character and a level 5. Although low level characters level up more quickly doing harder missions. And as your energy recharges when you level up, it’s actually beneficial to have several alts, presuming you want a longer play session.

Powers also have a power source: martial, stealth, ranged, arcane, divine, and primal. Each character class has an affinity to one power source and those powers have increased numerical bonuses based on the character’s level. But this is pretty small: 1% per level. So being a level 10 fighter means a martial power increase in potency by 10%, from a 70 to 77. If all your powers come from the same source (unlikely) this bonus might be the difference of a hundred points, which would allow you to survive half an attack.

For example, I have a level 6 fighter with the stats 477 and 483 and a level 2 barbarian (using the same power source) is 468 and 474. The extra 5% from levels amounts to 9 extra attack and hp.

There are quite a few powers. While you can currently only get Ultra Rare+ powers, there are apparently Legendary powers planned.

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As mentioned, you typically gain powers by opening treasure chests gained from quests. There are two different types of quest that you will see: Gold and Iron. There’s space for a third but that doesn’t seem to be implemented yet.

The difference between Gold and Iron chests is uncertain. Both award Common to Rare powers. Different pools of power maybe? Different odds of Rares?

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As this is a freemium game, you can give them money. They want you to give them money. In this game, this is mostly through buying chests. $3 will get you a chest with a Rare, Rare+, or Ultra Rare power OR a chest with a Rare+ or Ultra Rare power.

Let me repeat that, for the same price you can get a chest with either three types of rarity or two types. Even more ironic, the Rare+ to Ultra Rare chest was discounted to$1 at the time of this writing making the other chest even sillier of a purchase.

There’s also the $10 special chest that gives you four powers from Rare to Ultra Rare, aka $4 value but with a guaranteed Ultra Rare.

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This means the game is very much Pay 2 Win. If you give the game money, you will win more.

Powers also have levels, and the higher the rarity the higher the maximum level.

As powers can level up, it means a high level Common or Common+ power can become the equivalent of a starter Rare. So you can continue to play and compete without purchase, you just play longer and open many more chests.

You increase the potency of powers via Fusion. If you have doubles of a power (which you will) you can combine them to make the power stronger. The details of this are a little fuzzy and there’s not really a detailed tutorial. The fusion system seems needlessly complex. The complexity means it might have some flexibility for gamers with mastery of the system, but for casual players (i.e. the primary audience of the game) it will likely be confusing and lead to mistakes and inefficiently used powers and scrolls.

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It also looks like you can combine unrelated powers at the moment using all your unused powers to fuel a few choice powers. There are also scrolls (of the familiar C, C+, R, R+ frequency) that can be used to boost powers. Scrolls are a common reward from Questing. It does not specify the reason for rarity in scrolls, but I assume they’re more effective on matching powers. But unless you’re throwing money at the game you’ll have far more R and R+ scrolls that R and R+ powers, so those will likely end up boosting C+ powers. And I’m uncertain why you would ever want to boost a C power with a scroll.

Currently, fusing powers is a MASSIVE time sink. After questing you can easily end up with twenty chests and thus an equal number of powers. And you have to combine powers in the right order, fusing lower level powers onto a higher level power. Fusing a C+ onto a C power doesn’t promote it into a C+, and while fusing a level 1 power onto a level 3 will get you a level 4 power, fusing a level 3 onto a level 1 will likely get you a level 2 power (3 at best). There are a few ways of sorting powers but these are inconsistent and do not always work, so there is inevitably a TON of flipping and searching for your hidden high level power so you can fuse a lower level power onto it.

As mentioned, powers do have a level cap. So it’s possible to hit the cap and effectively stop advancing in power until you get a number of Rares. As the gameplay progresses, to offer a challenge to characters armed with multiple high level Ultra Rare powers there will need to be quest difficulties far beyond the ability of Rares. The long-term sustainability of the game is questionable: either it will become too challenging for free players or too easy for anyone who pays.

The drop rate of Rare powers is also low. Having opened hundreds of of chests I have found only a couple Rares. It seems to be in the 0.5% range.

Faux Social Gameplay

The game is online. You need to have access to the internet, and ostensibly you can form groups and use friends’ characters.

This can be a bit skewed as it encourages you to find someone who is a dedicated player and group with them, as having a strong group greatly increases your odds and survivability. Casual players need not apply.

Really, there’s no reason NOT to get help for a particular adventure. It doesn’t seem to lower your experience or treasure. To advance beyond the first few adventures help is all but required. Joining with a powerful group also makes winning so much easier than it’s silly not to hunt for a group with high numbers.

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However, the social aspect does not seem to be implemented yet.

You can “Ask for Help” and get some random people added to your group, but these seem like pregenerated characters. There is no transfer of information: the game doesn’t connects to its main server to download a random person’s group. I’ve also seen the same characters again and again and again (and having learned the most potent group group I often just refresh until they become available). The random groups also use a number of classes you cannot normally gain access to (the Tier 2 characters), well before anyone would be expected to have earned them. So in many ways this is a preview of content you can look forward to unlocking.

This is actually rather frustrating as there is such a limited pool of competent NPC helpers. It doesn’t pull from a list of comparable heroes or characters of your level so there is a wide disparity of power levels. Some have stats 1/4 of my character’s and some have stats 2x my character’s. When starting out more help was better so it didn’t matter if it randomly assigned you equally weak heroes, but at higher levels being continually assigned far weaker heroes is a pain.

Annoyingly, these random bot characters have a weird assortment of names. Names that make you think of someone’s internet handle with a bunch of random numbers to the end so it’s unique (Such as Gamer25436692 or tdev13). Rather than make the pre-gens personalities & famous NPCs in the Realms – or at the least names that sound like they’re in-world – it seems like a deceptive attempt to make you think you’re gaming with actual people’s characters. Admittedly, it *could* be betatesters or the dev team’s characters, but I’d hope people with first dibs naming characters would be a little more original. And renaming the NPCs into something more world appropriate would been a nice touch.

In the actual social screen it’s pretty obvious the game isn’t connecting yet. There’s tabs for Facebook and Twitter but these are locked out. You can search for other people and you’ll find them but it doesn’t let you create a party with them just yet.

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The game still notifies you that someone has sent you a party request:

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However, if you follow the link it tells you that you have no messages. There’s a break somewhere in the social system.

There’s also invite codes. You can type in a code if someone referred you to the game, and in theory that will reward the person who told you about the game. Likely with a random power (my money is on another Common power…). Invite codes are visible on the bottom of the Social screen, as can be seen in a couple images above.

However, when you enter the invite code it tells you that the code is invalid and that the device has already been used to enter this code.

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I tried it on multiple iPads with no luck. This feature just does not seem to be working. It’s frustrating that they don’t just say this feature is not currently working and either blank out the Friend Invite Code or place to enter the code.

Other Features

There are a number of characters you can choose. You can’t pick you class and race as those are set combos. All fighters are dwarves, all barbarians are half-orcs, etc. You can choose your gender and a few colour options.

There are also locked classes. These are Tier 2 classes. When you get two appropriate classes to level 8 you unlock a Tier 2 class (and another power usable in combat). Tier 2 characters can also have two power sources, making them inherently better (if only slightly).

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Most of the Tier 2 classes are 4e classes, like the shaman, warlock, and monk. But a couple are things like the ninja or pirate. Curiously, the half-elf ranger also does not work towards any of the Tier 2 classes (but the tiefling rogue counts towards two).

From the Character Sheet screen it looks like they’ve left room for Tier 3 and Tier 4 characters. I imagine those require tediously getting every class to level 8 or a couple Tier 2 characters to level 8. Although, as mentioned, as you share powers across your account by the time you unlock a Tier 2 character you should be quite potent and they should be able to quickly gain levels.

Death is frustrating. It’s never fun but to fail in a game, but as you lose the energy you spent attempting the adventure, it feels like a greater loss. The hour spent regaining energy was just wasted. When you die in battle you are given the choice of using a potion to continue the fight. You can use up to 3 in a single battle before it’s considered lost. A single potion revives the entire party.

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Potions are occasionally awarded for completing quests. But are rare enough that you really don’t want to use them unless you really have to, such as being at the final wave of a hard quest and only a couple monsters left. And, of course, you can spend real money to get more or better potions.

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If you do die, by giving up or running out of potions, the game taunts you a little by offering suggestions of how to get better. The options amount to “Spent money in our store”, “Do some timekilling busywork”, “Grind endlessly”, and “Get something you likely already did days ago”.

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The above criticism is overly harsh, but the “Get stronger powers” button is needless shilling. The best way to make money is to make a game that is so fun to play people want to give you their money. Most freemium games do this through extra content, so you pay for more game. If they keep dying or feel stuck reminding them they can pay to win is a bit of a dick move, especially since it’s very likely the power curve and swingy combats of the game led to death.

Levelling up provides so little of a benefit (a 1% bonus to the numbers of a fraction of your powers), advising people to gain more is silly. And frustrating, as you likely were questing. Repeating quests also gives much less of a reward than a new quest.

Really, the best advice would be “try again with a group of higher average power” or “stay away from the rebounding wall”.

There are a number of unimplemented features, in addition to the absent social tabs. In the settings there is a tab for Auto Fusion. Which would be glorious. Assuming it was able to combine powers in the right order.

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There are also titles which are unexplained. From appearances they increase your damage. But I have no idea how to gain titles. From the name at the top (Undermountain Titles) I imagine it’s related to the launch event.

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(Also check out that glitched button on the bottom left.)

There’s also a Hall of Fame and rankings, but given the presence of locked classes at the top, this is likely beta testers, Devs, or just place holders. Of course, with the sheer advantage paying for R+ gives you, I imagine the rankings will very quickly become the domain of people who sink the most money into the game.

Final Thoughts

Arena of War seems to want to capture the same market of quick time-waster casual games as the myriad of free smartphone games. But it feels more like a Facebook adventure game with its energy usage and limited ability to play. The penalty for failure is much steeper than the usual casual game so you’re not encouraged to keep playing the same content again and again to get a perfect rating. Not that there’s a way to keep score.

The gameplay is particularly swingy. It’s very possible for a single bad combo to halve your health, or worse. The range of numbers is high. And the difference in power level between a good assortment of leveled powers and a bad is steep, making for some walls in the content where the enemies are simply too potent for the unlucky.

The powers have an element of random cards and collectibility. But managing the powers is a colossal pain, potentially requiring as much time as actually playing through the quests. And the chances of getting Rare powers are so low that your ability to collect them all is pretty much impossible removing the draw of obsessive collectibility.

The game also lacks the tone of D&D. You can’t pick the combination of your class and race. And any class can use any powers. There are precious few iconic spells, and the ones that do exist are often mechanically identical to martial or sneak powers. Core D&D elements like Ability Scores, AC, alignment, and saving throws are absent. Classes don’t have unique powers or bonuses. The only real D&Disms are the classes and races, which appear in 95% of other fantasy games. Plus the unique monsters. Just including an Illithid isn’t enough to make a game into “D&D”.

My main impression from the game is “unfinished”. The social aspect of adventuring with friends isn’t working. The Twitter and Facebook sharing isn’t working. Auto fusion isn’t working. Not all the rewards are available. Not all the classes are available. Balance is a little shaky. And the difficulty spikes in a number of places necessitating grinding. The game simply DOES NOT feel finished. I’m reminded of many other games where the budget of the expensive development cycle was exhausted and they had to go live to start paying for the costs. But an unfinished game doesn’t exactly inspire people to give them money to play, let alone continue playing. And development teams have a tendency to be moved to other projects once games have gone gold, so the polishing and final fixes might be slow to be released. Or, as the Android version is not yet out, working on that version while the iOS version gets ignored. Confidence is not inspired. However, I could be very wrong here. I have heard the studio (Mobage) has released unpolished games before but followed through with greater content, more features, and improvements. So the game might get much better in the following weeks and months.

It’s doubtful the game would attract much attention or interest had it not been a licenced game of a name property. There’s very little that stands out and is unique or remarkable. It’s just another quick mobile game like a myriad of others.

The game really lacks the casual gameplay to attract a non-D&D gamer. There’s too much fiddly power management. The requirement to play at the game’s scheduled and not the players also hurts casual play. This reduces the benefits of a mobile game: being able to quickly play whenever and wherever. And the game also lacks familiar elements of D&D in terms of execution and gameplay to attract fans of that game. There’s solely a veneer of D&D. Changing the names of some IP would easily turn this into Arena of Warcraft or Final Fantasy Pinbattlers.

The game also ostensibly connects to the Sundering, but the actual “how” is uncertain. It would be easy (and fun) to allow players to pick their deity, choose who they are the champion of, and use that to determine how many champions succeed at their tasks. Succeeding at small events might also have an impact. But this isn’t really implemented yet in the game. So it’s going to be the people who stumble across the game later who can influence the Realms rather than players who tried the game right away and left as those features were not included.