If you’ve ever enjoyed a teamfight in a MOBA, I can guarantee you’ll get a kick out of Battlerite. That’s a bold opening statement, but Battlerite distills those clashes into tense, 10 – 15 minute matches where knowledge and reaction speeds are equally vital. Even if you wouldn’t touch a MOBA with a ten foot barge pole, this might still be for you.
Battlerite is Stunlock Studios' follow up to Bloodline Champions, with the same basic structure – and the essence of many of the heroes – ported over. That means it's a topdown game in which you fight in teams using abilities triggered via a skill bar. The game’s played either 2v2 or 3v3, with a best of 5 round structure. Each of the 15 heroes has 6 unique abilities, including an 'ultimate' that's especially powerful but requires an energy pool to be filled first by using other abilities. There are also two additional EX moves that use that same energy pool, which are usually alternate versions of normal abilities with souped up damage and/or added effects, though some of them are entirely new. It’s an idea borrowed from fighting games like Street Fighter, and it fits perfectly. On top of that, at the start of each round you get to pick one of three battlerites, each of which enhances an ability (or provides some other buff) that tailors your champion to a certain playstyle over the course of the game. More on those later.
There’s no denying things are overwhelming at first, even for veterans of Dota/League/Smite or WoW’s Arena. It’s a strange feeling, being catapulted back to the equivalent period of my Dota career where every hero and spell was a complete unknown. There’s a tutorial that does a decent job of showing you the ropes for one champion, but you’ll need at least a basic idea of what all of them do before you can start to excel. You’ll lose your first few matches, and likely keep losing every time you try a new champion. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
For a start, losing is fun! Unlike with Dota’s hour long slogs, Battlerite’s brevity makes facing up against a much better team far less demoralising. In 10 minutes you’ll be in another game, and this time you’re going to remember to use that ability you keep forgetting about. There’s no XP or items to worry about either, meaning you’re just as powerful as your opponents from start to finish. The level playing field means there’s always the possibility that a great play can turn the tide, imbuing every match with a tension that’s sometimes lacking from the game’s inspirations.
The fact that practically every ability (and every default attack) is a skill shot makes those game-changing plays far more prevalent, too. Of course, every hero has at least one mobility spell as well, meaning skilful dodges are a possibility as well as skilful attacks. Spectating from beyond the grave as two experienced players dance around each other is a treat to watch, as they anticipate and counter their opponent’s moves. It’s testament to Battlerite’s future as an esport, which the devs have said they're keen on pursuing once they’ve grown a big enough community. I’ve no doubt that there’s enough depth here to sustain a competitive scene. Beginners might struggle, but that’s part and parcel of any game with a skill ceiling as high as Battlerite’s appears to be.
Let’s talk about the champions themselves. It’s a diverse line-up, as you’d hope: stealthy murder frogs fight alongside time owls, spirits, gunslingers, trolls and more. Impressively, I’m yet to find one I haven’t enjoyed – which is remarkable considering I only play about 5 heroes in Dota. Despite my usual preference for agile damage dealers, I’ve found tanky characters and support focussed ones are just as much fun to play. That’s partly because every character is an agile damage dealer to some extent, and they’re all capable of holding their own when it comes down to a 1v1. Also, healing allies is challenging and engaging for exactly the same reasons that damaging enemies is, since you need to accurately aim your healing abilities.
There's good design baked into the core of the game, and battlerites are the icing on the cake. Choosing just one of the three available to you at the start of each round is an interesting strategic decision in itself. Do you want Croak’s poison spit to heal you for twice as much, or do you want to move 15% faster while stealthed? Do you want to increase your healing by 15%, or do 20% more damage to low health enemies? Many champions have particularly powerful synergies between different battlerites, which are a thrill to discover for yourself. I’ve just begun shaping my choices around which champions the other team has picked - there's no drafting phase, unlike most MOBAs - introducing yet another layer of skill to the game.
The good design decisions don’t stop there. All of the damage numbers are kept low, so it’s easy to keep track of how powerful each ability is and the impact that taking certain battlerites has on them. The champions' health pools are all at that sweet spot between ‘boringly large’ and ‘liable to explode in 1 hit’, preventing slow wars of attrition while allowing abilities to feel impactful. The arenas are small, but not too small, with an orb that periodically spawns in the centre that grants a bonus to the team who destroys it. It’s a neat way of focussing the action, with many decisive plays revolving around a well timed ‘last hit’ on the orb.
So, what could be improved? For a game that’s only just opened up for public early access, there are remarkably few obvious issues. I’ve a minor quibble with how small the arrows are that indicate where off screen players are – I didn’t even notice they were there until a friend pointed them out to me, several hours in. A more detailed tutorial would be welcome, to explain how the orb mechanic works as well as highlighting the synergy between each champion’s abilities: knowing how to combo certain skills together can make a massive difference. I’d also like to see the tooltips for each ability update as you pick battlerites. Oh, and the 2 games I played with the chat enabled were downright toxic. You’ll probably want to leave it off, and ideally find some more amiable friends to play with. None of that holds the experience back significantly – it’s mostly a case of making the game more accessible to players that don’t have a history with MOBAs. Even then, a couple of hours should be more than enough to learn the basics.
As with Dota, Battlerite’s already starting to feel like a different beast as I rack up hours in it. Improving at one element of the game frees up another to focus on, allowing me to incorporate more and more information into the decisions I’m making at every second. I’m not sure how deep this rabbit hole goes, but I’m hoping I’ll still be exploring it for many months to come.
Battlerite is available on Steam early access now for £15/$20/€20. When the beta is over, the game will be free-to-play.