I’ve always loved strategy games. From sitting in my dad’s lap and watching him play Master of Orion 3 on an old Dell CRT monitor to losing dozens of hours of my life to Hearts of Iron IV, strategy games of all kinds have always appealed to me. The genre forces you to think, overcome, and adapt to the situations involved; it makes you feel smart after beating any enemy or conquering a solar system. It’s just so satisfying.
From Wargroove to Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and the upcoming Fire Emblem: Three Houses, the Nintendo Switch has become a powerhouse for strategy aficionados looking for their next great adventure. That why when I saw Space War Arena, a real-time strategy game from Ecco the Dolphin creator, Ed Annunziata, I was excited. After all, what could be more exciting than a real-time, space strategy game on a console that can be played both in both portable mode and on the couch?
It turns out: a lot of things.
The Plight of Randomness
In Space War Arena, the goal is to destroy the enemy’s base before they can destroy yours. You accomplish this by sending out units to engage the enemy and attack their base. The game has you select eight units to engage the enemy in each battle. Each unit you send uses a certain number of “warp” points that regenerate every couple of seconds; if you don’t have the “warp” points, you can’t build the unit. Typical strategy fare.
Until it isn’t.
See, the computer in Space War Arena randomly selects four of your eight units for you to use at any given time, not only at the beginning of the mission, but throughout it as well. That means that, when you go into any match, you’re essentially guessing what you’ll have at your disposal.
What, you expected to have that one, key unit to destroy the enemy’s fighters at the beginning of the mission? Nope, you’ll have to randomly spend “warp” until you get it. Start off with only missiles and defense turrets when you need to rush the enemy? Too bad. Adapt or die is the name of the game in Space War Arena and the game is all the more frustrating for it.
When you win in Space War Arena, it doesn’t feel earned (perhaps the enemy just got a bad draw). When you lose, it doesn’t feel like you did anything either because, given the circumstances, there’s likely a chance that you began the mission with a bad roll and you had no shot of beating an already advantaged enemy.
To top it all off, the units feel incredibly situational. Some, like the Banshee, which destroy fighters, feel completely useless in some circumstances and overpowered in others. Units that counteract other units are commonplace in strategy games. However, not knowing what units your enemy will have before fighting them adds to the aggravation.
There were times that I brought carriers to a match only to have their fighters completely obliterated by a turtling enemy. Other times, I tried to rush the opponent, only to have my own base destroyed in the process. The randomness serves as yet another notch of frustration in an already aggravating game.
A Struggle Against Oneself
Space War Arena is one of the hardest games that I’ve played in years; not because it’s legitimately challenging, but because its difficulty curve is poorly designed. As a result, it’s an absolute chore to play through. The AI on both player and enemy units is some of the worst functional AI that I’ve seen in a strategy game. With no ability to control your units’ behavior other than marking the direction and location of their spawn, it feels like there are two enemies whenever you play Space War Arena: the opposing base and your own AI.
The player’s AI doesn’t seem to make distinctions between unit types. Some frontally shielded units, like the Crusader, routinely stop and turn around to fire at enemy ships, exposing their unguarded flanks to enemy fire. Similarly, carriers send wave after wave of fighters to suicide missions against the enemy base instead of sending them back to protect the home base from capital ships.
If the game allowed me to control the way that the units moved or somehow bypass the terrible AI, that would alleviate many of the issues. However, it doesn’t and that makes the game that much more frustrating. I’ve never had a strategy game feel so little like strategy and so much like randomness than in Space War Arena.
The aforementioned difficulty spikes are a major pain as well, mostly during the “upgrade” missions present in the main story. In these scenarios, your opponent starts off with upgraded stats and you need to beat them in order to augment your own stats. The enemy will seem almost unfairly overpowered, dominating you in as little as a minute or two. It seems like this was the developer’s attempt at getting the player to gain experience for their units via these “Evolve” side missions, since units don’t level in the main story (which is, in itself, a major oversight.) However, it comes across more as needless padding meant to artificially extend the game’s length than anything else.
Instead of feeling like a unique challenge, these random difficulty spikes are perhaps the game’s most major source of frustration, grinding your progress to a halt and forcing you to play side-missions in order to have a prayer against an overpowered enemy. Some series, like Fire Emblem do a great job of incorporating fun side missions that allow chances to meet new characters and level up. Space War Arena is not one of those games.
A Small, Shining Hope
That’s not to say that every aspect of Space War Arena is completely without hope. The technical side is, perhaps, the game’s highlight. Firstly, while the game’s visual design is incredibly generic, it runs at a smooth, consistent 60 FPS, which helps to maintain clarity in the middle of battle. When most Switch games struggle to hit 30 FPS, much less 60, this is something especially praiseworthy. Similarly, the game also runs at a pretty high resolution. Whether or not it’s running at native resolution when docked or handheld, it looks good in both modes.
On occasion, the game’s design does come through. When the frustration has dimmed down, there’s a faint glimmer of fun that comes through the disappointment in Space War Arena, a special feeling that can only be replicated given the game’s innate aggravation. When your back’s up against the wall, you’re about to lose, and you pull it off despite the odds, there’s nothing quite like it. The common thread between these scattered moments of joy was that, in each one, I felt like I actually had control over the outcome of the battle (not a feeling that comes often in Space War Arena, given the game’s innate randomness.) There aren’t many games that I can say make me feel that same way, for better or for worse.
Where many well-designed strategy games make you so engaged in the process of playing that ten minutes quickly turns into three hours, Space War Arena is the exact opposite. Playing this game for as little as ten minutes feels like an hour.
It’s a shame, as there are some flashes of brilliance in this game, sometimes when it’s legitimately fun to play and satisfying to win. But, sadly, those flashes are hidden beneath a sea of problems. Artificial difficulty, poor unit AI, lack of player control, and no leveling-up during main story missions drag down Space War Arena.
The sad fact is that all of these issues could be easily fixed with a patch. If developer Playchemy could nerf the overall difficulty, fix some of the buggy AI, and add some quality-of-life changes (such as earning experience from story missions), the game could be a whole lot better.
However, as it is now, I can’t recommend Space War Arena to anyone. Even hardcore strategy fans are unlikely to find any joy in this mess of a game. You’re better off spending your $15 on any of the myriad other acclaimed strategy games than you are trying to squeeze an ounce of enjoyment out of this.