Clashing in the clouds

On another planet Earth that’s very different from ours, human history has taken a dark turn. The discovery of Aether early in the 20th Century granted mankind almost limitless power – and sparked a war for control of that power unlike any ever seen. Great Aether-powered flying machines plied the skies, raining devastation down upon the cities below until there was virtually nothing left. From the ashes of civilization, a desperate humanity founded the United Nations, which took control of the few remaining Aether extractors and replaced war with The Games – battles between champions for control of the Aether.

That’s the story behind Aerena: Clash of Champions, the new online battle arena game from Cliffhanger Productions, and it’s a pretty good one. “We’re proud of the original story behind Aerena (actually we got carried away and wrote MUCH more than necessary), and this will increasingly show in the upcoming versions,” Creative Director Jan Wagner told me. “I think the care and love for the universe we created helps set us apart from the more utilitarian approach of many other games.”

Aerena: Clash of Champions

Aerena is different from other entries in the MOBA genre in other ways, too. Wagner acknowledged that comparisons are inevitable, but said that Cliffhanger’s game has little in common with other battle arenas at the gameplay level. “We really wanted to create something that combined the tactical depth of a game like chess with the sort of personalized play style you see in a collectible card game. So, each champion has set strengths and limitations, and building your team is one layer of personalization, but then you refine that even further by stacking your deck, so to speak, with abilities from ships and Aether shells,” he explained.

Aerena is turn-based, but the time limit per turn also adds a speed-chess element to the gameplay. It encourages players to really dig into their teams’ potential combinations and develop strategies,” he continued. “On the flipside of that, getting hit actually gives an Aether boost, so matches stay competitive until the end. After all, we want people to win through skill, not because they happened to land the first blow.”

The action takes place on small playing fields, with very small teams of just a few champions on each side that are engaged from the very start. It’s a design that confers two distinct benefits upon the game: Matches are usually short and sweet, a big plus for people with just a few minutes to pass on their mobiles or tablets; and sharp, focused tactics are a do-or-die proposition.

Aerena: Clash of Champions

“The smaller the field, the more each decision matters. Every movement and action can immediately affect the possible strategies and counter-moves for every champion, forcing you to constantly think ahead and adapt. That sort of intensity doesn’t happen if it takes four turns just to meet your opponent,” Wagner said. “If you want a one-hour match on a huge map, there are plenty of MOBAs out there that provide that, but that’s not our game.”

Aerena will be released as a free-to-play title, but like many studios today, Cliffhanger is doing all it can to ensure that free players don’t get left behind. Players who want to keep a champion in their lineup permanently or acquire a specific package of Aether shells may pay to do so, but all champions will be available at no charge on a rotating basis and random Aether shells will be handed out “extremely readily,” Wagner said. The only things that will be exclusive to paying players will be special visual items like skins.

“We look at it this way: Being free-to-play ensures that there is always healthy competition at every skill level (i.e. newcomers aren’t just getting steamrolled), so we need to make sure that even non-paying players have the ability to win matches and have fun,” he said.

Aerena: Clash of Champions

And it is fun. Two steampunk-style flying ships dock on either side of a grid-based floating “Aerena” and then offload their champions, chosen from an array of bizarre characters ranging from a former actress to a disaffected dock worker, a fist-fighting genius to a psychologically ruined veteran of the Aether Wars, and several others. The object is simple – knock the other ship out of the sky – but taking advantage of your champions’ strengths, exploiting the weaknesses of your enemy’s, and managing your supply of Aether makes getting the job done a real challenge. Aerena currently offers a Proving Grounds to get your feet wet, but the real fun is in the online League play; the release version will also offer a “light single-player campaign” that will serve as a backdrop to your rise to “Aether Master.”

Other planned features include non-ranked friendly matches, unique powers for each ship, and of course more champions, Aether shells, and arenas. “Progression and missions/achievements will also come in by the end of March, with XP, Rewards, and Trophies. Further down the line we will have Unions (our version of guilds) so teams can compete, and we are experimenting with 2v2 maps and other variations,” Wagner said. “Thinking more long-term, we really love the Aetherpunk universe we created, so a turn-based RPG in that setting would be great. But first we want to become the most popular cross-platform, tactical arena game out there. ;)”

An Aerena: Clash of Champions “Founder’s Package” is available now through Steam Early Access, while the Android alpha version, which looks and plays virtually identical to its PC big brother, is available at no charge from Google Play. An iOS version is “coming soon.”