Save for an hour of noodling with Guardians of Middle-Earth on PS3 many years ago, the entire MOBA movement has essentially eluded me. Flagship titles like League of Legends and Dota 2 have a home on PC, a platform I don’t play games on. Furthermore, my eyes tend glaze over any time I try to watch a match or have someone explain to me how these games work. Probably the same reaction I get from most people when I go in-depth about fighting games.
With Arena of Valor on the Switch, it’s an opportunity for me to meet the genre half way. I can play it on a platform I routinely use, and the game from what I’ve heard is a more streamlined version of the genre’s titans. After two hours of play, did I enjoy my time with the Switch MOBA? And could this be a stepping-stone towards the real deal?
Based on my limited understanding of the genre, this game seems to retain much (if not all) of the genre’s pillars. Its main mode groups players into teams of five. Starting on opposing ends of a square battlefield, they fight their way along the map’s three lanes, until one team is able to destroy the opposing team’s main tower.
You take control of one hero and have full control of their movement and abilities. All of the game’s characters feature abilities that allow them to work in the traditional RPG archetypes such as tank, DPS, and support. Taking well-worn design cues from other games in the genre, they do look kind of generic in nature. That said, they look good to me and their attacks are cool to look at in action.
When the battle begins, it’s up to you to charge forward, destroy the towers, and take down any enemy minions or heroes from the opposing team. Aiding you in this process is a robust upgrading system that unlocks new moves and items. By defeating enemies, you earn money that can be spent on these upgrades. Since I didn’t spend much time reading what everything did, I entrusted auto-buy to take care of it. Should I press forward with the game, I’ll take the time to learn what works best for my style of play. Having all of these options is great, as it gives you lots of ways to customize your character to your liking.
Taking direct control of your hero, you move your character with the analog stick and trigger moves with the face and shoulder buttons on the controller. It’s straightforward enough, but there’s a level of detachment from my physical inputs to the actions being performed on screen that I found really jarring. Instead of firing instantly, there’s a slight input delay that occurs beyond the standard input delay created by the TV itself. As someone who plays a lot of action games, this delay goes a long way towards taking me out of the action. Despite having direct control of my hero’s movement, it’s almost like I’m inputting a command to my unit in an RTS versus me being that hero and casting a spell. Understanding the genre’s roots, it makes perfect sense that it behaves this way, but I still find it odd, though something that can be overcome with practice.
Another aspect of the combat that didn’t feel quite right to me was the movement and defensive options. With movement mostly limited to walking, or walking faster with the right perk, the act of combat felt very binary. It felt less like fighting and more about waddling my character in-and-out of the circles in order to land a hit. Without any system-level dashing or blocking actions, I felt it was a bit too limiting. The depth comes from walking in the right ranges, upgrading your characters to be stronger, stringing together your attacks to create combos, and working with teammates to take down other heroes. In moments where I strung together the right sequence of attacks to mow down a foe in a blink, it was awesome. However, I wish there was more to positioning and defense to make the combat more satisfying.
Coordination seems like a major element to Arena of Valor and other games of its ilk. I can see how having pairs of characters in a lane can create powerful defensive and offensive possibilities. Executing on that teamwork is really hard on the Switch. Without any native voice support, it’s really difficult to create any sort of synergy with a team of strangers. Best played with an external voice chat app and a full team of friends for maximum effectiveness.
At this point, I have a long way to go before I’m an expert at Arena of Valor or any MOBA. Still, I’m glad to have played it for myself for the sake of having that first-hand experience to draw from. My foibles with the game’s combat do give me pause, but it certainly didn’t push me away from the genre, either. Even while I wrestled with the input lag inherent to the game (and presumably the genre), I really enjoyed playing as Natalya. She has this devastating beam special move that was so satisfying to use, as it could drop heroes in an instant. If I played with more of the roster, odds are there are more characters that would tickle my fancy. The true test would come from being able to play this with a whole squad of friends. I think the game would really shine in that format. I’m not in a rush to dive deeper, but I won’t turn down the chance to play this with friends if/when the time arises.