The battle bus purrs, the flight feathers on all four of its wings fluttering in high-altitude winds. The living vehicle zigzags its way across the skies, a supple furry body following the lead of a bear-like nose.
The 20 occupants in the passenger compartment of its saddle look down, beyond purple paws, to the island below. And one by one, they vacate their seats – falling to earth with the same disregard for gravity and parachutes you might find in a Marvel hero.
This is Battlerite Royale, the self-explanatory new mode for Stunlock Studios’s MOBA. It’s easy to be cynical about this kind of reactive adaptation – what business does a MOBA have entering the battle royale arena? Yet this is exactly how Fortnite started – as a rapidly developed alternative mode for an utterly different game.
It’s that fact that makes it impossible to dismiss any new contender out of hand, and in Battlerite Royale’s case, it’s good that we didn’t – since Ali and Jeremy have had a cautiously fun time playing in the beta.
Jeremy: I’m curious to know what kind of preconceptions you came to Battlerite Royale with, Ali, ‘cos I know I had plenty. What did you think it was going to be?
Ali: I did think it was going to bigger – I’d had an eye on Battlerite when it was originally released, so I knew roughly what I was getting into in terms of combat, but I was a little surprised when I only boarded that beautiful battle bus with 19 other players. That said, once you’re in, it’s not a problem. The bells that ring out when a player is killed offer a reminder in the style of The Hunger Games that even if you can’t see the action, it’s still going on.
What I was concerned about was how well Battlerite would deal with its characters. Hi-Rez very clearly ditched the idea of maintaining the varied roster of Paladins when launching Realm Royale. But they’re all still there in Battlerite, and I was initially cautious about taking melee heroes – let alone supports – into battle.
Jeremy: Yes, the supports are strange, aren’t they? The abilities that explicitly mention healing or buffing allies are still in there, which might make a certain amount of sense in Duos but absolutely does not in solo play. Then again, perhaps it’s best that players, not developers, work out which heroes work in this new context – the most capable characters rising to the top just as they do in MOBAs at large.
It’s true that the top-down perspective changes things, too – you’re not scanning the skyline the way you do in PUBG or Fortnite because there simply isn’t one. Instead, I found myself listening for attacks and footsteps, sitting silently in the long grass. What’s odd to me, though, is just how much this feels like other battle royale modes, despite the wholesale switch of genre. In particular, the economy-building that’s so central to MOBAs turns out to be a perfect analogue for the weapon and resource gathering of Fortnite.
Ali: That top-down perspective also makes for some very interesting early battles. Whereas Fortnite fights are almost always fatal, I regularly found myself in minor skirmishes that neither me or my opponent felt we had to commit to. You start out with a simple projectile and, normally, one other skill, but if you scuttle away and open the right cache of items at the right time, you can entirely change the tide of a battle with a brand new ability.
I also liked how far beyond each hero’s abilities the game goes. I escaped from one fight through a mysterious portal, while I ended another by dropping an enormous meteor in a choke point. The idea that everyone can fend for themselves is something far more central to the battle royale than the MOBA, and Battlerite’s dealt with it quite well by giving everyone some extra tools to play with.
Jeremy: Oh yes – I spent one match being repeatedly ambushed by the same opponent, who used a launch pad on the map to fire himself up into the air and land practically on top of me. After I died, I spectated for a while and observed that same phenomenon you did – the half-committed battle royale. Even in the final three, I watched my killer casually fend off another player with the occasional zap from his palm, while focusing his attention on cracking open an airdrop. It’s an approach to dropping in and out of engagement that definitely comes from Battlerite’s MOBA roots and alters the way battle royale encounters play out quite significantly.
Against the odds, it does work. But do you think people will stick with it?
Ali: These days, it’s hard to say. Battlerite felt like a bit of a flash in the pan at times, and the team aren’t half making it difficult for themselves, pivoting from one competitive genre to another. But the new mode potentially opens the game up to a more casual crowd – despite my lack of Battlerite knowledge, I had some decent fights and secured a couple of podium finishes – while still offering a way for people to develop. The concept of a ‘main’ is far more suited to the MOBA than the battle royale, but there’s no reason not to pick a favourite character and stick with them. To me, that offers a significantly longer tail than something like PUBG, and isn’t too dissimilar to the set of skills you need to learn in order to succeed at Fortnite.
I’m not sure there’s enough of a crossover to appeal to people who are fed up with the third-person shooter take on battle royale, but for the foreseeable future, Battlerite is likely to be the only alternative for people who don’t like guns.