A neat idea, but lacking refinement
After just a few minutes of BattleSouls‘ open beta it became apparent that this was the kind of game people would commend for its ‘potential’. It’s the standard formula: If a pre-release game is heavily flawed but also has some promising aspects, it has potential. It’s an astonishing leap which involves reviewing an amorphous mirage of what the game might be in a few months time instead of the game itself.
Video game potential actually bears a striking resemblance to gravitational potential, insofar as literally everything imaginable has it. Potential is a smokescreen, obfuscating not only a fledgling game’s shortcomings, but also its merits; such is the case with BattleSouls.A PvP action game based on infiltrating the enemy base and destroying their crystal, the key draw of BattleSouls is its central ‘class switch’ mechanic. Before each match you choose your ‘loadout’, consisting of three characters from a possible selection of five (plus a question mark portrait, suggesting that a sixth character is on the way). In-game you can switch between classes seamlessly with keys one to three, which, along with the rest of the controls, are fully rebindable. While undoubtedly an interesting feature, the class system as a whole is hampered by the overbearing simplicity of the gameplay.
Each character has a unique primary and secondary attack, which, in terms of active offence, is your lot. While there are certain ingrained complexities – the Wizard is better for support with his freezing spell, while the gunner is better for all-out attacking with her area-of-effect bombardment, for instance – there’s not enough to fully exploit the possibilities of class switching. There’s also a specific effect upon changing to a particular character, which, while a clever addition, doesn’t do anywhere near enough to properly distinguish between play styles. In the end, the class switch seems like elaborate trickery – a sleight of hand that diverts the player’s attention from the lack of combat depth.The object of the game is to destroy all three of the enemy’s crystals. To be more precise, you must attack the first crystal until it disappears, at which point the second crystal will appear and so on and so forth. Due to this being a video game, your team will also have to defend against the same hoo-hah going on in your own base. Before you can even make the slightest dent in that crystal’s life meter, you and your intrepid comrades must gain control of the central ‘inhibitor’. When captured, the enemy crystal is vulnerable to being sliced, shot or spelled to death.
In addition to all of this, there’s also a kind of ‘side crystal’. Capturing this point will give all of your teammates a minute-long boost to stats such as armour, damage, and speed.
The system itself sounds agreeable. There’s a deliberate progression to assaults and a strategic decision is required as to how many teammates should tally forth and attack and how many should stay behind and retain control of the inhibitor. That’s the plan, anyway. But as Burns so presciently taught us:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley / Especially when the AI / Is poorly programmed.
And it just so happens that BattleSouls‘ AI bots are singularly dreadful.
Most immediately noticeable is the fact that AI will never change from the wizard class. That’s no particular help or hindrance – as stated, all of the classes are not greatly divergent – but it does betray a lack of depth to bot design, and limits the possibilities for battle within the game.With none of the erratic movements indicative of human input, the bots’ pathfinding is depressingly predictable. They’ll move uniformly in a tight-knit cluster to the inhibitor’s location, a robotic phalanx dutifully toddling off to wherever the script commands them, disturbed only by single units occasionally diverging from the pack if an enemy moves within a pre-defined distance. When the inhibitor is captured, the bots move out single-file, like a collection of implausibly polite holidaymakers rushing off to the buffet. Not only does this displace you from the world of high-octane ramshackle PvP to an altogether more grounded, sterile world of PvHighlyOrderedComputerRepresentations, but it also has a demonstrably negative effect on gameplay.
As mentioned before, an integral requirement of successfully playing BattleSouls is allocating time between defending the inhibitor and attacking the crystal. The AI brainlessly captures the inhibitor and moves to the enemy crystal, thereby allowing the opposition to capture the inhibitor and move to our own crystal – repeating the cycle ad infinitum. The experience is akin to the humdrum tedium of working in a production line, only nothing is actually produced. You can choose to valiantly defend the inhibitor alone, battling against five opponents as your lobotomised teammates meander across the map, or you can wait by the crystal, taking quick pot-shots in the ephemeral moments that the inhibitor is captured and little by little bringing the match nearer to its inglorious end.
There are occasional glimpses of what the gameplay could be when you’re able to find a match with a sizeable group of human players. It’s not enough to patch over other issues, but it does hint at the boisterous action a fully-populated BattleSouls could allow. Still, the unfortunately meagre player base currently means that the struggle with computer players is a relevant one.Aesthetically, it’s an altogether happier tale. The character designs have that Blizzard-style cartoon sensibility about them with just an air of the fantastical. It’s no mean feat to have a death-like spectre appear alongside an armour-clad warrior and a wooden-legged, blunderbuss toting pirate, and for the result to still feel congruous. The maps have that similarly bold pastel-infused style, with ancient ruins bursting out of verdurous hills and rope-bridges acting as tethers between different chunks of land. While picturesque, it’s worth noting that this is a template from which the three map rotation never strays far, thereby running the risk of growing stale through repetition.
Animations are highly variable in quality, with the Warrior’s primary attack looking like an annoyed swish rather than a mighty blow and certain characters sinking rigid into the ground upon dying. In other areas, however, the animation excels – particularly regarding the wizard, who seems to be the most fleshed out character of the lot.
BattleSouls isn’t an outright disappointment, but there’s clearly still a lot of work to go. It’s currently in open beta, and, considering all the evidence suggesting that these developers are listening to player feedback and harbour a genuine passion for the game, it looks like there will be considerable changes made before its release.
To summarise: It’s not there yet, but, like everything in the observable universe, it has potential.