Games like League of Legends and Dota, because they cover a lot of ground, are loosely termed Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games. But Battlerite, which left early access in November, is one of the few games to actually meet the technical definition of MOBA, and that’s what makes it such a compelling alternative to the mold.
Battlerite didn’t really start out as Battlerite. The first take on the 3-on-3, team-on-team fights was developer Stunlock Studios’ previous game, Bloodline Champions. If Bloodline was the rough draft, Battlerite is the final paper. The idea of Battlerite is to distill long, overwrought games down to a barebones teamfight. Battlerite is a non-stop deathmatch—there is no build-up or slow down, no grander strategy, no focus on objectives. You enter the arena, and the winner is the last team standing.
It pits teams of either two or three players against each other in a somewhat-circular arena. The geography sometimes changes on the edges, but for the most part, it’s a symmetrical battlefield with a circle in the middle.
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You control a single hero, and usually the matchmaking does a good job of putting together a decent team. Players fill out three basic archetypes: tank, damage-dealer, and support. The characters’ design makes it easy to tell what their role is. If you have a big hammer or shield, you should be leading the charge. Damage-dealers are usually ranged and have to hang back, relying on accuracy and timing to take out enemies. Supports keep everyone healthy and also help the team with shields, auras, or by adding more damage to the fray. This simplified approach extends into the arena matches, which don’t bother with any sort of gold farming, item buying, lane management, or towers. The sole objective is to eliminate the other team.
Every ability is available at the start of a Battlerite match, unlike games like League that require heroes to hit certain levels before they can acquire new skills. Abilities can be modified using a pre-game loadout to add extra effects or increase their potency, but all the tools are given to players right at the outset. It’s what you do with them that defines a match, as your team moves back and forth, testing the no man’s land between each other, jabbing for an opening. It distills the big climactic matches of team-based games down to rounds, and it means every second has you active and responding to threats, doing cool stuff in the process. You never stop shooting, firing arrows, or attacking to do busy work.
Your special meter, built up by using abilities or securing a big ball that spawns in the middle of the map, determines when and how you can use big abilities like your ultimate. You can also spend some meter to empower a normal ability, similar to Street Fighter’s Ex moves. It’s a risk-reward, though for some characters it’s a no-brainer what to use. I will always save my meter for alchemic support Lucie’s big acid splash zone, but I usually forego healer Poloma’s crowd-controlling ultimate in favor of spawning her a companion that mirrors her healing and damaging bolts of energy. Battlerite forces you to make choices on the fly on when to spend meter and where, and it keeps an even enough balance to make those choices meaningful but not crushing. You always have enough special meter generating to do neat stuff in a match, but you’re never so awash in it that you can spam without thinking.
I normally play tanks in team-based games, but Battlerite has me leaning towards healing and supporting, thanks to its smart use of health. When you take hits in Battlerite, you lose some health from your bar, but when you exceed a certain threshold of lost health, you start losing maximum health. It’s like if your car’s fuel tank shrunk every time it used more than a gallon of gas.
While you can replenish maximum health using the green orbs dotting the arena, healers are limited to patching wounds rather than mending them. It not only makes hits more crucial and lasting, but it allows supports to take a more active role in the fight. When I play Poloma, I’m not spending the whole match just shooting my teammates full of healing bolts, but actively fighting back. She’s not only a healer, but an initiator and a damage-dealer, more of a threat than a pocket support. It makes supporting in Battlerite way more engaging than most other team-based games.
Battlerite is an actual multiplayer online battle arena, rather than just using MOBA in lieu of “another League of Legends clone.” Fights teeter between tension and chaos, because you always have an opponent right in front of you, rather than spread out across a massive map. It’s a team-based, top-down, strategic game of party combat, pitting players head-to-head and forcing them to make choices on the fly, to read incoming abilities and react accordingly.
Over the course of its early access period, Stunlock has added a lot of improvements. They’ve added a cleaner interface, new outfits, even new(-ish) characters, but the real work has been in the numbers and the code, iterating on a solid concept to make a MOBA that is actually a MOBA. It’s a little premature to make bold predictions about the game’s longevity, but Battlerite is certainly one of the better games to come out of the flood of new MOBAs, by virtue of just trying to be itself.