Aerena is a tactical battle game that stands out in a very crowded field thanks to its surprising shift away from the freemium play-to-win mechanics that plague almost every other game in this category.
When I initially launched Aerena on my iPad, I immediately found myself in the first of three mandatory tutorial battles. At first, I was a bit irritated because I usually like to poke around in the menus before I play to see what's what. However, thanks to a very well designed interface and a perfectly balanced newbie battles, my irritation quickly changed to enjoyment as I quickly grasped essential game strategies, and sent my opponents into oblivion. After finishing the tutorial, I landed in the main menu and set about collecting my accumulated rewards, which, I noticed, were quite generous. I then launched the in-game store to see what sort of paywall I'd be facing as I moved deeper into the game. Imagine my surprise when I saw that the only way to purchase Champions and ships was with currency earned in-game! This can't be right, I thought; these games are ALWAYS freemium. I later learned that Aerena has been around on PCs and Macs for a few months now, and was originally received with disappointment due to its use of the same freemium business model that is so common nowadays on mobile. In February, however, around the time of its iOS launch, Cliffhanger games did the unthinkable: they converted their game from free-to-play to premium, and launched the iOS version with the same business model. There is still a premium currency, of course, but it can only be used to purchase skins and other cosmetic enhancements.
Gameplay occurs on a chessboard-like grid, with each opposing ship anchored on opposite sides. To win, you must destroy your opponent's ship. It is rarely this easy, however, because his/her champions are trying to do the same to your ship. Like card battling games, strategy involves deciding whether its best to attack an enemy on the board or the main enemy itself. Unlike card battle games, however, movement and position of your team members are everything. In order to attack, you will need to move your units within range of your target. Some champions are melee and some are ranged, but none can hit the opposing ship from across the board so everybody must advance to attack. The board itself also presents a challenge in the form of obstacles and special tiles. Most tiles do nothing, however, some give additional aether to the team that occupies it, but some will damage or even kill a champion that steps on it. Of course, these harmful squares are pretty easy to avoid during movement. However, the knockback ability of some attacks can land you in hot water pretty quickly so pay attention to where you step as well as what's behind you. There are also special attacks that both your ship and your units can make once they accumulate enough aether. These are generally game-changing attacks so use them wisely. Aerena is primarily an online game to be played against other humans, although there is a practice mode for the uninitiated and a single-player survival mode. Finding opponents is much easier than usual thanks to the fact that Aerena supports cross-platform multiplayer, which greatly increases the number of opponents online at any given time.
If you're an avid strategy gamer who laments the dwindling desktop gaming experience available on mobile, then it's time to put your money where your mouth is and drop $5 to support a developer who is trying to swim against the freemium current. Aerena plays exactly like its desktop counterpart at approximately 1/3 of the price, and will never reach into your pocket as you play. Parents: do yourselves a favor and start paying once for Apps like this and stop being squeezed for in-app purchases by your offspring.
Aerena's graphics are all 3D models, and the characters look great as they move about the board. Each champion has a very unique appearance, and the attacks are varied and fun to watch.
The sound effects are quite good, as is the music. But the real star of the show is the narrator, who does a great job of bringing a sense of theatre to each battle without getting tiresome.
I can count the number of good premium (buy once, play forever) online strategy games available on the App Store on half a hand, and Aerena is a fantastic addition to this endangered species. I can easily recommend it to anyone with half an interest in online tactical strategy games, yet I fear that it will fade without ever getting its due, thanks to the freemium clamor of its genre. If you're still on the fence, there is a free version available as well, that will give you a chance to take it for a test drive.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
Graphics: - 5 - Wacky post-apocalyptic graphics, that explode with style and enthusiasm Sound: - 5 - Great sounds, great music, and a fantastic narrator. Controls: - 5 - Learn to play in less than a minute, thanks to its clean and intuitive interface. Gameplay: - 4 - It loses a point for no true single player experience, but otherwise, it's fantastic.
Playing Hints and Tips:
Don't forget to use your special attacks. They will turn the tide. Focus fire on one unit at a time when possible as units do full damage until they are destroyed. If your attack does more damage than the enemy can absorb, the overflow hits the enemy ship so don't worry about wasting an attack of "6" on an enemy with "1" health.