Early Access: Sky Arena – Starfox Inspired Arena Combat

Four player split screen coop and online action? I'm in.
Four player split screen coop and online action? I’m in.

Console exclusives were dreamt up in a smoke filled room. Perhaps a rotund mafia don, puffing on a cigar thought up the notion of monopolizing game fans. There is no denying that this hardline sales tactic works for establishing a consumer base. How often are we PC gamers sitting around watching a title snub PC gamers (cough, Destiny) or get locked into a timed exclusive deal (cough, Tomb Raider)?. The triple A exclusive blockbuster titles on PC are far and few between (cough Half Life, Civilization, DOTA 2, Starcraft…). PC Gamers always take it in stride when they get locked out. From the guy with triple crossfire ATI ovens to the hermit still playing with his Voodoo2 GLIDE API games; well, we’ve all learned to just wait. Sooner or later, we will either see a better edition of that title on PC, or someone will try their own hand at recreating a console exclusive on PC. Starfox fans take note, developer Hammer Labs is hard at work making a game you might enjoy. Sky Arena rockets into the Early Access scene, aiming its targeting reticules towards recreating much of that beloved console classic to PC.

Add a little resolution, colors, and lighting and SkyArena (left) improves visually versus the classic Starfox Assault (right)
Add a little resolution, colors, and lighting and SkyArena (left) improves visually versus the classic Starfox Assault (right)

Star Fox’s long lasting broad appeal came from being an arcade shooter, not a hard nosed flight simulator. Featuring easy pick-up-and-play gameplay and low learning curves, the Star Fox franchise has thrilled millions. Once the single player fun was over, four person split-screen multiplayer provided additional longevity. Sky Arena draws on this multiplayer influence, and aspires to reshape an older classic into a modern gem. Aspects of this game, like the retro geometric look are instant recognizable elements of the Nintendo Classic. By infusing their game with vibrant colors and sharper crips resolutions, Sky Arena has a nice sparkling chrome finish- compared to its aging console influences.

Multiplayer combat is the focus of this game. Maps are designed to keep the players looping back into each other for head to head assaults. Zoom through caves, giant structures, loop into the open air, close quarters, or open space between opponents; it seems each planet offers it all. Dogfighting can quickly turn into a massive collision of shots and powerful beams; or settle into quick twitch chases that take you over, under, and even into the worlds you battle on.

 

Screenshots don’t convey how much fun Sky Arena has to offer. Especially when we’re talking bringing four friends to spar together in the same living room. I go “all out” when it comes to testing couch games (chips, dip, beer, farts, hairy bellies hanging outside of T-shirts, and more). Cooperative and social mechanics are something that demand being experienced first hand. Like our Jackbox Party Pack 2 review, this game was played extensively with a group of my friends.

My testing crews consisted of gamers aged seven years old to a young forty; ranging from experienced pros to casual gamers. An interesting pattern developed each time we played. Games would get off to a cautious start; perhaps it was new players getting used to the controls, or feeling each other out. Within minutes my friends were zooming by each other, laughing or gasping in desperation. At first, not a lot of chatter, but the silence died; faster than a ship running into well placed energy wall. Ten to fifteen minutes later…trash talking, jumping up and down, strange gang signs, and people demanding rematches. Changed friends around, and the results were the same.

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That’s what Sky Arena is; simple fun while encouraging fierce competition- from the moment you hit your thrusters. Controls feel natural within minutes. Ship maneuvers are as fluid as water off a space fox’s back. With four controller support, getting into aerial mayhem with friends is instant.

There are some drawbacks to Sky Arena, and part of this is could be due to having a small player base. Getting an online match going, without calling up my own friends, has been impossible. I’ve sat in the online lobby for upwards of 20 minutes, with no one popping in. Item pick ups are few, with little variety. While each character and their ship looks unique, they really offer nothing in terms of gameplay diversity. While fun at first, matches can become carbon copies of past matches.

Special weapons can be difficult to gauge; determining how far they reach, when they are about to fire, or what their effect entails, can be cumbersome. Take for example the power beam, which I think I’ve only landed twice by accident. A little more onscreen guidance or a tutorial mode versus bots can help players take it to the next level against their buddies.

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There are not enough four player split screen fun games in my Steam library. So even with reduced available content, its an instant hit in my home even at this early beta state. More content is something developer Hammer Labs is working on for future updates. They have mentioned 8 playable characters, and even 8 player multiplayer matches (couch versus couch, requiring two computers). Balancing new items and their placement will require time, but more is coming.

Still, I see a potential large obstacle that may prevent gamers from buying into Sky Arena. Star Fox games, with the titular character and his squad of animal wingmen, came with more than just couch multiplayer. The more time I put into Sky Arena the more lacking this aspect stands out. I know I am speaking about something that I want, never promised from the developer. It’s difficult not to compare every aspect between these two titles. Especially when hoping the PC platform could be used to deliver something great. Gameloft, for example, has been converting known IPs into mobile games for years- and mobile gamers eat it up. With a multiplayer game that is already smooth and polished, why not go the extra step? AI Bots to practice against would be the first natural wish, it could help players ease into online dogfighting. The rest would be up to Hammer Labs, but I’m throwing my thoughts out there regardless.

Our gameplay sessions have proven that Sky Arena has a lot to offer to couch gaming addicts. There is room to improve to take this title beyond the classic. The developers are welcoming feedback and ideas. If couch co-op mayhem, colorful and smooth aerial dogfighting is something you lock on to, then swoop in and give this title a shot.

 

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