REVIEW: Space War Arena

Wednesday, June 26th, 2019

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Space War Arena | Featured Image
Title Space War Arena
Developer Playchemy
Publisher Playchemy
Release Date February 27th, 2019
Genre Strategy
Platform Nintendo Switch
Age Rating E for Everyone – Fantasy Violence
Official Website

I admit to not being overly familiar with the original game that inspired Space War Arena. But as a fan of strategy games and blowing things up in space, I figured I’d give it a try, even if this review is a bit late. Mostly that was because it’s hard to find time to play games locally with a friend, and one of the key draws here was the local multiplayer. Thankfully, at E3 2019 I finally got a chance to play Space War Arena with my colleague Quentin, and after putting some 10 additional hours into the single player campaign, I think I’m finally ready to cover the game.

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From the outset, Space War Arena doesn’t look that revolutionary. It frankly looks a bit basic. So imagine my surprise when I boot up the campaign mode and find there’s an actual plot underpinning the action. You’re a sentient AI in control of a large space station. You’ve found other AI that are attacking, and your job is to fight back, learn from conflict and evolve. I mean that last part literally, since you can try out the evolve mode, and by winning battles there your equipped units get stronger.

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While the plot was very much appreciated, it was also somewhat rudimentary. Don’t expect to get attached to your emotionless AI as you play. You pretty much just move from one threat to another, defeating them and absorbing their new weapon schematics. But it’s nice to have just a little context to frame things with, and the plot provides just that. For any title like this, it’s far more important that the gameplay elements are tight and flexible. Thankfully, I can say Space War Arena satisfies those requirements, for the most part.

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The interface for controlling your ships in Space War Arena couldn’t be simpler. You move your cursor with the left joystick, and select ships by pressing and holding A. Then you can move them anywhere you want within a hemisphere in front of your station. Once you let go of A, the ship or facility will deploy, assuming you have enough Warp. You start out with 5 Warp each round, and generate a little more every few seconds. While that may make you think you can just pump out anything whenever you need it, the truth is a far cry from that. You need to be strategic, since your opponents generate Warp at the same rate as you, and they can also deploy units at lightning speed. So combat quickly comes down to almost a rock-paper-scissors style of battle. You’re required to be fast and think faster to be successful. That means remembering the specialty of each unit, like homing or acid, as well as their basic AI. That last part is especially important, since once you deploy a unit, it will go about doing whatever it’s supposed to. If it’s programmed to only attack enemy stations, it will, for example. You don’t directly control them at that point, so you just sort of pray and see what happens.

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There’s a lot of great strategic nuance in Space War Arena. Due to starting with only 5 Warp, I quickly learned to try and maintain a fleet of cost effective units. That translated to a lot of 1 or 2 Warp units, a handful of 3 or 4 and usually only one with a steeper cost. There are some units that cost up to 7 Warp, and those are very risky to deploy. If the choice is between putting out a mega unit or a horde of smaller ones, I generally found it was smarter to go for quantity. Further enhancing the strategy are attacks like a sweeping laser you can use to stun nearby foes. But it’s not just unit versus unit. Your goal is to take down the enemy station, and like you, they are protected by machine guns and shields. So it’s often a very smart decision to take missiles with you into battle. These are very cost effective, and you can fling them at ships to destroy them or use them to whittle down the enemy shield. Once their shields are down, your units can start carving them up, and that’s pretty much the loop of most of the game, other than when you face waves of enemy ships.

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Pretty much the only issues I had with the gameplay were the following. While I like the basic flow of combat, it gets harder and harder to know what ship to deploy the further you get in campaign. That’s because every mission you beat, you’ll get a new ship, attack or facility. By the time I was done playing campaign, I easily had 20 or so different choices. Which is great, except that it’s not always clear what the right answer to defeat a given unit is. I tried my best to beat campaign fully, but I got stuck on one mission where the opponent had a missile that spread into a wave formation, annihilating anything in its path. I tried a good dozen or so times before I finally gave up. I was also a little frustrated that the screen never displayed what my opponent’s current Warp total was. Had I known, I would have been better able to gauge what they planned on throwing at me next. Without that knowledge, it just made already challenging stages even harder. Especially once I discovered that each stage has a time limit, and if you can’t beat the enemy station fast enough, you lose. While most battles last less than 2 minutes, the tough ones seemed to take forever.

Space War Arena | Campaign Length

All those points on the map are stages.

As for the multiplayer, it very much feels like the best mode of the game, with one proviso – it requires you and your opponent to play on the same Switch console. I don’t mind splitting Joy-Con, but I would have loved playing on my screen while my opponent played on theirs. This seemed like a awkward decision for a game on a system like this. Other than that, I really enjoyed all the bouts I played in multiplayer. They were fast, fun and often would tilt back and forth before one of us reigned victorious. I managed to play this mode a handful of times, and would definitely recommend it over campaign. Though I do kind of wish my opponent’s ships were color coded differently, if only to make it easier for me to tell friendlies from foes.

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Aesthetically, though the game is relatively simple, it’s also far from ugly. There’s a great variety of ship designs, and I enjoyed the visual effects such as flashing lasers, green contrails on missiles and massive explosions. The interface for selecting your ships is uncluttered and easy to use, and that goes a long way to making the game fun. On the sound side, there’s tremendous effects for all the combat, but one oddity – the music only plays after combat. During combat, there’s lots of ambient noise and not much else. Paired with the HD Rumble, you can really feel the game shake and jive, and that’s great, but I really would have loved some music while I was fighting.

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All in all, I did enjoy my time with Space War Arena. It wasn’t perfect, but for $14.99 this is a very solid and enjoyable game. Though I would have loved a few things to be different, I’d say this is an easy recommendation to any strategy fan. Granted, the game isn’t for everybody. But if you want a complex yet simple game that’s easy to play in quick bursts, then Space War Arena is the game for you.

Review Score

Review copy provided by publisher.

About Josh Speer

Josh is a passionate gamer, finding time to clock in around 30-40 hours of gaming a week. He discovered Operation Rainfall while avidly following the localization of the Big 3 Wii RPGs. He enjoys SHMUPS, Platformers, RPGs, Roguelikes and the occasional Fighter. He’s also an unashamedly giant Mega Man fan, having played the series since he was eight. As Head Editor and Review Manager, he spends far too much time editing reviews and random articles. In his limited spare time he devours indies whole and anticipates the release of quirky, unpredictable and innovative games.