This is Portabliss, a column about downloadable games that can be played on the go.Solstice Arena appeared on the App Store last week. It's a MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) game in which you choose a hero and play a top-down 3v3 match. Using various spells and abilities, you attack the opposing heroes and try to take out their towers before they do the same to yours. It's deep, well-balanced, and it's an inventive take on the burgeoning genre, designed from the ground up for mobile platforms and touchscreens. And oh yeah, it was published by Zynga.
The mention of Zynga may conjure up more thoughts of smarmy farm animals and dessicated drawing games than it does words like "deep" and "inventive," but that's kind of the point. Zynga picked up the developer A Bit Lucky last year, and then immediately put them to work on something that could change the company's reputation, a "mid-core" title that did more right than it did wrong.
And though you may be surprised, Solstice Arena succeeds at that task. It's probably not the next League of Legends (though Zynga wouldn't mind if it was), but it does represent the inklings of a new leaf for a huge casual game publisher on the wane.
Outside of the developer's story, Solstice Arena is just a simplified but smart MOBA. Gone are the genre's minions and extra lanes – instead, the whole experience has been boiled down into a three-on-three brawl, with a chest of gold in the middle to periodically fight over and three towers to topple on either side. Games are shorter than League of Legends or Dota 2, and heroes only have three abilities which often crossover into different purposes for convenience (a spell that heals and knocks back, for example, or a damage nuke that also buffs fellow teammates).
While Solstice Arena's mechanics are simpler than its PC brethren, the genre's strategic depth is still there. There are twelve heroes to use in the game currently, with plenty more on the way, according to A Bit Lucky. And each hero has a sign (Sun, Moon, Stars, and so on) that can be powered up with buffs picked up on the field as the game goes on. Positioning and teamwork are also very important. While playing the game on a 3G connection isn't ideal, it's possible, and playing the game on wi-fi provides a very solid experience.
Many of Zynga's other titles are known for their oppressive freemium schemes, but again, Solstice Arena is designed to convince you that the company can do better. The heroes themselves are set up like League of Legends, in that you get a rotation of a few free heroes every week and then can unlock more, either with in-game earnings or currency purchased with real-money.
Cosmetic skins can also be purchased, and then there are boosts for earning more XP and points, but those boosts only affect your single-player progression, not the multiplayer game. Overall, the freemium model is well-done. A Bit Lucky was smart enough to let the game's balance stand alone, and prop the monetization up outside of that. If you do want to spend real money, there are substantial rewards to buy, but they never feel required at all.
Whether this release is enough for Zynga to win over the hearts of more dedicated players is yet to be seen, but between publishing Horn, producing Battlestone and now this, the company is clearly aiming for a less casual audience. If all of Zynga's attempts to woo core gamers come out more like Solstice Arena, they just might be on to something.
Solstice Arena is available now on iTunes as a free download.