Alina of the Arena is a deck-building, roguelike strategy game from Taiwanese indie studio, PINIX. It’s been out for a while on Steam and the Switch but has now found its way over to PSN and it should be of interest to fans of games such as Slay the Spire and Into The Breach (the greatest game on the Switch).
You play as Alina, a gladiator thrown into a series of arenas, who has to kill enemies for a baying but grateful crowd. This is a turn-based affair and is set across three levels each comprised of fights, elite fights, shops and meditation points and each one ends with you fighting a ‘champion’ (essentially a boss battle).
Now, Alina of the Arena does some really good things and is a good game but it doesn’t hold your hand at all at first. There are no tutorials and barely any explanations of the game’s mechanics. Any explanations you do get are in the form of text which doesn’t always make sense and that’s a theme that continues through the game when you find new cards and items. Sometimes it’s pretty tricky to work out what some of these things actually do. But you’ll do well to persist with it because what you get here is a rewarding strategy game that plays out over a short time frame.
The short version is that Alina starts each turn with a random handful of cards and she can play as many as her action points allow. Initially, she starts with three action points each turn and the cards she holds will use up one or more of these, so you have to pick wisely. On each turn she’ll hold an ‘Initiative’ card which allows her to move one space on the hex-based arena (this was initially confusing because it’s such a limited amount of movement for this type of game) but that disappears whether or not it is used. After that she’ll then be using a combination of ‘strike’ cards (to attack enemies) and ‘defense’ cards which provide armour or retaliation attacks.
After each turn your cards will be discarded and replaced with a new handful and while there are some mechanics based around picking up cards from your discard pile and whatever, they really aren’t brilliantly explained. We found it easier to literally just play the hands we were dealt than try to figure out some of that stuff.
There are quite a few extra things to consider though. For example, your cards are linked to weapons in each of your hands and these weapons add extra damage to your attacks. You can even have ranged weapons but these require reloading (again, something that isn’t explained very well). You also have another slot for potions/traps. And the crowd will sometimes throw new weapons and items into the arena for you to use. There’s a lot going on but you will figure it out reasonably quickly. While our first go on Alina of the Arena was baffling, our second was reasonably successful in comparison and by our third or fourth we were starting to make good, tactical decisions.
At the end of fights you’ll get to pick new cards from a selection of three and if you find a shop you’ll be able to buy new weapons or upgrade existing ones. And over time you’ll start to ‘get it’ and that’s when the game starts to shine. After a pretty sketchy start we began to get those Into the Breach vibes, using enemy attacks against them and mixing our offense and defense to win battles and take out bosses. There’s a degree of roguelite-style progress to the game too because you’ll be unlocking new classes to play as and doing well in one run will help your next one as you earn coins that can be spent at the start of a run on new items.
The only real let down for the game, aside from its lack of early hand-holding, is around the presentation. The chunky 16-bit visuals are kind of ugly. We don’t mind a 16-bit style (Into the Breach looks fine) but it’s not attractive here. That said, the music is suitably stirring for this type of game, so that’s good. The presentation issues also show up in the game’s interface. The various screens seem more designed for a mouse/keyboard or touchscreen set up (to be honest, we’ll probably buy this for the Switch once we finish putting in hundreds of hours into Brotato, which is the game of the year for us) and so things are really a bit complicated here. Especially as a lot of the selectable elements on the screen aren’t labelled.
But once you figure out what you’re doing, which won’t really take all that long, things do fall into place and then you’ll just be having nothing but good, tactical fun with lovely bite-sized campaigns (although we’re a bit annoyed that we can’t save mid-campaign). To be honest, this sort of game is right up our alley, you can’t beat a good, simple-ish turn-based strategy game and while it’s a shame that Alina of the Arena doesn’t quite nail the presentation and signposting, once you get into it, it becomes as addictive as butterscotch-flavoured cocaine. So, battle your way through those first impressions and get battling because this is good.
+ Great mechanics
+ Wide selection of cards, items and weapons
- Doesn't do a good job of providing the player with key information