Realm Royale's class-based combat is clever but it leans too heavily on genre cliches

There's always that moment in Fortnite when I engage an enemy player and they start hastily erecting a goddamn fortress and I realize I've lost because my clumsy fingers just cannot build that quickly. I love Fortnite, but I just do not have the patience to try and learn how to build. That's why Realm Royale, an Early Access spin-off of Hi-Rez's Paladins, first appealed to me. 

On the surface, it's Fortnite without the building. But Realm Royale has more going on than I initially thought. Its class-based combat and crafting system evoke World of Warcraft PvP in a really exciting way. But an over-reliance on the same structure seen in every other battle royale makes it hard to appreciate. 

Keepin' it classy

Realm Royale's class system really forces me to think on my feet.

The main hook of Realm Royale is the class-based combat and abilities. When I join a match and am dropped into a lobby, the first thing I need to do is choose which of the five classes I'll play. Each one has access to different spells, abilities, and a few unique weapons. It's a smart idea that immediately injects a little variety into that same routine of dropping, looting, and fighting because different classes can have wildly different approaches to combat.

Each class uses two abilities from a possible four that are usually looted from chests or dead players along with varying qualities of damage-reducing armor and weapons like assault rifles and shotguns. These abilities (and a few weapons) are class-specific, but they're only one part of what makes your class unique. Passive bonus and a movement ability like the hunter's dodge roll add a lot of flavor to each playstyle. The engineer, for example, passively regenerates armor points, can launch straight into the air, and has access to abilities like being able to drop an automatic turret or protect himself with a big shield. The assassin, likewise, moves faster and can teleport short distances while throwing down smoke grenades or Ghost Walking to escape a bad situation.

What I love about this system is how much depth it adds to fights without making them impossible to follow. Unlike Fortnite or PUBG, where I'm mostly listening for what kind of gun they might have to help inform my strategy, Realm Royale's class system really forces me to think on my feet. If fighting a mage, I need to anticipate that she might use Iceblock to nullify incoming damage and regain some lost health. And I should think twice about chasing a hunter into a house on the off chance they've laid a trap for me with a proximity mine.

Like Fortnite, fights are fast and hectic but they're far easier to parse too. While there's no chaotic eruption of walls and floors to frantically navigate, there's still moments where an almost dead enemy can turn the tide with a clever play. During one fight inside a house, I had a mage turn tail and zip out a window, fly around the corner and come back in through another one behind me. I didn't even realize what had happened before it was over.

But even when the mage shotgunned me in the back, things weren't actually over. One interesting wrinkle Realm Royale adds to the battle royale formula is getting killed temporarily turns enemies into a giant chicken that you then have to kill a second time. It's essentially no different than being downed in Fortnite or PUBG except you can run and jump (and gobble incessantly) and this even happens in solo games. If I survive for 30 seconds without being killed a second time, I'll turn back to normal with reduced health and can continue the fight.

I have a real love-hate relationship with this system. If I'm in a squad, it's great to not be deadweight the moment I die. In the chaos of a fight, I can scamper off and (hopefully) stay safe long enough to revive. Instead of being a liability, my team can just focus on winning the fight and I can continue taking responsibility for my own survival. But, at the same time, downing someone just to have them cluck off before I can finish them is maddening—especially in solo games. It's not all that fun to win a fight and then spend another ten seconds chasing an enemy just to finish them off. I haven't had one instance where me or my enemies have managed to evade long enough to revive in a solo match, so it ends up feeling like a needless process.

Part of that has to do with Realm Royale falling into that same pitfall that Fortnite and PUBG haven't escaped from: There is rarely a happy balance to the flow of combat over the course of a match. I either drop into an area where I'm fighting a few players between vast stretches of boredom or I land in a hotspot that typically ends in defeat because there were just too many people. Having people turn into chickens during the later makes already frantic free-for-alls even harder. 

Arts and crafts

Realm Royale nobly tries to alleviate this problem with its crafting system, but it's not a perfect solution. In most major settlements on the map exist especially large buildings which house forges that can be used for crafting. While looting, unneeded pieces of gear can be disenchanted for shards which, in turn, can be used at the forge to craft especially powerful armor, weapons, and abilities. Doing so takes up to a minute, however, and anyone nearby can tell the forge is running due to the massive plume of smoke rising out of its chimney.

It's a promising feature because forging is the only reliable way to get the best gear but it also makes you vulnerable to nearby players looking to kill you and steal that epic-quality loot. If you're near the center of the action on the map, it'll certainly drive combat your way. But it's also just as easy to run to the fringes of the circle and use an isolated forge thanks to each character having access to a speedy horse they can summon at will. It's like having a car at your disposal at all times, which kind of trivializes how easy it is to get places or outrun the slowly collapsing circle of death.

As much as I like these ideas, though, they feel kind of lost in the all-too-familiar routine of battle royale games.

This epic-quality gear, especially the unique class-specific weapons and abilities, can really turn the tide in battle and it's practically mandatory to have some going into the final minutes of a match. Other players certainly will. Fighting over them at forges, then, makes for a great conflict driver in that long stretch between the beginning and climax of a round.

As much as I like these ideas, though, they feel kind of lost in the all-too-familiar routine of battle royale games. At the end of the day, I'm still jumping from some kind of aerial vehicle onto an oversized battlefield filled with named clusters of buildings that all feel and look the same. I'm still enduring long stretches of boredom as I run from house to house collecting gear. And, though Realm Royale is a promising battle royale game, I'm reaching the point where scoring that coveted victory just doesn't have the same emotional rush that it used to.

Realm Royale is also still only in alpha, which means there's a ton of work Hi-Rez needs to do before it can even hold a candle to Fortnite. Though I often tire of Fortnite's building system, the weekly challenges and ever-evolving map and game modes keeps me invested. There's a very compelling metagame behind Fortnite that Realm Royale doesn't have.

In the same way that Heroes of the Storm became the accessible third option for players turned off by DOTA 2 and League of Legends, I can see Realm Royale becoming a haven for players sick of Fortnite and PUBG. It's surprising success on Steam already indicates as much. There's an undeniable charm to the clever way it innovates on combat and looting. I just wish Realm Royale expanded that vision to subvert more of the genre's stale tropes.