In 2019, few genres are quite as fickle and difficult to predict as battle royale. Plenty of games have attempted to grab a piece of this lucrative pie over the last couple of years, but for every Fortnite, PUBG and Apex Legends there are countless others that have failed to capture that same zeitgeist. Usually when a BR title stumbles into obscurity - or experiences a brief 15 minutes of popularity - they tend to stay gone. But not Realm Royale. Its time in the sun came last summer, and while its player base dwindled to Anthem levels, publisher and developer Hi-Rez Studios wasn’t ready to give up so easily.
Now in its Beta phase on Nintendo Switch (and every other platform for that matter), Realm has been slowly evolving its core systems in order to keep the mechanics that set it apart from Fortnite - easily the biggest BR draw on Nintendo’s current-gen hardware - while trying to make the whole experience more enjoyable. Because BR games can be the most frustrating experiences: spending 15 minutes looking for the right gun, only to have someone snipe you from a distance and force you right back to the start of the cycle. It’s an addictive roll of the dice for some, but an utter bore for others.
Realm Royale rewards skill, map awareness and tactical prowess as much as any of its contemporaries, but balances that by offering more ways to empower you as a player (especially if you’re a little less experienced with this kind of game). At its core, it’s still a BR title. 100 players launch from a wooden blimp and skydive down into one huge, open map. There are chests to open, guns and loot to equip and a shrinking eye that periodically forces players into a smaller and smaller arena. Even the cartoonish art style will remind you of Fortnite’s similarly colourful aesthetic.
But spend a couple of hours in its company and you soon realise Realm has far more in common with Paladins: Champions of the Realm (the game in which Realm originated as a BR mode) and a more traditional MMO. Instead of starting out with an avatar that’s only distinguishable by its skin or whether it can perform a prepubescent dance move, now there are four classes. You can still use any weapon and any special ability while playing as a Warrior, Hunter, Assassin and Mage, but as you progress each one you’ll unlock unique traits (such as the Warrior’s power to heal squadmates with a shout).
So, you can build a playstyle from the off, with a class that works for you, but you can still drop abilities and weapons on the fly, should the situation demand it. It’s the first clue that Heroic Leap (the internal studio at Hi-Rez working on Realm) is pushing freedom and agency at every opportunity. As we’ve mentioned, there are chests everywhere, but these don’t remain empty once they’ve been looted. Now you can run up to any chest and - as long as there’s been a brief passing of time before it was last looted - bag lots of goodies. It’s a generous approach within an unforgiving format, but that’s not where the looting ends.
BR games often come down to chance. Sometimes you find the weapon you want, you might be forced to battle with something you’re not accustomed to or maybe you’ll die in the first 30 seconds of a match. In Realm Royale, all that gear you don’t want can be broken down into shards. Shards are a material currency that can be used at forges, which serve as crafting stations across the map. Gather enough and you can build anything from armour potions to full weapons at these locations. The toss up is these items take time to build, and anyone in the vicinity can see you’re building them, so forging often turns into a makeshift scenario as opponents rush to grab your newly forged gear.
When you are eventually downed, you won’t be forced to crawl in the way so many other BR games opt for. Instead, you’ll be turned into a plump little chicken that waves a white flag of surrender while you attempt to run away. If you can survive for around 10 seconds, you’ll be revived into your human form automatically, so even less savvy players have a chance at redemption if they can evade further hits for a short period of time. It’s a silly little mechanic, but it’s a generous one, and it makes matches a little longer as a result. You can even revive your entire squad (if you’re playing squads or duos), so there’s a benefit to waiting around in the event of your own demise.
Of course, this being a Hi-Rez game on Nintendo Switch, it’s not technically free-to-play on the platform yet. Much like Paladins before it, Realm Royale will (most likely) become free-to-play in a few months, but if you want access now you’ll need to cough up for the Founders Pack. For that you do get a few special cosmetic items and some crowns (Realm’s in-game, microtransaction-driven currency). With cross-platform play in effect, you can also be assured that there’s a greater chance of finding a match, although Sony isn't letting PS4 players join the party. We played for about 8-10 hours prior to launch and found a match every time. There’s also a Battle Pass, which functions much like the ones in Paladins and SMITE, but you don’t have to buy it to get the most out of Realm, it just grants you premium cosmetic content.
The Nintendo Switch version also runs at a relatively smooth rate. It’s been optimised well, with much less texture pop-in than found in the current version of Fortnite. There is the odd moment of slowdown, but it was so rare it didn’t affect our overall enjoyment. Some visual imperfections - such as tactical blurring and rasterization - are more obvious when blown up on a TV in docked mode, but we found Realm to run well in either handheld mode or when hooked up to a telly. Jumping onto your steed (which you can access at anytime to cover greater distances at speed) does occasionally cause your avatar to glitch to one side, but even this is a minor issue for a game that’s still in its Beta phase.
Some might write off Realm Royale as a Fortnite wannabe, and occasionally it can feel like one if you choose to play it that way, but the core principles of its gameplay bring enough new features to help differentiate it from its BR fellows. The unique traits of its four classes make a big difference, especially to teamplay, while the combination of forges (and their crafting potential) and the ability to seek shelter when downed (as a chicken, naturally) offer a more complex, and ultimately more forgiving experience. It’s also still in its beta, so expect Heroic Leap to be improving it for years to come.