The king is deceitful, the queen is wicked, and the bishop unholy. In every land it’s the same. Welcome to Urja, a single player first-person shooter, but with a twist. You won’t be playing as a career criminal, mowing down innocent civilians in a drive-by, and you won’t be playing as a spoilt brat trying to rescue his friends from a jungle warlord either. No, you’ll be controlling one of the world’s oldest game characters, the chess pawn, as you attempt to overthrow your superiors and take control of the king’s throne.
You won’t be trapped as a pawn for long though, if you can kill a higher ranking piece, or “entity”, that is. Entities carry a life-force inside of them known as “energy”. Energy has a dual purpose, and as well as acting as your life bar it also acts as your ammunition. Using it you can fire debilitating shots at your enemy. A well-aimed shot will incapacitate them temporarily allowing you to get up close and literally suck the life out of them. But wait, there’s more! Once you’ve killed a higher ranked entity you can become them. As you move up the ranks you become stronger, faster and gain special powers. The knight has the much sought-after ability to erect a shield to protect him from incoming attacks. The rook can create temporary glass structures to blockade doorways and ensnare unsuspecting entities. As a man of God, the bishop has been bestowed with the ability to resurrect the dead, bringing them back into the fray. You’ll have a hard time reaching those ranks though, never mind taking the king’s throne from him
Urja is cripplingly difficult, sometimes off-puttingly so. It can become commonplace to start a round, only to be cornered by several other highly ranked entities, ending your round before it has even begun. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, there appears to be no structure in terms of entity spawning. Each of the 12 maps is a bit of a free-for-all, with pieces spawning all over the place, with no apparent rhyme or reason to it. Dedicated spawn zones would alleviate the insta-death issue somewhat, but it wouldn’t solve it completely. Other stronger entities are, perhaps, a little too strong and some can drain your life from across the map, leaving you in a losing situation. These problems are very easy to solve though and I hope the developer, Hadrianyork, takes notice.
Making it past the first few seconds of a round is a bit of an achievement itself, and if you manage to get the hang of it you’ll be treated to one of the freshest FPS concepts in years. While I don’t care much for the game’s open arenas, I have a real soft spot for its claustrophobic, closed-in levels. There’s something positively bone-chilling about catching the rook peer around the corner at me, then withdraw as it plots its takedown. Going one-on-one with the king is similarly nerve-wracking. Rather than taking him head-on I opted to deal chip damage, and healed myself with energy deposits dotted around the map. Reigning supreme as the king feels like a real achievement because it is! If you’re up for a challenge Urja’s, admittedly pretty but functionally pointless, menu houses twelve different arenas in which you can battle for supremacy
Hadrianyork has committed itself to improving Urja during the beta period and beyond, with a focus on getting multiplayer into the game at some point in the future – and with good cause too! A game like this cries out for multiplayer action, and I can just imagine the sadistic fun to be had as the almighty king, repeatedly crushing his underlings. Perhaps they could even add in a mode similar to Call of Duty’s Gun Game, whereby you’d go up the ranks for each kill, and go back down again every time you got a taste of your own medicine. There are tons of possibilities there, and it’ll be interesting to see which direction they take things.
In the immediate future I’d like to see the game’s crippling difficulty addressed, with some tweaks to the range of higher ranked pieces. Additionally, a full-fledged menu and options system would give Urja a more polished feel, making it feel less like a technical demo. Finally, and most importantly, I’d like to see the same design standards spread across all of the arenas. Whilst some are fun to play in, many of them feel like slightly tweaked versions of each other.
Even in beta the potential shines through any minor deficiencies, though, and It puts a fresh spin on a genre suffering from identikit “shoot this, now that” titles. How would I sum Urja up? It’s approachably simplistic and devastatingly addictive, with a learning curve that’d make Kasparov cry for his mother.