For a while there, it seemed like Brawl Stars wasn’t going to make it. Supercell’s free-to-play mobile shooter soft-launched in Canada in June 2017 and then reached a few more countries this past January, but the lethargic rollout suggested that Brawl Stars wasn’t ready to join the likes of Clash Royale and Clash of Clans as an international smash.
Its creators agreed, apparently. During its 500-plus days in limited release, the Finnish studio reworked the controls and progression system, shifted the screen orientation, and made myriad other tweak. Supercell has a history of killing soft-launched games that couldn’t match its vision, but Brawl Stars finally emerged from the gauntlet alive, and seemingly better for having gone through it.
Brawl Stars smartly adapts team-based multiplayer shooters for mobile in a way that makes perfect sense for pocket-sized touch devices. It’s an objective-based shooter, a battle royale game, a MOBA-lite and more, all wrapped up in an approachable and attractive package.
Both Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds have been huge on iOS and Android (and everywhere else) this year, but neither is an optimal smartphone experience. They are certainly good enough if you don’t have a current console or a capable PC, or you’re just hungry for competition on the go, but they’re awkward in all of the ways you’d expect from a mobile port. They’re cumbersome and imprecise, and don’t run as well as on older devices. The oft-lengthy matches also aren’t ideal for hopping in for a quick fix.
Brawl Stars doesn’t suffer from these problems, because it’s built for mobile and cognizant of the platform’s limitations. Matches typically last a couple of minutes, and the top-down view means there’s no fussing with a camera. One virtual stick controls your character while another aims and fires your weapon; you can alternately tap the latter stick for a single shot at the nearest foe. And once your special attack charges, another virtual stick activates to aim and launch that.
That’s all there is to it. It works impressively well: Movement and aiming both feel spot-on, and there’s essentially no learning curve to contend with. The matches are fast and fluid, and pretty satisfying despite their compact length. They’ll get your heart pumping too; I’ve already cursed aloud (to myself) at many random opponents (who can’t hear me) when gunned down in the heat of battle.
Gem Grab is the core Brawl Stars experience, a three-on-three offering in which gleaming, purple gems pop out of a hole in the center of the stage. Each team vies to be the first to claim 10 gems, then hold firm as the timer ticks down. But a well-timed shotgun blast or luchador elbow drop will scatter the defeated player’s stash, quickly turning the tide in this entertaining mode.
More play options emerge as you gradually accumulate trophies. Showdown is Brawl Stars’ 10-player take on the battle royale, and is available in both solo and duos variants. It’s pretty straightforward: you’ll fire away at foes and try to survive, but the strategic twist comes with health and attack-boosting power cubes scattered in treasure boxes around the stage. In familiar battle royale fashion, the play area gradually shrinks over time — here, it’s with poison clouds that creep from the edges towards the center of the map.
Bounty mode is like team deathmatch, with bonus points for taking out opponents with long kill streaks, while the MOBA-esque Heist sends your team off to destroy the enemies’ safe before they eradicate yours. Brawl Ball is … well, it’s soccer with guns. That’s pretty amusing.
The cartoonish look is sharp throughout, from the level backdrops to the characters themselves, with a solid mix of play styles found within the currently 22-strong hero roster. An Elvis-esque cowboy with powerful pistols that must be precisely aimed? A robot bartender who lobs explosive bottles for ample splash damage? How about a hero who can summon a lumbering bear to hunt down foes? They’re all here.
Granted, the characters don’t pack much personality beyond their vibrant looks, but the diversity in attack and attribute cocktails keeps things interesting. The heroes feel different on the battlefield, and you can quickly sense when some are a better fit for play modes over others, or that a complementary team pairing makes for a more effective unit in battle
Brawl Stars’ diverse array of genre riffs keeps things lively, and like Supercell’s older Clash Royale, this free-to-play game is very fairly monetized. You can play as much as you want with no timers to wait (or pay) through, but you’ll only earn item box-unlocking tokens for your first handful of matches of a long session. Beyond that, you’ll have to wait for the tokens to recharge before earning any further rewards.
Even amidst a welcome array of distinctive play modes and characters, Brawl Stars sticks to the same basic gameplay elements throughout. It’s what helps keep the action so immediate and approachable, and it’s a large part of why Supercell’s latest game succeeds.
That also could be what ultimately limits its long-term appeal, however. Brawl Stars has been streamlined to dramatic effect, but there’s little depth to the moment-to-moment gameplay. It doesn’t have the kind of strategic hook and outside-the-game tinkering that made Clash Royale such a worthy obsession and, eventually, a proper esport. Supercell may well have competitive ambitions for Brawl Stars too, but I just don’t see enough tactical potential here to yield something that people would bother to watch. In time, that same level of simplicity could make initially excited players peel away in favor of fresher mobile distractions.
But who knows? Given how much time Supercell spent tinkering with Brawl Stars before launch, it seems fair to assume that the studio may put the same kind of effort into keeping the game lively and engaging for the long haul. Even if not, Brawl Stars is a bite-sized treat that you can savor for free right now, and it feels just right on your smartphone.