Paladins: Champions of the Realm review: People’s Champ

I’m pleasantly surprised at how much I’m enjoying Paladins. I don’t usually take much interest in first-person shooters, especially of the multiplayer-only variety. I tend to find competitive games more stressful than they’re worth, so a decent singleplayer narrative component is usually the only thing that will get my attention in an FPS game.

But the multiplayer-only, plot-absent Paladins has grabbed me. The character abilities, the team synergy, and the (relatively) slower-paced combat resonates with me in a way that most shooters don’t. Most significantly, I enjoy the time I spend with Paladins—when I’m on the winning team, of course, but even when I’m losing. That’s a rare thing indeed.

As with any other hero shooter, the heart of Paladins is in its heroes—called champions here. They broadly fit into the usual archetypes (frontline/tank, support, damage dealer, flanker/assassin), but even within a class, each one feels unique. Every frontline champion is designed to be defensive and hard to take down, but they have vastly different ways of achieving that; every support has a healing focus, but I wide array of different tools. Even among damage dealers, you’ve got everything from classic FPS archetypes to spellcasters and melee fighters who feel more like something out of an RPG.

The variety is such that I don’t really have a single preferred character or class, as I usually would in a fighting game or MMORPG. I have at least one “main” for each class, and six or so in total that I regularly cycle between. Even then, it’s not unusual for me to pick someone else in a whim, and Paladins makes it easy to get up to speed on a champion’s abilities and playstyle.

Each champion is also quite versatile. Most supports make use of some form of “set and forget” healing and are quite capable of dishing out damage when the situation calls for it. Frontline champions can be similarly deadly, and even without heals or tank abilities, damage dealers tend to have some sort of utility beyond just raw damage numbers.

That fits in well with Paladins general flow, which is more about adaptability than getting the jump on people and knowing the maps like the back of your hand. Even the squishiest heroes usually take a second or two of sustained fire before they die, giving you at least a chance to react. Hero shooters are always going to be about making good use of your character’s unique abilities—that’s the whole point—and Paladins’ focus on adaptability success that home.

In a similar vein, you can’t change heroes mid-match—you’re stuck with whoever you chose at the start, and got can’t see the other team’s choices until the match starts. I love that. Instead of lots of counterpicking and a need for deep knowledge of the meta, Paladins is all about finding ways your team and your character work across all situations.

That’s not to say that game knowledge is useless; the more you know about each champion and map, the better equipped you’ll be to react smartly to different situations. But Paladins doesn’t make that the be all and end all, and it’s refreshingly newcomer-friendly as a result.

One of Paladins‘ most unique elements is its card system. Each champion has a bunch of different cards available to them, which provide passive bonuses like increased health or reduced ability cooldowns. You can equip five cards at a time—no more, no less—and you’ve got 15 points with which you can boost the effect of your chosen cards. It’s a fairly simple system, but it opens the door to a wide range of different builds for each character.

(It’s also worth noting that there’s no “collectible” element to these cards anymore, as there apparently was during the beta stage. All characters have all their cards available to them from the outset.)

The game modes are pretty standard, with Team Deathmatch, a King of the Hill-type mode called Onslaught, and the objective-based Siege mode, which involves capturing a payload and trying to escort it into the enemy’s base. At the time of writing, there’s also a rather neat limited-time event mode called Rise of Furia, which involves a combat-free platforming challenge before a skirmish at the top of a tower, with a bonus for the team that gets to the top first.

The maps are fine, without any standing out as particularly good or particularly bad. They tend to be quite small, which encourages a lot of action and reduces downtime after a respawn, but most still have their share of corridors and such that you can use to gain a better position or flank the enemy. One thing I’d love to see in future maps, though, is more verticality—the current crop are all very flat, so they miss out on the interesting tactics and dynamics that come with a multi-level arena.

Paladins biggest problem is its lacks personality. There’s clearly a lot of inspiration from World of Warcraft in the art style, but the characters feel like generic fantasy archetypes or WoW NPCs, making it hard to care for them beyond their combat utility. All my favourite champions are favourites purely for how they play, and are the result of either trying them at random or seeing other players use them and deciding I like their style.

That’s a problem exacerbated by the absence of in-game narrative. I can appreciate why there’s no story mode, and that’s standard for the genre, but Paladins does a poor job even at introducing its world and characters; an introductory cutscene and some brief character bios are all there is. That’s an approach that works for something like Overwatch, where the visual design of maps and heroes do a lot of the narrative heavy lifting, but Paladins lacks the personality (and the budget, frankly) to make that work. Instead, it just feels like something’s missing.

 

Even so, Paladins is something I keep coming back to. It certainly helps that I can play on Switch when I’m cosy in bed, and it runs surprisingly well, even in handheld mode. I’ve been playing on both Switch and PS4, and I honestly haven’t noticed a difference. (It’d be nice if account progress could be shared between platforms, but I guess Sony would never let that happen anyway.)

Really, though, it’s the game at the heart of Paladins is so damn captivating. Whether I’m winning or losing, I’m generally having a good time—something I can’t often say.

Recommended


Paladins is developed and published by Hi-Rez Studios. It’s available now for PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Switch (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC.

A copy of the game was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.