Preview: Icons: Combat Arena is a free-to-play take on the Smash Bros. formula

Icons: Combat Arena isn't flashy or fancy. It's a no-nonsense take on the Smash Bros. formula that doesn't try be something it's not. Hell, the studio making the game is called Wavedash Games — this is a tribute any way you look at it. It borders on imitation at times — insert “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” remark here — but given the fact that it's still a lot of fun, it's hard to knock it for its lack of originality.

That Familiar Feeling

If you've played a Smash Bros. game in the past, you know the deal, and if you haven't, the flow of each match is pretty simple: Deliver a steady dose of damage to your opponent and then attempt to send that player's character flying off the stage. You've got special B button attacks that are usually character-specific. These range from laser gun blasts to sword slashes, and they're not exactly high-impact, but they certainly deal heavy amounts of damage if used properly.

Like Smash Bros., Icons: Combat Arena includes a damage marker instead of a health bar for characters. The higher the percentage of damage, the easier it is to knock another character off the map. That's when you start swinging hard with what Smash Bros. would refer to as “smash attacks.” Flicking the left analog stick and the A button will deliver a devastating attack that will hurl your opponent off the arena. If the other player can't make it back to the floating warzone, you'll earn a point.

It's hard to shake the feeling that I'm not talking about an actual Smash Bros. game here. Icons: Combat Arena doesn't just play similarly to Nintendo's popular fighter — it plays identically. Even some of the characters are clearly based on Smash Bros. fighters including Fox McCloud, Ganondorf, and Marth. So if you're a fan of Nintendo's series of fighting games, you'll feel right at home here.

Is Early Access Worth It?

Currently, Icons: Combat Arena is in its Early Access stage, and it definitely shows. While the game is fun to play, it's undoubtedly rough in spots. For starters, getting an online match going isn't as quick as it should be for a mode titled Quick Match. This varies, however, and sometimes it's easier getting into a match than others. There are also moments when the action will stutter momentarily. Given the fast-paced nature of fighting games, which can be a detriment.

There's not too much in the way of content in Icons: Combat Arena at this time. You've got Quick Match, which will start an online one-versus-one match-up against a random player. You can also play local multiplayer with up to four players. Lastly, there's a bare-bones training mode that will allow you to familiarize yourself with the characters, though it's a bit useless if you're already familiar with Smash Bros.

Right now, there are no options for four-player free-for-all or team matches online, but the developers have stated that there are plans for such modes to be implemented. You also can't customize matches with weapons, and the arenas are all pretty basic, taking after the Final Destination and Battlefield stages of Smash Bros. fame. Whether or not stages with environmental hazards will eventually be included remains to be seen, but it would be great for the option to be there at some point.

Graphically, the game has a very generic look to it. Hopefully, the team at Wavedash Games is able to further develop the stage and character designs. Right now, the characters remind me a lot of what you'd see in early Paragon. We've seen worse-looking games turn into something awesome, though, so here's hoping Icons: Combat Arena gets a major visual overhaul at some point.

Free-to-Play Smash

The big draw for Icons: Combat Arena is that it's a free-to-play game. That means if you've got a hankering for some Smash-styled action, the barrier for entry is really low. And if all you're looking for is a game to jump into for quick, no-frills brawls, you'll get exactly that.

You don't need to put any money into Icons: Combat Arena, but as is the case with free-to-play games, there are microtransactions included here. These come in the form of loot boxes, which provide character skins and other items. On the plus side, playing Quick Match mode earns you experience points that unlock loot boxes anyway, so you won't need to spend money on the game. The game's current microtransaction model is pretty basic and non-intrusive, which is definitely a plus.

The folks over at Wavedash Games still have a lot of work to do on Icons: Combat Arena. So far, the game feels like a serviceable and enjoyable tech demo of what could become something greater. There are plenty of other more well-rounded options out there, namely Brawlhalla (also free-to-play), Slap City ($7), and Rivals of Aether ($15).That said, if you want something that plays and feels pretty much exactly like Smash Bros., you should get an early jump on Icons: Combat Arena. It's still pretty low on content, sure, but it's a fun little platform-fighter.