Hands on: Catalyst Black unleashes Vainglory’s full potential, but at a cost
In the world of mobile gaming, finding hidden gems can be a challenge. After all, many companies — especially nowadays — have been focusing on the freemium business model. Most of the people I know, including myself, despise that. I play to wind down and enjoy an artistic piece that a person (or a studio) has built with passion. So, I want to play what great minds produce with their sincere devotion towards a certain idea. This makes cash cows that are designed to include an irritative grind a deal-breaker for me. Many of us are more than happy to pay once for a premium release, but the idea of a recurring purchase puts us off. Loot boxes arguably ruin the gameplay and unbalance players’ capabilities by introducing elements of unwanted uncertainty. Catalyst Black is a new freemium title on iOS and Android from the makers of Vainglory. Despite its monetization model, it still offers engaging gameplay that won’t necessarily pressure you into paying.
About this review: Super Evil Mega Corp provided me with a pre-release build of Catalyst Black, including a resources boost to level up my gear and get to explore and try more of the game and its modes in a shorter time period. SEMC had no input in this review — all opinions stated are independently mine, and they’re based on 10 days of casual gaming following the mentioned boost.
Catalyst Black in relation to Vainglory
Super Evil Mega Corp (SEMC) is behind both Catalyst Black and Vainglory. In spite of this fact, the two games are significantly different — while sharing some common elements here and there. For those who are unfamiliar with the latter title, Vainglory was a masterpiece that met an unfortunate fate. It was a free Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) that included very rich gameplay. Eventually, it shifted into a community edition that is in no way as enjoyable.
When I asked the genius minds at SEMC if Catalyst Black is supposed to appeal to the same Vainglory audience or if it’s a fresh start, they shared an interesting answer. According to them, Catalyst Black scratches certain itches that Vainglory had left behind. It takes the original vision to the next level — by offering more customizations and even larger maps. Through it, you have to build your own hero, rather than use SEMC’s character presets. Catalyst Black is neither a sequel nor a MOBA in the first place. It’s a more accurate representation of their ultimate, bigger-scale dream that they’ve been working on since late 2019.
Both games share some design elements and gameplay mechanisms. However, they belong to different genres — one is a shooter game, and the other is a MOBA. If you’ve played the retired game, you will notice a similar vibe when trying out Catalyst Black. It really reminds us of that great title, and I personally believe that a significant portion of the original Vainglory fan base will fall in love with this new game.
It’s worth noting that Vainglory’s business model relied on cosmetic skins. That of Catalyst Black, unfortunately, depends on buying loot boxes and resources. SEMC has mentioned to me that players won’t need to buy anything. All items and upgrades are unlockable by playing. So you either invest your time or money to level up. Nonetheless, it’s sad to see this model implemented in this release. Ultimately, the game is free, and the developers have to make money out of it — through the method they find suitable.
Personally, I genuinely believe that the game is fully enjoyable without spending real-life money on it. Yes, you won’t be progressing as fast as a paying player. However, the game won’t push you to buy resources through endless banners or cool-down timers, or other nag screens. You just have to grind it out over time, and that’s comparable to a lot of other successful releases in the market. Whether SEMC introduces other forms of monetization down the road remains unclear for now.
Catalyst Black: Gameplay and Hands-on
First things first — you must be wondering which devices support Catalyst Black. If you own an iPhone or iPad, you will need iOS 11 or a newer version to run this game. If you plan to play on an Android device, then Android 6 is the minimum requirement. SEMC is known for supporting older operating systems. So if you’re using a reasonably new smartphone or tablet, the game will likely run on it just fine.
And just like its flexible device requirements, SEMC gives users the liberty to choose between using a Bluetooth controller or the included touch controls. So no matter what your control preferences are, you will be able to play this cross-platform title with your friends — even if they’re on a different mobile OS.
Once you launch the game, the main screen will greet you with nine buttons:
- Profile: For changing your User ID, getting support codes, deleting your account, etc.
- Discord: This takes you to Catalyst Black’s official discord — where you can chat with other players.
- Settings: Includes game options, such as music volume, graphics quality, etc.
- Quests: Here you get to check what tasks you can complete to earn daily and weekly rewards.
- Shop: This section allows you to trade your Quint and Marks for resources and chests.
- Ascension: Leveling up your Ascension (through earning Ascension Points) unlocks additional game modes and rewards you with resources. You can track your progress in this section.
- Loadout: Here you get to customize your character’s appearance, heavy weapon, ability, trinket, primary weapon, relic, power, and mask. The combinations are endless, and you have to test different combinations to see what works best for your strategy. It might feel overwhelming at first, but you’ll get the hang of it, eventually!
- Social: This section allows you to add friends, join their live games, create a party, etc.
- Play: Obviously, here you get to select the mode you would like to play.
This mode is the first you can play. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with the game mechanisms and concepts. The goal is to earn points by killing as many enemy players as possible in this 5v5 (PvP) mode. The first team to fill up their point meter wins the battle.
You unlock this mode by reaching Ascension level 4. It’s also a 5v5 (PvP) mode, but it’s much more fun to play than Slayer, in my opinion. In fact, Hydra is my favorite mode in Catalyst Black. There are three ways for a team to win in Hydra. You either harvest 20 shards, kill each enemy player three times, or defeat the enemy team’s Overseer (a scary alien-robot hybrid of sorts).
Personally, I always stealthily find my way to the enemy’s Overseer and defeat it as the enemy players are distracted by fighting my teammates and harvesting shards. So if you bump into me as an enemy in a game of Hydra, you’ll know where to find me to disrupt my plan — as it tends to work every single match.
Once you reach Ascension level 8, you get to play the Colosseum mode. This 5vE (PvE) mode is an ideal place to test different Loadout combinations. After all, there are 30+ guns, 12+ abilities, 15+ trinkets, and 6 primals to shift through in Catalyst Black. Finding the right character can take a while. Through Colosseum, you collaborate with other players to kill enemy monsters. There are five rounds in each Colosseum game, and you will get a rating (3-star scale) for each round — depending on how long it takes you to finish each. This mode is more laid back because there are no humans on the enemy team. So the competitiveness isn’t as intense, and the AI’s strategies can be predicted.
This mode unlocks when you reach Ascension level 15. It’s arguably the most complex in Catalyst Black. In fact, personally, I still haven’t completely figured this mode out. There are minor tasks that you have to carry out during a match in this PvEvP mode. With two human teams (each consisting of 12 players) and a gigantic map, Eventide reflects what Catalyst Black is all about. A single game can last for around 20 minutes, and you’ll find yourself executing different tasks — as the game instructs you.
Eventide is the only mode in Catalyst Black that offers a ranked system — so far. There are over half a dozen ranks to rise (or fall) through. The SEMC team mentioned to me that the simple gameplay, small maps, and same minions/turrets in each round of Vainglory were too basic. Eventide truly proves that SEMC has successfully visualized and materialized its ultimate vision through Catalyst Black. The mode is PACKED, and I would say this is an understatement.
Rotating modes: Capture The Flag, Flag Hunters, and Core Rush
When you reach Ascension level 20, you unlock three rotating modes — Capture The Flag, Flag Hunters, and Core Rush. Each mode lasts for 24 hours, then it gets replaced by the following one. These modes are relatively easy and don’t consume a lot of time. For example, in Core Rush, you have to kill monsters, capture their cores, and fill up a meter to win. Rotating modes are a fun way to wind down. They lack sophistication without sacrificing the entertaining aspect.
So… how do you actually play Catalyst Black?
When you’re in a Catalyst Black game (regardless of the mode you’re playing), there are two main sets of controls — the left and the right. The former is a movement joystick that you use to move around. Personally, I prefer the touch-to-command movement controls on touch screen games. However, that’s seemingly still not an option right now. Nonetheless, the virtual joystick works just fine.
On the right side, you will find your toolkit. When you’re in human form, there’s the primary weapon that you will use the most. It has a cooldown every now and then. The heavy weapon deals more damage, but you manually have to collect ammunition for it. Additionally, you can’t carry around more than three bullets at a time. So you’re meant to use it sparingly. The ability and roll buttons are more for support. You can use them to run away, recharge your health, teleport, etc. It all depends on the ability you decide to go for in the Loadout. And just like Vainglory, you get signaling buttons on the very right. You can use these to alert your teammates to shift their attention to a certain part of the map. Lastly, there’s the button to enter primal form.
Recharging the primal form button takes a few minutes, unless you collect blue masks from the battleground to speed things up. Once you’re ready to switch, you will turn into a more powerful version of yourself and get to use your primal attack and ability. Notably, you will lose access to rolling, human weapons, and human abilities in this form. Additionally, you won’t be able to use bouncers to jump from one side of the map to the other until you revert back to human form. You can stay in primal form for as long as you want — until the enemies drain your health, then you will auto switch to human again.
This game utilizes the spawning behavior when you die. So after the cooldown timer ends, you will be reborn in one of your team’s portals. Depending on the mode you’re playing, though, you might lose combo damage boosts and other perks when you die. My straightforward advice for you is — stay alive!
After you finish a match, you will earn resources that you can use to infuse or upgrade your weapons and items in the Loadout. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye open on the Quests section as it can be very rewarding sometimes. After you earn a certain amount of shards per day, you will no longer earn any until the following day. This doesn’t stop you from playing the game, but it simply makes your wins less rewarding.
I personally believe the game has a promising future. It has a monetization strategy that can ensure the servers remain live and doesn’t pressure players into buying in-game content, both. It’s a free release with a premium feel that very much matches (and even surpasses) that of Vainglory. I won’t lie — I miss how simple (yet rich) the retired game was, and Catalyst Black is a bit too advanced for my casual gaming needs. Don’t get me wrong — I genuinely enjoy playing it. However, I sometimes find myself overwhelmed or pressured by the endless customizations. And that usually repels me from investing my time in a certain game.
If you like heated competitiveness, advanced customizations, different game modes, the top-down view of Vainglory, and shooting games, then Catalyst Black is most definitely what you’re looking for. The energy and effort the team behind it has invested are very apparent, and its gameplay is one of the most robust I’ve ever seen on a mobile game. Ultimately, the title is free to download and play, so there’s no harm in trying it out — only fun, guns, and gear!
Will you be playing Catalyst Black? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments section below.