Eternal Return: Black Survival tests the potential of mixing genres
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A fresh take on MOBAs and Battle Royales is poised to pop off

When South Korean indie studio Nimble Neuron launched the open beta for Eternal Return: Black Survival in November of 2020, tens of thousands of players flocked to its one-of-a-kind experience. Combining the champion based combat of League of Legends with the survival elements of Fortnite and draping their own anime-inspired intellectual property over it seemed like the perfect way to capitalize on the games at the top of the Twitch Charts. But according to localization developer Travis “Aesop” Walton, those numbers dwindled due to the game’s rough feel. The developer’s chance to build the next, big gaming craze could have been in jeopardy.

Armed with a long list of changes to make and a strong commitment to churning out new content, Nimble Neuron spent the next months showing players ERBS would keep improving. Starting with such a large user base opened the team up to significant criticism, but Aesop said the double-edged sword was necessary for the game to reach its current state.

“If we didn’t have all of those people giving feedback and suggestions, would we have the same game that we have now?” Aesop asked.

Almost a year later, Eternal Return: Black Survival is poised to offer players something new, with esports tournaments already cropping up despite the game only being in early access. The game’s future is still a work in progress, but here is how the game went from mobile game sequel to potential heavy hitter.

Welcome to Lumia Island

Rozzi, pictured here in her “Black Rose” skin, is a secret agent mercenary. In game she plays similarly to Lucian and is a powerful ranged attacker. | Provided by Nimble Neuron

Before ERBS, there was the hybrid, survival-battle royale, developed in 2016 — Immortal Soul: Black Survival. The first game introduced the cast of characters now featured in ERBS, and Aesop said the sequel’s gameplay has benefited greatly from drawing on these initial concepts.

Eternal Return: Black Survival takes place on Lumia Island, a location where researchers can conduct various experiments on test subjects. Players start the game by selecting one of more than 30 characters, each with unique move sets and weapon choices. Similar to other Battle Royales, players can choose which zone they want to spawn in. Once on the ground, they start with just two pieces of bread and two bottles of water. According to Aesop, this effectively makes the game “a mix of a Battle Royale, a MOBA, a survival game and an anime TV show.”

The map of Lumia Island. Players pick one of the fifteen zones to start in on their journey to become the ultimate survivor. Credit to Nimble Neuron

From there, players loot locations around the map and gather materials and items to create weapons and armor. In the process, they gain experience and level up their abilities. Killing NPCs around the map expedites this process, and once a player has their weapons and armor completed, the goal is to eliminate the other 17 survivors.

As the game goes from day to night and back, zones around the map are blocked off, forcing the survivors to fight each other. Combat plays out much like in League of Legends or DOTA, but instead of full-on teamfights, many fights are pure, ego battle 1 v 1s. Eliminate another player and gain the ability to loot their dead body. But be careful, because other players may strike when least expected. And if you die once, the game is over.

Test drives and test subjects

A look at one of the fifteen zones on Lumia Island, Hotel. | Provided by Nimble Neuron

Eternal Return: Black Survival has received dozens of updates since its November 2020 launch. During the past few months, features like profile customization, easy-to-use weapon plans and an integrated character select (with drop zone selection) have made the game feel much better for players, according to Aesop. But more than anything, despite the relatively small team, ERBS has released new characters bi-weekly for months, with new skins for existing characters arriving every week. Aesop said he is particularly proud of the aggressive update schedule.

“It’s pretty efficient, the fact we can release characters every two weeks,” Aesop said. “It’s insane to be able to release a sick character every two weeks.”

Currently, ERBS has a cast of 36 characters, all of which appeared in the original Black Survival game, and Aesop said the goal is to port over all 50 characters from the original release. This backlog of established concepts makes sticking to the bi-weekly releases easier, and having a now long history of MOBAs to look at helps, too. However, the development team can’t just lift concepts from League of Legends and drop them in ERBS like a player. They still have to make sure their characters work well within the hybrid-genre game.

“We have like 50 characters each with four abilities, so of course there is going to be some overlap,” Aesop said. “You kind of already know what works in the MOBA sphere, but will it work in an open map, no lane, all jungle?”

Aesop added that the remaining 14 characters from Black Survival are already in the development pipeline, and most are near completion. Nimble Neuron tries to keep around three characters ready to go at any time, meaning much of the modeling and planning is already underway.

A look at the concept art for one of the upcoming characters, Bianca. | Provided by Nimble Neuron

Once all the characters are ported over, Aesop said the team will begin developing new characters and concepts. But despite not having older content to work off, the team plans to maintain some semblance of their aggressive update schedule.

“Once we get all of the old cast into the game it will probably slow down, but that’s just the character extent,” Aesop said. “Updates, optimizations, and skins will continue to be frequent.”

The pace and buzz of the game has attracted more than just players, as Kakao Games recently invested heavily into Nimble Neuron and ERBS. The massive publisher is known for hits like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds as well as Path of Exile.

As a result, the game has seen a boost of popularity in Korea. At PC bangs across the country, ERBS is on the front page. Restaurants in Korea have special rewards for players of the game, and ERBS has even collaborated with the K-pop group, aespa, to release a themed song. However, Aesop noted that Kakao’s investment isn’t just for publicity.

“We got a couple of things planned down the line,” Aesop said. “Can’t give total details, but it’s a lot of cool stuff that we’ve got brewing.”

1 v 1 me

The user interface in Eternal Return, with similarities to MOBAs and two different inventories. One is for a player’s main build while the other functions like a backpack. Screengrab via Eternal Return: Black Survival.

One of the biggest aspects that sets Eternal Return apart from other hybrid games is the fact that the primary game mode is not team-based. There are duos and trios like other battle royales, but the true ERBS experience is in solo play.

For every League of Legends or DOTA player that thought they would be higher ranked if it wasn’t for teams, this game is the way to prove it. Connor “Averse” Shacklady has certainly done so.

Averse has become one of ERBS’ best players since the game debuted. As someone with a competitive background in similar games, like League of Legends and Pokemon UNITE, plus a world champion title in Battlerite, this comes as little surprise to those who know him. And once Battlerite died in 2019, Averse looked to his Twitch chat for a recommendation.

After they introduced him to ERBS, Averse said he was hooked, and he has peaked rank no.1 multiple times in North America since then. According to him, ERBS involves much of what he liked about Battlerite, including the short game times with a focus on individual outplays.

“My favorite aspect of MOBAs are the combat and managing abilities,” Averse said “The things I didn’t like about League were the farming and the long games, the team aspect, and those are all gone. It just feels like you have a lot of outplay potential and skill expression.”

For competitive players wanting to give ERBS a shot, Averse said there are many things in ERBS that fit right into a competitive player’s wheelhouse.

“In this game, on top of characters, you have to learn loot paths,” Averse said “Like, is my first path contested? Okay, I’ll go my second path. Oh, I can’t go to the tree of life on day one because there are going to be three people there.”

Not every player needs to put in the same amount of effort to have fun, though. While Averse said ERBS has an insanely high skill ceiling, he feels the game has a decently placed skill floor. Even casual players can enjoy the game.

“It’s a game where both parties can enjoy it” Averse stated. “The characters with high skill ceilings are basic to play at first. Even if you don’t know about all the little things, you can still perform fine.”

As some final advice for new players, Averse said that when it comes to character recommendations, try out Jackie, Aya and Magnus due to their simplicity. Jackie, loosely based on Jack the Ripper, is a stereotypical melee bruiser that can quickly get in and out of a fight. Aya is a cop that specializes in ranged fighting with guns, so she’s a stereotypical marksman. Magnus is a mobile tank that is kind of like a mix between Sion and Garen, from League of Legends.

Championships and companionships

The Eternal Return World Invitational brought together the best players from around the globe to compete for a $30,000 prize pool. | Provided by Nimble Neuron

A Battle Royale/MOBA hybrid screams esports, considering two of the most successful multiplayer games during the past decade have been League of Legends and Fortnite. Aesop said he wants ERBS to be up there with them.

“Id like it to become one of the next big esports,” Aesop said. “We are putting a lot into the competitive scene.”

Some legendary players from other esports have already seen the potential and tried their hand at ERBS. League of Legends players like Marcus “Dyrus” Hill, Michael “Imaqtpie” Santana, Brandon “Saintvicious” DiMarco, Alexey “Alex Ich” Ichetovkin and even Hong “MadLife” Min-gi have already put many hours into the game. Nimble Neuron  has hosted numerous tournaments already, but so have grassroots organizers. The game also has a ranked ladder, which helps players test their mettle against players of similar skill and prove their abilities in a quantifiable way.

Nimble Neuron even hosted a world championship, despite the game still being in early access. Based on his performance in North American Tournaments, Nimble Neuron invited Averse to compete. Even though he has traveled across the world for other big gaming events, Averse said the South Korean event proved to be an unforgettable time.

“The World’s event was the best competitive experience I’ve ever competed in my life,” Averse said.

Part of that, according to Averse is due to his personal experiences with the competitive community.

”It’s a super tight-knit community and very welcoming,” Averse said. “In terms of every gaming community I have been in, this is one of the nicer ones, especially the NA community.”

Echoing Averse’s sentiments is Cloud9’s Khalif “Khroen” Hashim, one of the premier casters for ERBS’ tournaments so far. Known in particular for his work in the Heroes of the Storm and Teamfight Tactics community, Khroen said he has enjoyed his time playing Eternal Return, too.

“It kind of reminds me of my early HotS days was,” Khroen said. “While there wasn’t a league or anything, the players loved just playing the game. Any tournament that pops up, even if it’s just a small one, the players seem to just be happy to have something to play in.”

While the game shows much promise, not everything is perfect for Eternal Return. Khroen said the game’s primary issue is the size of the community. Although ERBS is thriving in Korea, the player base in NA isn’t that large. But looking toward the future, Khroen said he likes the direction the game is going and where it’s at.

“There’s a ton of passion from the ones who are around,” Khroen said. “I have a lot of hope for the potential of the game and what it could be in the future for the competitive scene.”

As the game nears its official release next year, players around the world are starting to see the potential, according to Aesop.

“We’ve got a good team behind us, passionate developers, passionate players, the whole team,” Aesop said. “I think if we were some kind of cryptocurrency, I would say hold.”

The free-to-play game is moving along quickly. With an official release date planned for early next year, high hopes and even greater potential, the day Eternal Return: Black Survival climbs to the top of Steam and Twitch may be on the horizon. But first, ERBS must continue their own “Lumia Island” like battle, where the other test subjects are other esports.