Review: Battle Camp

No guitar skills are worth this.

Robert Johnson glanced down at the contract, and this is what he saw.

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Battle Camp doesn’t make a favorable first impression. Nor second, as you can see above. In fact, the impressions it makes occupy a limited range, from distasteful to repugnant. It’s the worst example of abusive, exploitative, nickel-and-dime game design I’ve ever played. It and its ilk are a scourge to decency and a blight upon mobile games.

The premise is an insufferably cutesy muddle: kids at summer camp have to fight monsters and each other in order to… well, just because, I guess. It’s a massively multiplayer Lord of the Flies, but with sales pushes and elemental damage. The gameplay is brick simple: wander around the overworld until you see a mob. Tap to issue a challenge and the fight begins.

A brief respite from the sales pitches.

This bit plays just the way it looks.

Combat involves your basic tile-based match-three system on a restrictive 6×5 grid. Depending on which colors you match, you can deal specific damage types to your opponents, and different opponents have different vulnerabilities. The more tiles you match of a given color, the more damage you do of that type. Should you match three reds to do just a little fire damage now, or should you save them in hopes of setting off a big combo later on? Your enemies strike back between moves, so it’s in your interest to dispatch them efficiently.

Unlike most match-three games, in which you can only slide tiles to adjacent spaces, in Battle Camp you can slide to any space you want, even all the way across the grid. This feels liberating at first, but it undercuts the value of planning one’s moves, which is supposed to be what match-three is all about. Part of match-three games’ appeal is that they reward insightful lines of play within tight constraints. Battle Camp demands no such insight, and it imposes its constraints more insidiously.

As you fight and win battles, you accumulate experience and other bonuses. You can collect friendly monsters that will enhance your attacks, and you can “breed” them together à la Pocket Frogs to upgrade their abilities. Some of the monsters are rarer than others, which means you get to chase yet another dragon, literally and figuratively.

So then, we’ve got match-three, persistent multiplayer, an RPG system, and a breeding/collecting mechanic all strung together. It’s a veritable parade of reward stimuli, meant to clog your dopamine pathways until you resemble one of Larry Niven’s wireheads. I’ve been known to go to some lengths in the name of dopamine stimulation, so what’s the problem with Battle Camp?

The first problem is that match-three combat has been done many times before, and almost always with more tactical depth. Pixel Defenders Puzzle offers a much more enjoyable battlefield: larger, more dynamic, with a greater need for chess-like foresight of how the board will look several moves ahead. Or try Dungeon Raid; it too features a more complex board, as well as more intriguing RPG mechanics. If you just want the pure challenge of match-three, classics like Piyo Blocks and Kalevala are much more satisfying than Battle Camp’s simplistic take.

Multiplayer is pretty much the only thing Battle Camp’s got going for it. But good luck with that: if you want to chat with other humans, you have to tie the game in to your Facebook account. I’d be loath to grant any game access to my Facebook, especially one as onerous and intrusive as this. I’m not militant about my privacy, but Battle Camp trips every rudimentary alarm I’ve got. A few minutes after I quit playing for the first time, the game started spamming iOS with notifications: “Hey, we miss you at camp. I’ve refilled your energy. Come on back.” I had to dig around in the Settings menu to disable these. Unfortunately there’s no way to opt-out of the incessant in-game spam.

Act now!

The opportunity of a lifetime, for only $5 in gold.

As if that weren’t enough, Battle Camp is just chock-full of obnoxious microtransactions (perhaps the ugliest word in the English language). The game’s economy runs on a confusing array of resources: stone tokens, energy, and of course gold, which can be exchanged for the others. You run out of energy often, and the only way to get more is to wait agonizingly as your meter slowly refills. Or you can buy energy with gold. You can’t earn gold just by playing the game—you’ve got to buy it with real money, in chunks priced from $0.99 to $99, and the game pesters you without end to do so.

Alternately and most worryingly, the game offers gold rewards for signing up for credit cards, taking out insurance policies, or engaging myriad other skeevy real-world services. Combine this morally unhinged upselling with the twee art and simplistic gameplay, and Battle Camp now appears specifically aimed at getting young kids in trouble with their parents.

Ick. I need a shower.

I asked Owen why he wanted me to review Battle Camp. “Normally I assign this kind of game to Clancy. But he’s suffered enough.” You hear that, Clancy? Next time it’s your turn to roll the stone. I’ll be expecting a fruit basket.

The game was played on an iPhone 4 for this review.

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Pocket Tactics Rating

1 Star Rating

1/5 Stars