Review: Card Dungeon07 Oct 2014 0
Card Dungeon is a charming drunk of a game, staggering towards brilliance one minute and then turning around and lurching at ineptitude the next. It's carrying around a bucketload of great ideas, but it's also occasionally being sick into that bucket.
Following the current infatuation with Gen X board games, Card Dungeon has been lovingly crafted to look like the tabletop RPGs of the 1980s and 90s; the whole thing could have plausibly tumbled out of a dusty box in your basement. Your character and all of the enemies you find are represented by 2D cardboard cutouts slotted into little plastic stands, and the cards you loot from the dungeon are literal cards that wear and tear as you use them.
The cards are Card Dungeon's best idea, and it's a very, very clever one. You move your Crusader through the dungeons, getting into turn-based furballs with its denizens. He can hold no more than three ability cards, which may represent physical attacks, spells, and other nifty maneuvers -- but taking on a new one means losing an older card forever. Every time you employ a card, it frays a little more around the edges and eventually it crumbles. The beating heart of Card Dungeon is the management of these cards.
You've been leaning on a rare Shuriken Toss card, which does ranged damage and has a chance to make its victim bleed over multiple turns. It's getting a little ratty and might only have one or two more goes left in it. Do you swap it now for the arguably weaker Stunning Blow you just found on the corpse of a goblin? Or do you milk that Shuriken Toss for every strike it's got, running the risk of being left with only two cards in the middle of your next fight?
Card Dungeon is, therefore, an anti-RPG. You're not carefully developing a character here over time -- you're continuously reinventing him every few minutes. The Crusader is an insecure hero who can't stop reading self-help scrolls. It's a fresh idea that imbues even minor engagements with real weight. Is it worth it to spend a valuable attack on these cute and harmless dungeon bats? They might drop the health potion you so desperately need, or a rare card.
This system is a Roman fountain of interesting decisions, and it's greatly bolstered by the gargantuan number of cards in the game. Developers Playtap claim that there thousands of different cards in the game, and I believe them. There's a rich library of status effects, physical reactions, and lingering conditions in the cards -- all of varying strength and rarity. This is a muscular and unusual game engine.
The problem is that the engine has been installed in a 2001 Pontiac Aztek, a strange beast assembled from mismatched designs. There's so many head-scratching moments in Card Dungeon that undercut the game's huge potential.
Consider the matter of Card Dungeon's stubborn, persnickety camera. It's sensibly locked to the Crusader most of the time, though you can use two fingers to rotate it or pan it around-- a little. The camera will never stray too far from the character, which may have been a conscious design choice, but the effect of which is that it's not unusual to happen into a fight where you can't see all of the enemies.
Card Dungeon is so committed to the conceit that this app is a window onto a plausible board game that it kneecaps its own usability. Remember how all the characters are cardboard tokens mounted on plastic stands? Well, each character's health and mana are tracked by a counter on one (and only one) side of the token -- which means that if you rotate the camera to get a better view of the fighting, you'll be unable to see how much health anyone has. Even worse: when a large token (like a boss) stands right in front of your character, it can completely block the meters from view.
The game has also got its pacing absolutely wrong. The game is designed around the notion that every turn you get to do one thing and one thing only: attack something, cast a spell, or move a square. I like this in theory -- it's clear and simple and gives your choices weight -- but in practice, it makes playing Card Dungeon feel like walking through molasses. In a room with numerous NPCs, it takes forever for your turn to come back around. The worst is having to backtrack through one of the (often quite large) titular dungeons one agonising space at a time. Exploration should be thrilling in a game like this -- instead it's tedious.
The most eye-crossingly vexatious aspect of Card Dungeon is the save system, which it to say that there kind of isn't one. If you close the app in the middle of a dungeon floor and come back the next day, that dungeon's gone baby. You're back in the first room, and everything's been randomized again. For a mobile game, this is grievously wrong, and it's exacerbated by Card Dungeon's affinity for crashing at the worst moment.
Despite that catalog of shortcomings, I can't get away from how much I enjoy the core mechanics driving this game. There's so much potential here, but the game is disappointingly let down by foibles that diminish Card Dungeon's power to deliver a consistently engaging experience. But these aren't fundamental problems -- they're issues that (one hopes) can be tweaked away. Maybe later, Card Dungeon will have sobered up enough to sort itself out.
Card Dungeon was played on an iPad Air for this review.