Review: Card Wars - Adventure Time20 Mar 2014 0
When searching for evocative ways to describe Card Wars: Adventure Time, I found myself reaching for metaphors to cancer, locusts, Magic: the Gathering, and venereal disease. I only have personal experience with one of these things, though [liar. --ed] , so I'll just say that there's a decent game with some amusing Adventure-Timey bits which has been terribly burdened by the least appealing elements of both collectible card games and the freemium plague.
First, the good news: enough of the charm of Adventure Time is present to bring a smile to the faces of those with a taste for its particular brand of humor. The game itself is solid enough; a fairly simple lane-based single-player collectible card game with a few distinctive elements. First, you choose a land type for your side of each of the four lanes; you can only play creatures onto that lane which match its type (or rainbow creatures, which can be played anywhere). All creatures deal their power in damage to the opposing creature, or the opponent if there is no defender in that lane. In addition to creatures, there are buildings (which give bonuses to whatever creature occupies that lane) and spells (one-time-use effects). Each creature has an ability which you can use (floop) once per turn, but these abilities, like all of the cards, cost magic points, of which you only have five per turn.
The bad news is that, though it introduces some new stuff while remaining simple enough to appeal to even relatively young Adventure Time fans, there are serious problems with the game. Going first every time is a terrible disadvantage, as your creatures don't attack on the first turn. So you either set out some creatures to be sacrificed (because your opponent will usually be able to kill them before your next turn), which would involve losing some of your precious cards for no improvement in position on the board, or you reserve your cards for your second turn and take a massive besting from your opponent's creatures. You're effectively looking at starting the game with a serious penalty in life or cards. Worse, you play as a hero, who levels up as you play, increasing maximum health and maximum cards in deck (the penalty for running out of cards is severe and the limits are initially low enough to make them a serious concern). As you unlock new heroes, they start off low level enough that you either forsake them or grind. You progress through the campaign pretty fast, so you're relatively quickly up against much higher-level opponents, and are forced to grind. You gain nothing when you lose, so being forced to grind generally means playing uninteresting battles against weak opponents or risking losing your time investment.
Okay, when I said that was the bad news, that was a lie. It is bad news, but the bad news is that Card Wars sports the most abusive monetization I've encountered. I'm pretty shy about free-to-play games, so that may not be quite as damning as it could be, but it stinks worse than a ocelot's rectum. First, of course, it's not a free game, so the existence of any consumable for sale is concerning, if for no other reason than that it occasions the use of the awful but inevitable neologism "pay-me-um". Second, the balance of the game is clearly tilted towards a truly tedious grind for those who don't shell out.
The principal currency is the gem. Gems let you continue after you're defeated, increase the maximum size of your collection, buy random better cards, and play more often (yay--a timer!). Each of these is abusive in its own way, but the fact that the collection size starts off with a relatively low cap is probably my favorite example for demonstrating the corrosive effects of the free-to-play scourge. There is no benefit to having any cap at all except to encourage people to spend gems to increase it; cards are earned slowly enough that one's collection would never increase overwhelmingly quickly. Worse, the way you earn gems in the game is by completing challenges against already-defeated foes, most of which involve requiring that you only use certain card types. This means that, in order to earn gems, you need a large number of cards to choose from so that you can build a deck which can succeed at those challenges. The high cost of making decks which can complete these challenges dramatically reduces the returns you can get for putting in the time to attempt them, further pushing people away from earning and toward buying them.
Given how deliberately slow progress is, it's all the more irritating that there's no cloud saving option, so progress on one device can't carry over to another. The game does seem to multitask fairly well, and has been very stable on my iPad Air. There's lots of voice work (apparently by the original actors, though, with Lady Rainicorn, who knows?) and reasonably amusing writing, as well as animations which give success and failure some flavor.
I don't hate Card Wars. I've played for hours (total, not at a stretch--don't forget the timer) with my children perched on my shoulders and enjoying every minute. But it's got the problem of rarer cards being strictly superior to more common ones which so often accompanies collectible games, and just piles on every monetization bandwagon it can find. If you've never felt like the ATM of a game company, here's your chance.