Review: Krosmaster Arena15 Apr 2016 6
Review: Krosmaster Arena
Released 17 Mar 2016
I should preface this review with a reminder about how strange reality is without even getting into quantum mechanics. I drive a machine in which liquified dinosaurs are used to create fumes which are then detonated in thousands of explosions per minute. I sometimes use this machine to go to Costco, a store I pay to shop at, where I buy apples, a fruit so genetically volatile that they're generally cultivated using a primitive cloning process which involves planting entirely different varieties of apple trees with useful roots, lopping off those trees, and grafting on new tops to produce the varieties of apples desired. Despite this process, mutant apples sometimes appear right on the same branch with the intended apples--these are known as "bud sports". And the part of that brief tour of the bizarre-yet-familiar which most shames me is my failure to successfully pun on "bud sports".
Krosmaster: Arena is a cross-platform free-to-play collectible game based on a tactical battle tabletop game based on the setting developed in a French anime which was based on two Flash-based MMORPGs set 1,000 years apart. Thematically, there's about as much oddness as you'd expect from the culture which gave the world The City of Lost Children basing a game on an art form from the culture which gave us Uzumaki (which I once heard summarized as a horror movie about a town invaded by the abstract concept of "spiral"). The steampunk thing is taken to such an extreme that the loading screen features a sword with a gear in the middle, but that's mixed with more usual medieval fantasy tropes like wizards and demons, along with a number of spoofs of popular characters like Victor Von Voom and surprise appearance by a character apparently inspired by The Shoveler. All of this is presented in super-deformed art which is so exaggeratedly, goofily stylish that it thoroughly evaded my resistance to its charms.
Once you come down off the shrooms, the actual game is a fairly standard tactical battle with some interesting tweaks. Characters have movement points and action points, abilities have various ranges and areas of effect, characters differ enough that they can play lots of different roles and synergize (or fail to) in a variety of ways. But each turn you have two bonuses which reward foresight about the coming turn, and there's kind of a neat system whereby you can collect upgrades during each fight, but you have to balance using your resources that way against maintaining otherwise desirable positions and dealing damage to the enemy. They seem like slightly over-complicated methods of accomplishing these goals, and inject randomness into the process, but they're worthy goals, and these mechanics keep games from feeling too predetermined. The interface seems to rely a touch too heavily on information which is hidden until you go looking for it, and for some reason drag detection on the two bonuses each turn is highly unreliable, but it's largely clear and cartoonily approachable.
There's a reasonably long single-player campaign, and you can play the multiplayer modes against bots, but the AI is surprisingly poor in certain ways. It offers an adequate challenges if you're facing a superior force, but it doesn't help you learn to play well and is very weak against certain strategies. For example, if you toss a bomb at the feet of an AI character, it will usually deal with the problem by attacking the bomb and causing an explosion. It'll do this as often as it takes, so if you keep lobbing explosives, it'll keep burning its face off. For reasons I don't entirely understand, even single-player content requires an internet connection, and the characters you earn aren't available in the campaign--you must choose from among a small pre-existing set. For clever opposition, you have to head into multiplayer, which is purely synchronous and often takes a few minutes to find an opponent.
And that's where the free-to-play sadness hits really hard. The characters aren't that well-balanced, so some are substantially stronger than others (or at least less situational), but a bigger problem is that some teams complement one another much better than others. As in other collectible games in which you assemble your options prior to playing, having a large stock of available choices is extremely helpful. In KA, it's also extremely expensive. I finished about half of the campaign before I'd earned enough of in-game currency to buy my first blind-buy random character (which you can also purchase with real money, naturally). You don't earn in-game currency from arena games against bots, nor from losses (though you can make progress on quests which reward you with a different currency you can use to buy non-random characters). There is an equivalent of sealed deck, the Krolossium, which is more approachable, but in my sample, it seemed even harder to find an opponent. The characters from the tabletop game also come with codes to unlock their digital versions, so expect to face much better equipped players for quite some time unless you choose the pay-to-win route.
Part of the problem is that, though the characters are pretty interestingly varied, with a variety of effects on movement, action points, damage of different types, teleportation, an array of summoning abilities, healing, and board control, there's a substantial element of linear design. As Mark Rosewater defines it, this means characters "are designed to clump together in obvious groups". So, for example, there's a whole cycle of slightly humanoid dragon characters called Dreggons, and they generally can summon immature dreggons and do things to them. If you only have one dreggon, it's going to be much less flexible than it would be in a group of them. Similarly, there are a variety of abilities which key off the number of characters of a particular type you have on the field. These sorts of designs push players to amass large collections, while making squad-building relatively straightforward. This is exactly the opposite of what you'd hope for if you're interested in easing players into a roughly level playing field--you'd like for your newest, least committed players to have access to the builds which require least insight into the game, with subtler builds only becoming available over time.
Perhaps there is no way to make playing feel consequential while making the entire game available without in-app purchases. I'm certainly sympathetic to the desire of developers to be paid enough to continue producing games with tactical crunch, pleasant art, and characters who use fish skeletons to summon fireballs from the sky (yet another treat from the minds behind KA). However, I happen to belong to a niche audience which would like to buy such games for a single premium price, maybe with the option to buy an expansion pack from time to time as they program more characters and put new, interesting challenges in the campaign. This is not that game, and the difference between it and what Ankama has delivered makes the corrosive temptation of in-app purchases starkly obvious.