Review: Solitairica21 Sep 2016 8
Released 25 Aug 2016
Colorful graphics, bad puns, and silly enemies await you in the land of Myriodd, where evil King Stuck has seized power. His enchanted deck of cards has defeated many a brave Warrior… and Wizard, Rouge, Paladin, etc. Can you master the art of Solitairica and free the screwball peoples of Myriodd, or will you get stuck and have your heart broken? More importantly, is this solitaire RPG a fresh and interesting mix, or is it more like the time you asked for M&Ms and Skittles in your Blizzard? I'm never going to do that again.
RPG hybrid games always have to find some sort of balance between the equipment and ability management of RPGs and the way the other genre plays without such interventions. There’s no sure mix - what works depends on the game, and whether the game’s fun depends on the player. Match-3 Puzzle RPGs are the most common, from the Puzzle Quest games to Dungeon Raid and You Must Build a Boat (YMBAB), with Luca Redwood’s games preserving the “gotta make a match, any match, running out of time” of the Match-3 genre, while the Puzzle Quest games have always been more about trying to match the colors you need for certain abilities, and deciding when to use them. The former makes the RPG element an extra layer on top of core Puzzle play, the latter uses the Match-3 element as part of an RPG: basically as a substitute for a battle map and dice.
When you first start playing Solitairica, it feels like it’s mostly about the cards, but that soon turns around, as the solitaire mechanics are pretty light, counting up and down from the last card you tapped. You’re supposed to see every play - if you end your turn with any matches left on the board, the game shakes the cards as if to say “hey, pay attention!” Solitairica uses a colored-mana system like that in Puzzle Quest, and abilities fall into two basic categories: one helps you clear cards from the board (by various means), the other is defensive, protecting you from the attacks of the monster you’re fighting. That slots neatly into the RPG frame: the cards before you are your opponent’s hit points, and they get a turn every time you "get stuck," revealing an attack card before you get a new card to try and match with.
The game’s best mechanics are those that complicate basic matching, like Perception I, an Agility spell that shows you what’s behind the current row of cards. Basic Attack cards like Bash (damage one front card… this usually destroys the card, but some effects modify this) are much more interesting and useful when you know what they’re going to reveal. On the other side of the coin, monsters can play effects on front row cards that range from armoring them (they must be matched or attacked more than once to get rid of them) to poisoning them (they do damage to you every turn). Some monster have even more nefarious abilities, like the Jam Cube’s ability to reshuffle the cards and deal them back out with one fewer row than before.
The more basic abilities are an important part of the game, it’s just that higher level armor and healing spells are mostly boring level-ups of their antecedents, and the differences between Cleave, Impale, and Intimidate (three Attack spells with the potential to damage multiple targets) are significant but not critical, whereas the way I play changes dramatically if I have Perception. Perhaps my favorite card is Alchemy, which uses a single purple (Willpower) mana to change the entire front row into triple coin cards, but in doing so deprives you of the mana you’d have earned from those cards. Deciding when you can afford to up the difficulty of the current fight in exchange for greater rewards if you win is delicious fun.
It’s fun that I don’t get to have every game, however, as the game’s random shop might give you a chance to buy Alchemy right after the first battle (and reap a king’s ransom of extra gold in the earlier fights), or not until several fights later, or not at all, as low-level spells get replaced with higher-level ones. Solitairica is highly random, which is part of it’s charm, but also means that some runs will be much easier than others. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the game plays quickly on newer devices (more on that later), but I occasionally found myself wishing for a tighter game with fewer options that made things like the betting mechanic of Alchemy a basic feature.
Solitairica is a Roguelike on the “gain resources to buy powerups for future runs” model, and Wildstone is used to unlock additional character classes, buy powererd-up face cards specific to each character class’s deck, and increase the number of items that class can equip. The character classes each have a two suits/colors (out of four) that they’re stronger in, and a unique starting spell for each of their primary colors, but tend to become increasingly similar the further you get into a run, because if you focus too much on maximizing your strengths, a monster that directly counters those strengths will wipe the floor with you.
Perhaps because the unlock system is so transparent, it’s not very exciting. There are moments when it feels like the game is handicapping in Stuck’s favor, requiring you to grind in order to get a fair shot. The game’s monster system is where a lot of the pleasure of discovery lies, as each monster type can have a prefixes and/or suffixes that adds additional cards to their deck of attacks. The combinations are often funny, Bearded Gremlin Bombers and such, and some combinations can be devastatingly effective or undermine your usual tactics, forcing you to change up your spells, equipment, and strategy.
Solitairica’s biggest flaw is that the early fights in each run start to become a grind, especially if you don’t have alchemy to boost the risk and reward in each one. This will be less of an issue for players with higher-spec devices, but on my 1st gen iPad Mini (and, presumably, any other iOS device with only ½ a gig of memory), it takes 20+ seconds to load each combat and just as long to re-load the shop/equip screen in-between fights. At launch, the game wouldn’t even run on these “borderline” devices, and it appears to be quite zippy on anything with a proper gig of RAM (iPad 3+, Mini 2+, iPhone 5+, and the iPod Touch 6+, if anyone still remembers that device).
I’m personally ambivalent about Solitairica, but that has a lot to do with the long load times that most players won’t experience. I can’t recommend this game to anyone still playing on an iPad 2 or Mini 1, and anyone looking for something that is a card-game first and an RPG second will be better off waiting to see if Regency Solitaire makes the jump to mobile. Otherwise, Soltairica is a clever, quick-playing game fans of roguelites and puzzle RPS will find it easy to get into and highly replayable.