Card-based video games have been around for years, mostly as mini games in big-name titles such as Knights of the Old Republic, Red Dead Redemption or the more recent Poker Night at the Inventory. They’re usually nothing more than a throwaway to kill to some time.
But in a market drenched with sequels and cash-ins, Mystic Box has been able to create a truly unique concept by combining elements of role-playing with the strategy of poker in Runespell – and it’s more addictive than you’d think.
The gamer plays as Changeling, a type of creature or human who wakes up in a snow-encrusted alternative Europe, teaming with magic, warriors and all types of strange creatures.
The Changeling has amnesia, (yes, that old trick again), and makes his way speaking with different characters and in true RPG style, running errands and completing quests for loot.
But while the game is an RPG in name, the majority of attention has been directed towards combat than narrative.
When the Changeling faces off against an opponent, the combat screen is broken into two sides Puzzle-Quest style, each character with his or her own abilities, skills and talents. In the middle of the screen lies the key mechanic – the poker cards.
Players need to group their cards together into different five-card hands using regular poker combinations such as pairs, straights or flushes, with each hand earning attack points based on their rarity. Cards continually appear in a strange fusion of poker and solitaire.
The key twist is that not only can you steal your opponent’s cards that aren’t already stacked on top of each other, you earn more Rage Points based on how much HP you’ve lost. These allow you to access more powerful spells and abilities, which are accessed by speaking to different characters and completing quests.
It’s harder than you may think. A lot harder. Not only do you need to constantly think about the best hands – by stealing opponents’ cards and blocking their own combinations too – but creating just the right order of Rune Spells can be critical.
It provides a great challenge, even for RPG fans accustomed to turn-based, strategic gameplay, but the math could be daunting to less-experienced players.
Art is vibrant, rich and almost kaleidoscopic in colour, with the bright pallets of greens, blues, reds and purples immediately evoking a sense of fantasy and other-worldliness. A lot of care and detail has been put into these animations, especially those for each attack and ability.
Unfortunately more attention has been directed towards the combat than the narrative. Although conversations break up lengthy combat sequences, and the Changeling actually has quite an amusing, self-deprecating sort of humour, there isn’t much in the way of story here.
Conversations all end up at the same point regardless of which dialogue options you pick; they’re simply for show. It’s a frustrating decision to buyers that may expect more, and prompts questions over why Mystic Box didn’t just take the conversations away entirely.
Obviously independent games are unable to create huge RPG worlds, but there was an opportunity to create a larger-scale experience that seems to have been lost.
There are a few features that could have made up for this, such as the ability to customise your character or even create your own spells and abilities.
(Mystic Box says multiplayer is coming in future updates, although support at launch could have meant the difference between a quick time waster and a runaway hit.)
Runespell is a welcome addition as a unique puzzle title to a market swimming with knock-offs, and is yet another example of how independent developers are one-upping the dominant publishers. Combing two previously uncombined genres results in a challenging, strategic and addictive experience, which makes up for any storytelling shortcomings.