Honestly - I did not set out to review nothing but card based video games this month. Then again, it does give me a chance to compare and contrast them while they are all fresh in my mind. For Christmas I got a new computer, and with it a newfound ability to play games on it (the old computer was in really, really sad shape. I was happy to retire the hamster that was powering it). I discovered the Steam network, and they happened to be having a ton of good game deals on their site over the holidays. I spent way more than I should have there, but picked up a bunch of their games at significant discount. One of those games was Spectromancer, which I got at a really good prices (I got the game and expansion, which usually run around $15 I believe, as part of a 'fantasy pack' I got for $5 total)
I read that Spectromancer was designed by some of the people responsible for Magic: The Gathering. It shares a few fundamentals with that game, but it is a much simpler game overall. You have magic or mana types/pools - and they generally increase by 1 each, every turn (there are other spells and creatures that can alter these values). Cards are randomly chosen from your 'deck' of cards at the start of a match, and they each have a cost value. Once you have enough magic in that pool type, you can cast it. At most you can only cast 1 card per turn. There are two types of cards - spells and creature.
You have a series of slots/spaces in front of you and in front of your opponent. Any creature summoned gets placed in one of those slots. Every round, your creatures will all attack. If there is a creature in your opponent's slot directly across from your monster, then it will automatically block it and take the damage instead of the actual controller. Each controller starts with a specific life value, and spells and unblocked creatures lower it. The premise is pretty simple, and with the 'attack every turn' twist, you don't have to worry about turtling. Sometimes in a game of Magic, a person can play very defensively, and it is a valid way to win - sometimes it is the only way to win. But in Magic you're not limited to the number of creatures you summon, and you generally don't have to attack every round.
These conditions make Spectromancer a much faster game, and I think that is a benefit. You can get through an entire single player campaign in a night or two, but there are a quite a few different classes - and that helps the replay value. All classes have the same basic mana pools of fire, water, wind and earth. But each one has a custom pool as well, and it comes with cards unique to that pool. That gives the different classes a slightly different feel, without making them confusing or feeling unbalanced. You pick a new opponent every round, and each one comes with a new card or ite4m you can win (like a Titan card, which can be a game-changing card to have in your deck, or boosts to your starting life or magic). It all lends itself to a nice sense of progression, while none of the fights ever seem to last more than about five minutes or so, giving it a nice, lightweight feel.
Let's dig down into the game itself and break down the different categories.
Graphics - 4:
Nothing here too revolutionary. Cards are very static, though the artwork on them is generally nice. The only motion you get in the game is when a card 'slides forward' to attack, or some simple spell effects represented on the screen. You can choose from a bunch of different portraits for your character's representations and they are all nicely drawn. There is a simple overhead map that you slowly displays more and more terrain as you 'travel' to beat more opponents on it. It is all very functional and easy on the eyes, but completely unimpressive as well. There are no real cut scenes, just small text boxes that explain the story as you progress.
Sound and music - 4:
The music is nice and fits, but there is not a ton of it and after a few hours it starts to cycle. The sound effects are also functional, if unspectacular. There is no voice acting, no cut scenes - the presentation is very minimal, and while this is by design, it is hard to give a good score as a result.
Gameplay - 10:
The game scores well here for me. The rules are simple, yet there are so many different ways to beat an opponent that matches seldom felt repetitive to me - and I have played through the game 4 times already. There are several different difficulty levels, and while the higher ones were certainly tougher to beat, they felt smarter, not cheaper. There is also a decent little online community playing the game, and I had a very easy time signing up for it and finding matches. It's a pretty simple click and point interface laying out cards and casting spells - I never had any control opens. Also, it has a built-in auto save, which is awesome. I can just close out the window without actually looking for a save command, and then open it back up and I'm right where I left off. It's a small thing, but I really appreciated it. Perhaps my biggest gripe here? You don't get to customize your deck like a person would expect in a collectible card game - but oddly it bugged me a lot less here. I think in part because the matches are so much quicker, there's less pressure to have a great game and not waste 30 minutes or a couple of hours like Magic: The Gathering and Culdcept Saga ask of you when you lose.
Also in campaign mode, they add in a fair amount of variety. You face a fairly diverse set of opponents, and the battle conditions change frequently. Sometimes it is a matter of just taking all their life before your own hits zero. Other times, you have to do it within so many turns. Sometimes you or your opponent will start with cards in play that are not normally part of the game - like an alter that you can summon creatures to in order to gain double their casting cost in magic, or stones that slide around the creature 'slots' every turn, shuffling up which monsters are directly across from whom. This plus the spoils of war you get for winning matches really help to keep the experience from getting repetitive.
Intangibles - 10:
High score, right? Pretty much perfect? Well, in my mind - yes. Does this title feel a bit lightweight? Sure, but it's a fraction of the cost of a full game. So while the production values may be lacking, I think it gives quite a bit for the price tag. The online was very cool - I only had 1 bad experience, and it was a guy berating me for "playing like a bitch and not like a man". Of course, he had just been on the receiving end of back to back 20-some point lighting spells that won me a match that he no doubt thought he was dominating. It was not my usual tactic, but he got off to a fast start, and I had to adjust to a fluid situation by defending his attackers while building up a big counterpunch. That was a big part of the appeal for me - while it is an easy game to pick up but there are so many different things that can happen in it. The average match takes about five minutes, maybe 10 at most. Having just played Magic: The Gathering where a match against the cpu or a person can run 10-30 minutes, or Culdcept Saga where they can run 2-4 hrs, I think Specromancy finds a great balance.
On top of that, the campaign has several classes and difficulties, as mentioned before. There's also a one on one challenge mode where you can fight a cpu opponent and try to earn 'badges' which are just like achievements in the game. You can get these through the one on ones, campaign modes and online matches. They're nothing particularly amazing, but they do give you some extra goals to aim for.
I will admit I'm grading on a bit of a scale here. If this was a full fledged $60 game like Culdcept Saga would be new, then the lack of production values would hurt the score more in the graphics and sound area. Considering there is free online play, badges a one-on-one mode, and a campaign mode in here, it is a really good value if you enjoy these kinds of games. The lightweight feel of the game - the ability to save on close automatically - the ease with which you can learn to play are all major plusses. The story is nothing amazing and its presentation is fairly bland, but really for me the campaign mode was so much more than that.