By Darren Henderson (DizzyPW), Portal Manager and Succubus Collector
It’s not often I have to step out of the role of manager and into the review writer seat on OnRPG but this month has been hectic. So when we learned we could get access to a mobile CCG utilizing hero themed decks for a week + for early closed beta action, I wasn’t going to let the opportunity slide just because the writing staff was swamped. “How much time could it possibly take,” I reasoned, “It’ll just be some simple Hearthstone clone with a shiny coat of paint.” Well a week of midnight binging addiction later, and with custom decks built for nearly every available champion in the game, I now find myself eating that assumption. While at the skeletal level Shadowverse is a high fantasy rendition of the Hearthstone mechanics, its soul, style, and production value push it far above the standard fare of the genre.
Shadowverse has itself an uphill challenge in player recognition, as surprisingly the story behind the cards seems to make a big deal in what players reach out to for their CCG fix. With just about every franchise from Dragon Ball to Warcraft to RuneScape having their own card game on the market now, one wonders how Shadowverse will compete. Well its something I’m rather split on to be honest.
Between the opening trailer of the game and most card’s flavor text (many are still a work in progress as they fill out through the beta), combined with serious voice acting from champions and their cards, you get a feel there is a wonderfully imagined backstory going on here. But afraid you will have to use your imagination to envision it, as it’s like having the points of a connect the dots sheet and no pen to make the connections. All we know for sure is a catalyst called the Morning Star seems to have unleashed monsters, and its your job to harness them to whoop some ass. Let’s dive into the champions themselves and try to make some educated guesses at this world story!
At this time, Shadowverse offers seven deck champion options with the addition of a primarily angelic themed neutral deck that any champion can pull from to complement their tactics. They break down as follows:
Arisa – Arisa seems to be an elven bowmaster tasked with protecting the forests from the encroachment brought about by monster masters from the Morning Star. She’s at tune with fae though new to the role and trying to prove herself. She typically builds a deck around unleashing powerful spells that are empowered by the number of cards in her hand, or unleashing a zerg of low cost cards. If you’re unfamiliar with the mechanics I’m speaking of, I’ll offer a detailed breakdown below. Basically she excels at never being at a loss for options and dominating the early game. But late game her card’s power might fall short. Her mythos seems to indicate the Fae are peaceful and on the defensive in this war.
Erika – A Japanese themed noble swordswoman, Erika is the last line of defense for the royal family of Shadowverse. She commands an army of shining white knights with a theme where cards summon more cards, constantly filling your field with fighters. Her weaker units then gain power through inspiration effects from her higher rank higher cost officers late game, often catching opponent’s off guard at the massive sudden power spikes she can unleash. As a side tactic, she can get a bit shady and utilize ninjutsu units with ambush, a passive that makes them untargetable until they strike first.
Isabelle – Isabelle is hard to pin down as her flavor text cards are all over the board. As far as I can tell, she is a Runesmith that is capitalizing on the power of the Morning Star to make a name for herself as the ultimate magician. For what motive? To gain power over life and death to resurrect her dead fiance apparently. Her deck offers the strategy of cards and field cards acting as sigils to empower monsters later in the game when played, consuming the sigil. She also monopolizes the spell boost mechanic, empowering her spells and monsters, and in rare cases even lowering the energy cost to play them, each time a spell is cast while the spell boost card is still in your hand. This rewards a patient player who can maintain their composure and probably build their deck with some moves that can literally throw the table on your opponent with unexpected power in a single move. Her cards mostly resemble golems and other homunculi and the runesmiths that craft and control them.
Rowen – Rowen has somewhere he needs to be. It’s not revealed where as his military forces were decimated by a powerful dragon attack after the Morning Star emerged, but he’ll clearly offer an honorable fight to the death for anyone that wants to slow him down. He offers the mirror match to Erika, with a weak presence and few playable monster cards early game, but the most devastating raw power filled late game deck. He seems to summon a mix of dragon knights and dragons as his go-to theme, with Overflow as his signature style. Essentially once he reaches the 7 energy per/turn threshold, look out. His dragons are out for blood at that point. Many of his low energy cards focus around speeding up the process of his max energy acquisition, so how you deal with him early game may seal your fate.
Luna – Where do I start. Luna is a horrific little bitch that does more than any CCG I’ve played prior to make me hate her. I honestly have to compliment Cygames for doing so well to make someone I can hate so much. I have absolutely no idea where she fits into the story, as she seems cheery enough. But no matter what a cute and adventurous little girl she may be, the fact is she’s a demonic loli necromancer that sends her followers to die to feed her power. Her mechanic is necromancy, a system that uses the total number of shadow (a combination of shadow points and discarded cards) as fuel to feed special abilities and actives on her cards. Basically she summons little worthless minions that will whittle you down if left unchecked. If you kill them, they’ll come back to life or do other ill effects that feed her late game strategy. And if you try unleashing super powerful cards to cut her down to size, she’ll suicide bomb them or use your own power against you. Whatever Luna’s backstory or motivation, it’s clear she’s not someone you want to run into in this world.
Urias – A vampire lord banished for centuries, the Morning Star has broken the seal imprisoning Urias. Unfortunately this surprisingly honorable vampire wished nothing more than to engage in combat with the man that sealed him, King Balthazar, who is now long gone. With his motivation gone, Urias travels the planes seeking an equally powerful rival to breath life back into his eternity. Urias specializes in cheating death, empowering his vampire and succubus monsters with vengeance, a status that activates when his health hits 10, the halfway point to death. His cards can drain, restoring Urias health by attacking, while many spells do widespread damage and restore health. Urias is all about feigning defeat before unleashing mighty monster cards to rip victory from the hands of his foes before crushing them with unstoppable might.
Eris – The antithesis to Urias, Eris is the kingdom’s high priestess, struck by amnesia by the Morning Star. The whole affair has shaken her faith, and yet she responds by pushing her faith on others harder than ever. Those who will not submit to her holy light will be cleansed by it. If her god is just, she knows she will succeed and restore her beliefs. Her specialty is field cards, low energy cost cards that cannot be attacked by normal means. Her fields act as ticking time bombs, summoning insanely powerful creatures to the field when their countdown reaches zero. But don’t let that timer lull you into a false sense of safety, she has means to rush the countdown to catch you by surprise. Her cards revolve around mythical beasts and caricatures of over the top white knights, then build into darker themes of destroying everything for the cause of heaven’s victory, with full on apocalypse as a final trump card should the world not submit to Eris. Is Urias the ironic anti-hero destined to stop her?
Akin to Hearthstone and older table top card game models, Shadowverse matches revolve around an energy limitation that builds by 1 at the end of each turn. Players are given 3 starting cards that they can choose to put back into their deck for a random replacement card, and then draw a fourth card blindly at the start of their first turn. The goal of the battle? Decimate your foe by attacking down their 20 health points. Even if they have an unstoppable army on the field, if you can put storm onto a basic fairy to nail that last hit point, you will win.
The key mechanic beyond the card strategies that sells Shadowverse is the card evolution system. At the start of the match, turn order is decided randomly, with first getting 2 evolution crystals, and 2nd getting 3 as a means to balance. Evolution crystals serve three purposes. They power up the monster you evolve. They allow a monster played that turn to be able to attack an enemy monster the same turn (a freshly played evolved monster cannot attack the enemy directly to prevent obvious cheese). And finally, occasionally cards will activate special abilities when evolved. Timing and evolution choices can seriously make or break a match, and this mechanic will separate the good from the great in ranked play.
As mentioned before, cards have an energy cost to put into play. They can’t attack under normal situations when played on that turn, unless they have the storm ability which is exceedingly rare. Finally cards have an attack power and defensive power. Unlike some CCGs, defending monsters in this game will always strike back at full power to hit the monster that attacks them, even if that attack destroys them. The only exception to this is if the monster is destroyed through spells or other special abilities. Players only draw a single card each round, and can only hold 8 cards total, and build decks of 40 cards. Simple enough! But with each deck’s theme involved, every match turns this basic premise into an engaging and sometimes stressful experience.
Cygames held very little back for a free to play CCG production. There’s a variety of arenas with animated actions going on that react to battle. From ornate cathedrals to sealed coffins to the forest guardian’s tree, each of the hero’s has a signature battleground representing their home. Each hero has voice acting including a variety of taunts, though I will concede a few comments seemed half-hearted. Also I found a majority of the taunts a bit off, as I wasn’t sure why the mercy command typically seemed to be checking on if your foe was OK. Even many of the cards themselves have recorded voice lines, including occasional attack lines, evolution lines, and death lines. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that every monster card in the game has a secondary evolution card art to represent their change, including flavor text continuing their initial story! Music is also spot on during battles, and I found myself cranking up my Note 4’s sound to listen to the banter whenever I played. I wouldn’t expect half these features in a free CCG, but having them in already during beta was a pleasant surprise.
Critique and Compliments
While most of my review has been cheery, there’s always room for improvement. Many cards are missing flavor text currently. While the game has done an amazing job putting together roughly 400 cards complete with the evolutionary art and voice acting, in practice the total number of cards feels lacking. Some decks have very few options for high energy cards, which can really pigeon hole your strategies. Quite a few tactics feel unbalanced, though I imagine the developers need a larger playerbase testing for data before they could properly tweak the cards to right these wrongs. On that note, the current number of cards is ideal to get the basic themes of the deck into balance before getting too creative and branching out.
Again, the world and characters need some fleshing out as well. The odd banter you can use during fights doesn’t feel rewarding enough. I want to taunt and tease you into making a wrong move, not annoy you with confusing nonsensical lines unrelated to what’s happening. The subtle facial expressions though are certainly a step in the right direction, and a real surprise to see. Perhaps while Cygames is at it, if they could implement some sort of campaign mode to flesh out each character’s story, that would blow me away. They already have the AI implemented, and it plays surprisingly well given the complexity of card strategies, so the hard part is out of the way!
Then there is the elephant in the room. The beta had a super generous economic system that pretty much let me acquire 85% of the cards in a week’s play time. They could tweak this in any number of ways to make a profit. Fingers crossed they find the balance to not scare customers away, but still keep funded to develop updates and expansions.
My final critique is a double edged sword as it also is a bit of a compliment. When matches get truly intense and even, the AI even on an Android Note 4 can have lengthy thinking times before making a move – sometimes even stopping to think again after playing half their move. This pays off in providing smart moves that never often leave you scratching your head as to what’s going on with the AI, but I worry about the load times on lower end phones. Granted if you’re playing PvP the majority of the time, it would never be an issue.
Current State of the Beta: Great
Visuals blow away every free card game on the market, especially if you love high fantasy, and even more so if you like a splash of fan service.
Decks are distinct and full of personality, while being for the most part balanced.
Evolution system pushes battle outcomes further towards skill than luck, while offering some sweet bonus card visuals to boot.
The sound, oh man, they nailed it. Music, voices, special effects are all gold.
Insufficient number of cards pose an issue both on deck variety and potential cash shop limitations to buy time while more cards are tested and made.
Mid-match taunting is wonky. Cool that it’s there, but needs work.
Stop hiding the sweet lore you clearly want to share.