Thursday, November 06, 2008

Spectromancer Review

Spectromancer, developed by Apus Software and published by Three Donkeys.
The Good: Intriguing gameplay with numerous strategies to employ, easy to learn, great interface clearly shows card attributes, varied card abilities, competent AI opponent, compelling branching campaign mode, online play, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Randomized decks remove overall building strategy, only 48 base cards means some repetition, wizard specialization does not matter much, unimpressive graphics
What say you? A well-designed, if somewhat limited, online turn-based card game friendly to newcomers with a robust single player campaign: 6/8

I think the pinnacle of nerd is turn-based card games like Magic: The Gathering. I never got into that sort of thing, shying away from buying expansion packs of card with funny pictures and numbers on them. It might have something to do with the fact that I thought the genre had more of a role-playing tilt, and I’m not a big RPG guy, with one or two exceptions. Since the modern computer can replace real friends, turn-based card games are a fine addition to the PC, allowing you to play against foes in other locations through online play or against the computer itself. Spectromancer clearly has its influence in turn-based card games, as exemplified by the fact that the developers of the game were responsible for both Astral Masters and Magic: The Gathering itself. A strong pedigree like that is promising; how does the game turn out?

A challenge is how to make card-based games look good on the computer. You could go all-out and develop a 3-D environment that brings the game world to life, as a lot of turn-based RPGs tend to do. Or, you could stick to the card dynamic and live in the realm of two dimensions. Spectromancer opts for the latter choice, which is fine, but it doesn’t go much beyond just showing cards. The most impressive aspect of the game’s graphics is the subtle cloud movement during the loading screen and main menu; it caught me off guard to see the background moving when I didn’t expect it do. Spectromancer is fixed at 1024x768, which can either be expanded to fit the screen, put empty space along the sides, or (my personal favorite) run in a window. The cards themselves, usually a haven for high-quality fantasy art, are just OK. Using big card size to show more detail means more scrolling through your deck, and the small icons are not that impressive. One very bright spot in Spectromancer is the interface, specifically the card information. Each card displays a health bar, attack rating, amount of health remaining, and the amount of power required to cast that card clearly: awesome for new players. This is immensely helpful in playing the game; although you have to scroll over cards to read their special abilities, having all of the important information available at a quick glance is a great feature. Spectromancer also uses circles for spells and squares for creatures: another immediately accessible feature. Unfortunately, the card combat is very unimpressive: most attacks are simply a card moving toward the enemy, and you will only witness the occasional lightning bolt. For a game that centers around battle, you sure have to use your imagination a lot. The sound is basic for the genre: the usual assortment of effects that have about the same amount of quality as the graphics (not much), and repetitive but fitting background music. Apart from the excellent user interface, Spectromancer has disappointing graphics and sound.

If you haven’t guessed it already, Spectromancer is a turn-based card game. The goal is to decrease your opponent’s health to zero by casting spells and summoning creatures to attack and defend. There is not a tutorial to learn the game, although the in-game help does a decent job at it and the single duel mode can be used for practice. The single player campaign is one of the highlights of the game. The campaign offers up two to three progressively more talented opponents at a time that you can choose from. Each match will come with some rules, usually in the form of a special card that affects one or both people. Winning the battle usually means defeating the enemy, but sometimes not: you can occasionally win just by surviving past a specified round or casting an expensive power. This kind of variety makes the campaign quite entertaining. Success comes with a bonus: a stat increase or a card added to your deck. It may have been something that could have taken a back seat to the online play, but the campaign in Spectromancer is fantastically done.

Did I say “online play?” Yes, Spectromancer features multiplayer on the same computer (for the two of us that have actual friends), over a LAN, or through the game’s server. Joining a match is very easy, as you are placed into a game lobby and requests for matches can be made. The lobby indicates the skill level of the opponent; although everyone gets the same deck (minus the specialty class), some players will obviously know what the heck they are doing, and those unfair matches can be avoided easily. Being a turn-based game, Spectromancer doesn’t rely on lightning-fast connection speeds, so lag was a non-issue. The only feature I did not see during online matches was a turn timer, so that could become a possible issue when dealing with sore losers.

Spectromancer has cards split across four main categories (fire, water, air, and earth), and each player has a fifth specialization based on their occupation (holy, mechanics, death, chaos, control, illusion). I wish the specialization meant more in terms of varied gameplay, as the cards in the fifth category are essentially the same as the ones in the other four, and they are certainly nothing that will alter your overall strategy in any grand sense. Another feature Spectromancer lacks is deck customization. While it makes it more fair that everyone gets randomly chosen cards (you get four out of twelve cards in each category, selected evenly in terms of cost and power), this also removes an element of strategy that pretty much every other card-based game has. You won’t have to spend hours tweaking your deck to perfection, but veteran players will probably be miffed by this limitation. You will also notice the limited number of cards present in Spectromancer: the entire game has about the same amount of content (96 cards, but really only a maximum of 56 per player) as just two decks from Magic: The Gathering (40 each). Luckily, games like this are ripe for expansions.

Once you get your cards, you never use them up, as you can cast the same creature or spell as long as you have the power for it. You will gain one point in each category each turn, although some spells and creatures can increase the income rate. You can only play one card per turn and most creatures do not attack the turn that they are placed. Where strategy comes into play is where to place your card on the board: there are six slots and creatures will attack any creature directly across from them instead of injuring the opponent (the overall goal). Thus, there are a lot of interesting strategies to employ regarding which cards to play where. Some creatures can be used as “cannon fodder” to defend against an opposing creature with a high attack rating as you wait for a powerful spell to become active. The ebb and flow as you transition between defensive and offensive action offers a nice deviation in the gameplay. There is a nice variation in the cards as well, despite having a relatively limited number to choose from. Creatures and spells usually come with some sort of special ability, whether it be attacking the opponent, healing friendly troops, giving more spell power, or just hurting everyone equally.

The seemingly simplistic mechanics of Spectromancer (especially when compared to other card games that are initially very complex) do come with some interesting strategies. Is it better to attack the creatures or the enemy wizard? Better to use a spell? Where should you place your creature? There are definitely some interesting possibilities and, despite the lack of copious cards in the game, games do tend to play out slightly differently each time. The battles are also quick (five to ten minutes), perfect for those people on the go. If you are stuck, there is in-game advice that will suggest a card to play, although the game is pretty easy to learn on its own. The AI is a very competent opponent that makes smart strategic decisions on higher difficulty levels. Occasionally they will make a bone-headed move, but they will almost always pull out something interesting in each match.

If you’ve ever been somewhat interested in turn-based card games but were scared off by the complexity or cost, then Spectromancer is an excellent place to start as the game is simple enough for beginners. Veteran players might deride the lack of depth introduced by the randomized decks and limited number of cards, but the game is still fun to play. The cards support some interesting strategies during the game, and the interface and in-game advice make playing Spectromancer a breeze. The game modes are also comprehensive, from the excellent campaign mode to online play. There is certainly room for improvement: the number of cards could be expanded to remove some repetition, specializations don’t impact the gameplay, and the graphics could be better. There is also too much luck involved in which cards you get: most card-based games use designing a deck as a major part of the game, but Spectromancer favors pure chance. Still, at a budget price of $20, Spectromancer offers quick, simple matches geared towards novice players looking for an introduction into the world of turn-based card games.