Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Guardians of Graxia Review

Guardians of Graxia, developed and published by Petroglyph Games.
The Good: Varied and numerous units and spells, verbose battle odds, important terrain considerations, competent AI, $10
The Not So Good: No multiplayer, short campaign and few skirmish maps with single objectives and time limits, no random maps or an editor, no difficulty settings
What say you? This turn-based card-and-board game has limited features but engrossing strategy: 6/8

Remember board games? I used to play them a good amount, before the electronic siren song of the computer possessed my soul. The disadvantage of the physical board game is that you need actual friends to play, whereas on the computer one can program an opponent for you. That’s why I am glad to see Petroglyph’s board game Guardians of Graxia make the transition to the PC. And really, who needs actual human interaction these days with the Facebook and the Twitter? This card-slash-board game features cards on a board, and it’s $50 cheaper than its physical counterpart. Does it make a satisfying transition to the realm of digital entertainment?

Guardians of Graxia certainly doesn’t look like a $10 game. The game is presented in 3-D (not a requirement for a board game) and it looks quite nice. The game is reminiscent of Demigod (although not quite as spectacular) with floating maps set against an infinite background. The battlefields are hex-based without the hexes, utilizing offset squares to represent the world in conflict. The game features easily identifiable terrain and useful tool-tips that describe the bonuses (and penalties) of each square. The character models are fantastic, but they have very abrupt battle animations and don’t move as fluidly as I would like. Overall, the epic battles are not: just one attack from each unit is all you’ll see. Guardians of Graxia features pleasurable dramatic background music and a handful of short battle effects, along with typical sound notifications for in-game events. Still, the overall quality of the graphics is far beyond most $10 games.

Guardians of Graxia is a turn-based game based on a board game where you use unit cards and spells to dispose of the enemy. The game features two kinds of scenarios: an unbalanced (by design) campaign consisting of five missions and a tutorial, and four more balanced skirmish affairs. The campaign comes with no difficulty settings; I hate it when developers assume the skill level of their audience. Adding in a range of difficulty levels could be as simple as limiting enemy mana production or decreasing the unit count, but Guardians of Graxia opts for no options. Each of the campaign scenarios offer standard and advanced victory conditions which either involve holding a specific tile or destroying a specific unit within a short time limit (the advanced condition typically involves doing both). Ten maps is really limited, and Guardians of Graxia could greatly benefit from both randomized maps and a map editor. Additionally, the game lacks any sort of multiplayer capabilities, either online or on the same computer. Guardians of Graxia could certainly use more well-rounded features.

All of the game’s units and spells are distributed on cards, owing to the game’s physical roots. Each card costs mana to play, and mana is earned by controlling terrain on the game board. You start with one of four guardians, a hero unit with powerful attacks and special abilities. Additional units can be spawned at your base or (once per turn) near your guardian, and spells can be used both during battles and on the board itself. Guardians of Graxia features a wide variety of units and spells that makes each game play out slightly different, as each unit will have a number of active and passive skills they can use. In addition, each unit is rated for health, attack (magical, physical, or both), and defense. The spells are also interesting, taking advantage of certain attack types or terrain properties. Guardians of Graxia features the variety you would expect to see in any card-based game.

The game takes place in two phases: command and battle. During the command phase, units can move, attack, shield (which is automatic), or use on of their abilities (like summon units or a special attack). You can also play spells or buy additional cards for five mana each; your deck is refilled before your turn, but sometimes you need to get some spells to ward of enemy advancement. Terrain is a very important aspect of Guardians of Graxia, as different tiles may grant bonuses or penalties to specific unit types (magic, ranged, cavalry) or a bonus in mana production. Careful planning and advancement is of significant importance.

Guardians of Graxia features very transparent battle calculations that show you exactly what’s going to happen, based on current ratings. I say “current” because spells can affect the damage values, as I will explain. First off, there is no randomness in Guardians of Graxia, and I think the game is better for it: it’s all about tactics, not about who rolls a lucky “ten”. Used in the calculation is your attack value, the enemy defense value for that attack type, any terrain bonuses, support from adjacent units, and shields for idle units. The total sum is then cut in half (don’t know why) and rounded up to determine how many hit points the enemy will lose. Units may retreat, die, or simply lost hit points (again, the game clearly displays the outcome). To affect the results, you may first play spell cards, and then sacrifice a spell card for a bonus in attack rating (or a reduction in the enemy’s, if you wish). Then, the results are determined and death is delivered. I really like the straightforward nature of the combat, and the use of spell cards means you never quite get what you were expecting. Part of the strategy is trying to guess what the enemy is going to do: do you play that attack spell, or will the enemy not play any so your card is wasted? Interesting stuff.

Since you can’t play other humans, you’ll have to rely on the AI. Despite there being no difficulty settings to adjust things for novices, the computer opponent seems to be demanding enough for strategy veterans. The AI is very cautious, going after vulnerable units where they enjoy an attack bonus. The computer also takes advantage of terrain, spells, and unit abilities, providing a nice opponent that will challenge most players. One stupid decision on your part won’t assure defeat, but several will. While I always prefer human confrontation in my strategy games, the AI does a good enough job to keep things interesting throughout the game’s ten scenarios.

Guardians of Graxia has a great base game that’s in need of more features. Only having ten single-player missions limits the replay value of the game tremendously, despite the large number of units and spells that are randomly drawn for most games. Objective number one for future development needs to be an introduction of a random map generator and a map editor, and objective number two is adding multiplayer. While you do get $10 worth of enjoyment out of the title, I would rather pay $20 for more long-term pleasure with random maps and multiplayer included. The mechanics are done quite well, effectively combining both card-game and board-game tenets. The game is easy to learn because of the straightforward rules. There are a lot of varied units and spells to spend mana on, earned by controlling terrain with diverse bonuses. The game is very explicit about displaying battle estimates before conflict starts, a handy tool for choosing whom to attack next. Finally, the AI provides a good opponent that will take advantage of weaknesses and unit abilities, though the game does not allow you to tweak the difficulty of said AI. While I would definitely like to see more well-rounded features, Guardians of Graxia still gives you good value for a $10 strategic investment.