Belarus proved a difficult country to find a video game for during this indie month. This Is The Police 2 proved exasperating to play and the only other game I had in mind was the RPG Legends of Eisenwald, which is far from my area of expertise. On a gamble, I bought Spectromancer, a title developed by the independent studio Apus Software and released in 2005. TCG usually frighten me, but Spectromancer seemed different and I don’t regret giving it a shot.
The Sauron of card games
The game is set in a fantasy world that was once tormented by a powerful magician that held a mysterious prism. The forces of this world eventually banded together and managed to defeat this wizard, after which the prism was split and divided between the members of an enigmatic council that would rule the world. The council was organized in such a way that all members would resent each other and thus no alliances would ever form that could result in the prism being restored.
You play as a young apprentice to one such council member. Your life and the world are peaceful, until the Goddess Celestia one day approaches you and informs you that the prisms are corrupting the members of the council. She guides you in slaying your master and sets you on a quest to travel the various lands to gather the other prisms. The council catches unto your plot and sends countless officials, mercenaries, and assassins to hunt you down.
Spectromancer is an interesting game from a fantasy perspective. Every enemy on the map is accompanied by a bit of lore detailing why your quest led you there, who they are, and where you are fighting. This also translates into actual mechanics as the matches change rules around to suit the person you fight or the surrounding area. These little bits of storytelling go a long way towards painting an interesting world with diverse lands and revered heroes. It’s well-written enough that it never feels like the game is just adlibbing it, but I honestly would have liked to see more games in this setting to explore it further.
The story also builds up some interesting mysteries and I found myself wondering if my main character and the Goddess could be entirely trusted. While I won’t spoil it, the ending to the adventure left me pretty impressed and nicely rounded off the adventure.
Story score: 8/10
What scares me the most about games involving cards is the notion of having to construct a deck. I simply don’t have the foresight to plan a deck that has any kind of synergy to it, knowing that I’ll always have a random assortment of the cards within in my hand. The mixture of tact and randomness is bad enough as it is, but knowing I’ll be competing against people or AI that does have these skills is the deathblow to my willingness to play these games.
Spectromancer feels like it is made for people with this issue. Cards fit within 5 categories: fire, water, air, earth, and a special category that is decided by your class. Each match gives you a hand of 20 random cards, 4 in each category, and you use these same cards throughout the match. You unlock the complete roster of cards as you play through the campaign, so there is zero overarching deck management to be concerned about.
While you only have 20 cards to work with within any given duel, there is no shortage of tact or surprise. Monsters and spells have a cost associated with them and, every turn, the player receives 1 power for each of the 5 magic schools to spend on these cards. You can only play 1 card per turn and it’s interesting to think about which schools you’ll use for low-cost monsters to hold the field and in which ones you want to save up for a stronger card that costs more. The various effects of the cards add to this planning. For example, the phoenix is a mid-range air card, but if it is slain while the owner has 10 fire power, it is immediately resurrected. This can be countered by using spells or monsters with effects that reduce the amount of power the opponent has, just before slaying it.
After you play your one card for that turn, all monsters on the field that can attack will do so. Unless specified otherwise, cards will only attack the opponent’s space directly in front of it. A card like the hydra will attack multiple spaces, but other cards will do damage directly to the opponent’s lifepoints if no card occupies the space opposite it. Managing the six spaces that can hold cards on the field becomes very important. You want to make sure that you get good match-ups that will eventually create openings to attack those lifepoints, or you can be sneaky and put cards with troubling effects where the enemy won’t be able to deal with them quickly.
The game allows for freeplay matches, but the most interesting feature is its lengthy story mode. Clocking in several hours, the campaign sees you journey around a series of maps and fight with the land’s heroes and villains. Matches reward you with new cards, permanent upgrades to your health or elemental powers, or even items with broader uses like being able to spy on the opponent’s cards. The missions also frequently have special mechanics and victory conditions that can be beneficial to you or present a unique challenge.
The campaign took me about 4 hours to play through once and was exciting all the way through. I enjoyed plotting my way through the encounters to get the most beneficial upgrades early and the enemy AI provides a good challenge. It does sometimes make curious decisions, but never feels too dumb and I had to retry a number of difficult missions several times before succeeding.
My only shortcoming with the game is how few cards are actually available. At the start of the campaign, you can’t even fill out the whole 20 slots in your hand. It is much improved by the end, but it still feels like you are constantly seeing the same 50-or-so cards and that often invites a bit of laziness as you realize how easy it is to recycle your tactics.
Gameplay score: 9/10
A spectrum of styles
The game has a lot of effort put into its visuals. It has 3 diverse maps to explore that slowly grow more detailed as you progress through the campaign, there are dozens of cards with detailed art, and the world is populated by numerous people, which means foes you encounter and characters you can choose from enjoy a lot of varied designs. It is very much steeped in familiar fantasy tropes, with evil necromancers, noble knights, elderly clerics, and mages overflowing with power, but it’s stylish and well-presented.
The game does have some issues with readability. The numbers on the cards can be initially confusing and it would have been fun if these cards were decorated with a bit of lore. The story also has a number of typos and grammatical errors, as well as text that is sometimes too long for the text boxes.
While the visuals are neat, the sound-effects and music are a little understated and could have been used to give the game some much-needed oomph. I would have appreciated it if attacks and spells had more impact or if the music played a more prominent role during allegedly-epic boss battles. As it stands, you might as well mute the game or listen to a podcast.
Presentation score: 7.5/10
Spectromancer was a pleasant surprise. With an interesting storyline and accessible card game mechanics, the game is interesting for both TCG veterans who can accept a more casual experience, as well as amateurs like myself who are intrigued by the straightforward, yet deep mechanics. Do beware that a lot of functionality and game modes are hidden behind the DLC, which isn’t immediately obvious.