There’s something about faux 8-bit graphics that (if done well) is enchanting to look at. Of late this style has been undergoing something of a revival and Cardinal Pixel is the latest game to combine simple character schemes with real-time lighting and effects to create something that stands out.
Cardinal Pixel is the first of two planned RPG releases from a small Hong Kong based company named Side Quest and functions primarily as a Freemium title designed to introduce them to the mobile market and help fund their more ambitious second title’s development. Don’t let that fool you into thinking Cardinal Pixel is a shameless cash grab or a bad game, because nothing could be further from the truth.
Visually, Cardinal Pixel is mixing up two dimensional pixel-based artwork for its base aesthetic and card art with use of more modern assets for the cards themselves and visual effects. Layering both the impression of an 8-bit RPG world and that of a contemporary card game played by the player onto the screen simultaneously. Whilst this should amount to a mess on-screen it somehow all comes together to form cohesive whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Clever use of visual effects and lighting give small hints of life to scenes, and some spell cards can be truly spectacular in a manner that early ‘Dragon Quest’ and ‘Final Fantasy’ titles could only dream of. From the viewpoint of practicality, the menus are well spaced across the screen and of a good size to prevent the player from accidentally pressing the wrong buttons and have a simplicity to them that feels natural on a phone, allowing for panning the screen and drag/dropping characters into a party to feel natural.
In terms of sound the game brings to mind the ‘Legend of Zelda’, using short bursts of synth music to good effect. The opening screen features a brief tune before fading to silence, whilst various menu screens feature subtle but upbeat backing tracks that instil a sense of fun to the game, which is mirrored in the slightly more driven combat theme. Sound effects are excellent, with a ‘Dragon Quest VIII’ feel to them that sees every button press rewarded with a small sample that differs greatly from the traditional ‘clicks’ seen in most titles and instead employs a variety of melodies and samples to confirm your actions. Sound design overall is extremely polished.
Sadly there is no actual narrative present in the games ‘Story’ mode, which is instead a campaign that sees the player fight his or her way up 22 floors of a mysterious tower, encountering a different monster on each one. Whilst the games card-based theme and large character pool doesn’t mesh well with telling a single story, it would have been nice to see what Side Quest could come up with to explain the interesting world they’ve presented, which sees Samurai, Gun Slingers and Paladins all existing side by side.
Despite having a fantastic level of visual and aural polish, gameplay is the real meat of this title. Based around a deceptively simple concept (cards as characters in an RPG party), Cardinal Pixel manages to deliver on this front in unexpected ways. The basic method of play is that the player builds a deck which consists of a ore-set number of characters and any three spell cards of his/her choosing. Basic spell cards are given out limitlessly and cover the basics of attack and healing, but additional one-use more interesting spells are dropped frequently and can be stored multiple times for use. When in battle the main character (or party leader) as selected by the player will already be on-screen, but the rest of the party is buried in the shuffled deck and needs to be drawn in order to increase your tactical options. This isn’t as simple as it sounds because your action for the turn is decided by rolling a D4 (4 sided die), with 1 pulling a new card into play whilst 2-4 triggers abilities written on the character cards themselves. This element of chance makes the game a lot of fun and gives character selection a purpose beyond ‘who’s strongest’ because you want to develop an all-round party that covers holes in other character’s skill sets. One may be a great attacker if you roll a 4, but you’ll want 2 and 3 covered by other options such as healing or forcing an opponent to skip their turn. The random nature of the die won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the game provides re-roll items to allow you to shift the odds in your favour, making battles a great deal of fun and with the ultimate goal of whittling the opposing player’s core health to zero before he does the same to you. Matches are short and brutal in this manner, never lasting more than a few minutes and after turn 10 most matches start to inflict additional damage to both sides every round to reduce the chance of an indefinite stalemate. After a battle you have a guaranteed prize, win or lose (winners get 2 prizes, losers only 1) by selecting a chest from seven different shuffled prizes. This feeds into the games core systems, which are fuelled by three types of currency. Gold Coins can be used to purchase 2 types of booster-packs from the in-game shop, one cheaper and lower levelled whilst the other more expensive and higher powered. A third type of booster pack contains even stronger monsters but uses a less common currency that resembles a jewel. Purchasing a booster will grab you a card, with repeated cards levelling up the character you already own and even changing them into secondary forms past a certain point. Buying and using any type of booster will give you ‘Swipe Points’ which are a third currency tier and can be used to buy specific cards from their own section of the shop. It sounds unbalanced but in practice the game throws enough currency at you through daily bonuses, quests, rewards for story mode and even generally on the home-screen by clicking characters who visit you that you’ll never want to more. Buying anything from the games real-cash shop (you can purchase any of the games currencies with the exception of swipe points, which are a by-product of using them) also given you a bonus drop of 200 gold and 200 jewels, showing Side Quest to be a very generous studio indeed. In fact the game is hardly Freemium in model at all, working as a fantastic free game due to its careful balance and the player’s ability to collect any card should they simply play long enough or draw from the right booster pack. Modes for computer and player based games are available at this time, with more dropping soon in an update and festive booster packs currently doing the rounds as rare drops after battles, promising the chance of even adding Santa to your party as a playable character.
Overall, if Cardinal Pixel is only the first game from Side Quest then we are very excited to see what else they can do given more time and an increased budget. Though the lack of a narrative is a shame in the face of such pure imagination, the games charm and sheer fun value make it an essential download.