Another collectable card game and RPG hybrid hitting the mobile market isn’t normally something to get excited about. At this point the Android and iStores are flooded with titles attempting to successfully do just that and few of them manage to bring anything new or original to the table. Spellstone, the product of a group known as Synapse from Kongregate, manages to exceed all expectations.
If Hearthstone was the fine dining end of the mobile card battler, Spellstone would be takeaway. It’s lighter, less time consuming and on the whole a darn good time. At no point does Spellstone try to take on the current master of the genre at its own game, rather producing something within the same category that excels at everything Hearthstone doesn’t. With Spellstone, Synapse have produced a title that’s exceedingly easy to drop in and out of at a moment’s notice but entices you to play for longer if you have the time (and an internet connection).
Graphically, Spellstone is reminiscent of western comedy fantasy webcomics such as ‘Looking for Group’ and ‘Slimy Thief’. The game is produced in a high quality 2D illustrated style that shows for characters to show considerable detail whilst keeping a comical and overall non-too-serious dynamic in place. Every card contains unique artwork in this style, which matches the games user interface and backgrounds, implying the everything is the work of a single artist. Whilst you’ll quickly find a favourite type of monster to base your deck around, all of them are imaginative and well designed, leaving nothing to feel half-baked or hastily added as filler. All buttons and cards selected throughout play are well sized and easily accommodate a finger or thumb.
Sound for Spellstone is nicely implemented but largely unmemorable. The effects round out the presentation in battle but many of the menus feel weak and confirming something doesn’t seem to feel quite right with a sound effect that’s a little too limp. Turning a card to dust however has a satisfying ring to it, as does combining two into one and purchasing a new card in the store, which are where the games main draw lies. Background music is nice but forgettable, with melodies running for a satisfying amount of time before looping which ensures that in shorter battles you may not hear it happen at all.
Spellstone’s story is possibly a weak point, essentially existing as a thread to tie together a series of ever-mounting encounters. It poses the in-game concept that monsters are summoned from gems called ‘spellstones’ by powerful warriors to act as their armies in battle, and as the game goes on you’ll find that the land is clearly divided between locations based on the various card types. There’s a spreading evil that the player is hoping to stop and mistakes between cultures usually lead to violent clashes. It’s all skippable without missing out on anything and easy to read or ignore at will, but Spellstone gets points for bothering to include a narrative at all. The game does feature characters that are somewhat memorable however, and the sight of a talking bear wielding a spear and announcing that he’s hungry at in-opportune moments does tend to make one smile. Ultimately the games adventure mode is a distraction for a while and a framework to set up to the world’s rules. Starting as a tutorial before becoming quickly punishing to unsuspecting gamers.
Gameplay is based around the concept of card combat almost exclusively, with adventure mode seeing you progress between nodes on one location screen before advancing to the next, although you are able to double back and fight at nodes for better rewards and more gold (the games currency) while they become progressively tougher. This system gives each node over seven levels of difficulty, with completing each one awarding it a star and giving you a card before ramping up the challenge another notch. Story segments are shown before and sometimes after battles as static characters overlaid on the area maps trading quips, and are usually quite short but full of character. The card battles themselves are initially very simple to understand. You draw 3 cards a turn from a 15 card deck and play 1, you opponent does the same and slowly cards begin to stack to the right in an on-going chain. Cards have their own attack and health values as well as a set number of turns for them to become active and start attacking on the field, meaning that placing a card of 4 turns in front of an active character means it will take some damage before waking up and joining the fray. Players each have a health counter of their own and this is emptied when cards not blocked by other cards successfully attack. This simplicity is offset by special abilities on cards such as dealing damage back to those who attack them, freezing other cards and absorbing damage entirely. Cards can also be made more powerful by using an excellent synthesis system where cards can be crushed to produce ‘dust’ which is used to level cards up (the maximum level depending on their rarity) with two fully levelled cards able to be fused into a newer, more advanced form of the original and levelled again. Cards call into common, uncommon and rare categories with each producing a different amount of dust when destroyed and being of varying use in-game. New cards can be won in Adventure mode or purchased randomly from a shop using gold. There is an advanced currency that can be used to purchase just rare cards, but I’ve not found a suitable reason to use any yet when the standard store throws out rares at a reasonable rate and any unwanted cards can be used as fuel for the cards you want to keep. The 15 card deck helps in this regard and it also keeps matches short. There is an auto-play option that selects a card for you each turn and ramps up the game speed, which when your deck is powered up is a valid choice, as the strength of your strategy comes in deck building with a smaller portion of in-battle choices from a limited pool of three. The game also features special events that offer items and cards on their own maps, Player vs Player combat which is where the real action can be found, and a guild system that ups your rewards after battles based on numbers and has its own guild vs guild combat system as well. You can send a hero off to do fetch-quests to earn additional energy (which reloads slowly but does cap gameplay) as well as gold and new cards while you’re offline. Lastly the player avatar can possess his or her own skills and be levelled for better use using dust as well as freely switched between a growing rosta to best suit your play style. It’s a very complete package for a free game that puts almost no emphasis on trying to get money from the player.
Spellstone is an amazing card game that has both simplicity of play and huge amounts of depth once you’ve scratched the surface. With updates and events regularly updated (ranging from new locations to visit, story to play through, guild wars and group bosses), I strongly recommend that anybody who enjoys the fusion of RPG and card games give this one a look, especially when it takes up less than half the memory space of ‘Hearthstone’ and plays flawlessly.