Will this be the new Hearthstone?
Publisher: Headup Games
Platforms: Microsoft Windows (reviewed)
Disclaimer: Copy provided by the developer/publisher
Electronic collectible card games (CCG) tend to have a hard time right now. Hearthstone completely dominates the field with its attractive business model and ubiquitousness on both YouTube and Twitch. It’s basically the go-to digital CCG nowadays and with good reason. Can Nightbanes compete with Blizzard’s inconspicuous juggernaut?
Thematically, the game has a quite unique inspiration, since it’s based on the horror genre. Both the characters as well as the monsters represented on the cards are grotesque creatures of the dark and overall the design oozes with style. However, there’s really nothing beyond that that ties the theme together. Many of the powers of these cards aren’t explained by what monsters they represent and as such, the theme seems very thin once the initial wow-factor of all the possible cards we can acquire has worn off.
But enough about the theme, we’re here to talk about mechanics. And here is where Nightbanes seems to offer the most unique things it has to present. There’s no traditional mana pool, you can play every single card whenever you like. With the caveat that you can only play one card per turn. So you can either play your weakest monster or the biggest beast in your deck. Though it’s not that easy, since every card has a bloodlust-meter that indicates how many turns a card stays inactive after being played out before it can attack, which is a neat little idea in theory.
A particular quirk of the game is, that cards are laid out left to right and every card can only attack the card opposite to it. Meaning that if I were to have two cards on the field and my opponent one, my leftmost creature would attack his card while the creature to the right can directly attack my opponent and reduce his health. It’s a weird system whereby you cannot directly target your abilities. This ties directly into both magic cards and your hero power, since you can’t target those either. You’re basically at the mercy of a random number generator which takes away a lot of the agency the player has over how things play out.
Another problem with the way cards attack becomes obvious when you’re behind your enemy and helplessly have to see how he decimates your health. The one card per turn limit basically ensures that you cannot catch up once you lose control of the board unless you’re in possession of particular hard removal. But even then you’re already handicapped in the very next turn since you can’t use removal and populate your board in the same turn.
Aside from mechanical issues that I can’t imagine being fixed in some way, there are other flaws in the game that could theoretically be fixed. The biggest one is the monetization scheme. While the developer claims that every card can be unlocked for free, this comes with a massive asterisk. It takes ages to unlock cards through quests. In each area you’ll find a bunch of enemies that give you cards upon defeating them. However to defeat them you have to play multiple rounds against them. And if you’re intent on unlocking the actual boss of any given region, you need to beat every character during that quest three times, each time with more matches than previously. Even though any given match only lasts about 2 minutes, it quickly becomes very tedious to fight the same enemies with the same decks more than a dozen times in a row.
You might ask yourself how this quest design ties into the monetizaion of the title. Well you can technically also just buy the cards in the shop they’ve included, but once you see the prices you’ll quickly reconsider. It takes ludicrous amounts of in-game currency to buy cards and you still need to do the quests over and over again to gather enough currency to buy these cards. This is only exacerbated with the crafting mechanic by which you can upgrade cards, since that also consumes tons of currency. Never mind the fact that you can also evolve cards by combining multiple cards into new ones, though this option naturally also costs something. There’s just so many layers of spending currency here and it’s painfully obvious that the whole experience is designed around driving you to the shop as quickly as possible.
Now I’m not gonna accuse a CCG of being pay-to-win, because that would be redundant. Every CCG is pay-to-win, that’s the very nature of the business model, you buy more cards to get the most powerful ones in the game and thus devise better strategies to defeat your opponents. But here’s the punchline to that: In my time with the game, the only strategy I could discern while playing matches was filling the board as fast as possible with minions that can attack almost immediately, in order to decimate the oppositions health before they can get their board rolling.
So in closing, no, I don’t think Hearthstone has anything to fear from Nightbanes. The theme in Hearthstone resonates far more than Nightbanes’ and it has more avenues of strategic play with a far more compelling business model that isn’t built entirely on either grinding endlessly or paying money for cards.