The puzzle-RPG genre is a fairly new one, though most fans of both RPGs and puzzle games should be fairly familiar with it these days. Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, by Infinite Interactive, largely kickstarted the entire trend back in 2007, and the result was a smashingly successful series of puzzle games with prominent RPG frameworks. Despite numerous games by Infinite Interactive and the sudden popularity of the genre, it's rather surprising that it's taken as long as it has for a true direct competitor to spring up.
That's exactly what indie developer Mystic Box has attempted to provide in Runespell: Overture, a casual puzzle-RPG that trades out the gem-matching Bejeweled-esque gameplay of Puzzle Quest for poker battles. In fact, you'll see a lot of comparisons to Puzzle Quest in this review, but I think it's justified given the similarities and that there are so few other similar games on the market. Despite the overlap, though, Runespell: Overture's fantastic presentation and some addictive, strategic gameplay provide around ten to fifteen of hours of playtime, albeit best enjoyed in short bursts rather than long sessions.
Card-Battling for Fun and Profit
If there's something to congratulate Runespell for, it's a fairly interesting premise. Though there are a few card-battling games available on PC, not many have attempted to combine them with RPG mechanics. Though Runespell never goes in so deep as to ruin its casual focus, it has more customization and options available than many other mainstream RPGs. There are no stats or leveling, but cards effectively take on the same role and provide you with as many options as any other RPG. This is actually a bit of a strength, as it means that while you can outfit your Changeling hero in any way you see fit, you're never locked into one character build, and you can always trade your cards around to get what you need.
In Runespell, gameplay is split between three different modes - an overland map mode, where you travel point-to-point encountering enemies and quest objectives, a town mode where you can trade with merchants, speak to various characters about the game's story and background, and pick up quests and side-quests. If you've ever played Puzzle Quest before, there isn't much new to see here, but it keeps things simple and works just fine. Unlike Puzzle Quest, progress is more linear and there are fewer side-quests, but this helps to keep the pace of the game moving forward.
It's once you get into combat that Runespell's biggest and most obvious hook shows up. Its "mythic poker" battle system makes up the majority of the gameplay, and is by far its most compelling aspect. Battles are always one-on-one, with cards laid out solitaire-style on each side, and three moves allowed per side during each round of combat. On the most basic level, you'll be spending much of your time forming hands of cards from your solitaire deck; complete a hand, and you'll gain the ability to launch an attack. All standard poker hands apply, though their damage varies: while a simple full house will inflict a solid 15 damage, manage to assemble a royal flush and you can deal a whopping 50 damage in a single attack. As most enemies have more hit points than you do, you'll need to be very efficient in how you play.
Where things become a bit more complicated, and interesting, is in the various special cards both you and enemies can use during battle. These include ally abilities, which are limited by cooldowns, and runespells, which are cards you'll collect as you defeat enemies, trade with merchants, and complete quests. Both of these require rage to make use of, which accumulates as you deal and take damage. Most ally abilities you'll gain simply as part of the plot, but the runespells have finite uses that must be purchased or obtained in the field - and while ally abilities will help enhance your damage, it's the runespells that really change the nature of combat and provide you with dozens of different strategies.
This can sound like a lot to take in, but in reality, combat is generally fast-paced and easy to get into. The ways in which your rage, runespell cards, and the different poker hands interact with one another make for some decidedly interesting possibilities. Do you try to bide your time and build up huge and powerful attacks, then launch them all at once, or do you whittle your opponent down bit by bit? Do you load yourself up with passive benefits, or the ally abilities, or go for buffs and debuffs? Moreover, as you're free to draw any unused cards from your opponent's side, you might also adopt the strategy of denying your enemy the cards necessary for it to attack. You'll find that many enemies require different tactics to take down (i.e. wolves drain your rage meter, and barbarians block melee damage), so you'll constantly be on your toes and changing your approach.
I called Runespell a puzzle-RPG earlier, and while that might not be evident early on, a few hours into the game it becomes clear that success hinges on being able to determine and execute the right strategy to finish off an enemy. Some battles, I found, were extremely challenging, until I realized why I was losing, and adjusted my play-style accordingly. Though there is some luck involved, in most cases you will lose because you deserved to, either by making mistakes or by simply not countering the enemy effectively, and not because of random chance. Though you can always try to grind low-level battles for more money and cards, ultimately you're limited by your own ability more than your deck.