Runespell: Overture Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Mystic Box
Release Date:2011-07-20
Genre:
  • Puzzle-Solving,Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Top-Down
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Override of the Overture

Though the core combat gameplay in Runespell is extremely strong, the other sides of the game leave a bit more to be desired. The story is the first casualty of the focus on battle. You play as the Changeling, an amnesiac protagonist aided by several allies of various backgrounds, who are all united by their goal to plunder the depths of a foreboding castle, Skullgrim. Though there's potential for drama, conflict and so on, all the characters are fairly one-dimensional and almost never interact with one another; you'll appreciate them for their combat abilities, not their contributions to the story. Moreover, although the game is set in a fantasy medieval Europe, it simply doesn't do anything particularly interesting with that setting; the game's ending, when I reached it, felt more sudden than conclusive. This isn't a huge problem, as I doubt anyone will play Runespell for the story, but as it's one of the game's selling points, I was left expecting a little bit more.

The other big issue with gameplay I have is that there just isn't much to do outside of the card battles. I don't have a problem with the card battles themselves, but due to how repetitive they can grow, I would have liked to see an additional mechanic or two. Pet training, sieges, and upgrading your fortresses in Puzzle Quest all helped break up the match-three battles, and there's little of that to be found in Runespell. Considering that sometimes you're locked into a single battle over and over until you can win, the opportunity to go do something else for a while would have been appreciated. Even customizing your deck can grow a little repetitive, once you've learned most enemies' tricks and the subsequent cards simply increase in power and cost (i.e. Fate Swell I, II and III). There's no multiplayer or optional modes to retreat to, either, which hurts the game's value a little bit.

Last, it's worth mentioning that I have a bit of a strained relationship with the puzzle-RPG genre. I enjoyed both Puzzle Quest games, but the notorious cheating that the game's enemies would pull ultimately led to me never finishing them. Runespell: Overture doesn't have nearly the same degree of cheating, but it's fair to say that the new cards that show up every round aren't random, and the game delights in holding needed cards just out of reach until their usefulness has passed. Sometimes it feels as if the game is saying "hey, you should have waited for that royal flush", but the reality is that since you can't see what cards are coming next, it's impossible to take that "advice" anyway. Later in the game, winning becomes less about strategy and more about spending every last coin you have on cards, which, unfortunately, can lead to grinding. Combine that with enemies who have dozens (if not infinite) numbers of runespell cards versus your own limited inventory, as well as higher hit points, and it's rare for you to get a fair fight. I mention this as a subjective concern, because some players love winning against challenging odds, but personally I would have preferred if enemies were bound by the same realities you are.

Sights and Sounds

Even if you find yourself raging against the machine, at least you'll find it an attractive experience. Runespell: Overture is a gorgeous game, with a hand-painted 2D look combined with a few 3D models for battle animations and spell effects. Though it's hard to place a distinct stylistic comparison, it's quite colourful, without being obnoxious or too cartoony. The user interface is also laid out well and is intuitive to use, with my sole complaint being the inventory screen's limited real-estate for cards, requiring a bit more scrolling than I'd like. You can also choose between "drag-and-drop" or "click-and-click" controls for placing cards, which is a nice touch.

Audio-wise, Runespell features a fairly dramatic orchestral soundtrack with some very catchy melodies, though given the indie nature of the game, that soundtrack is a little bit on the limited side, with a few themes you'll hear over and over. Sound effects are equally capable, but again, relatively limited due to the scope of the game itself. Like the visuals and interface, you'll grow to appreciate certain touches, such as different hands of cards playing different chimes; after a few hours, you won't even need to examine the enemy's cards to tell what he or she is planning. There's no voice acting, so when the music grows tiresome, you won't miss anything by putting on your own playlist in the background, which suits the game's casual nature just fine.

Conclusion

Despite its indie origins, Runespell: Overture is an excellently polished and well-made game, with hours of strategic fun to be had. Though it lacks some features of its competitors, its $10 price tag and the depth of its gameplay help make up for what would otherwise be a fairly sparse package. Still, it's telling that the flaws in the game aren't so much with what it does, but what it doesn't do - it's rare to find a game where my biggest complaints have to do less with implementation and more with a difference of opinion as far as game design goes, so my hat goes off to Mystic Box for the quality of their execution.

At the end of the day, your mileage with Runespell: Overture will vary based on what you think of the genre and how taken to the card battling you are. I can't wholeheartedly recommend the no-frills package to all RPG fans, as those elements aren't quite as fleshed out as they could be, and the story and questing just isn't compelling enough on its own, but if you're looking for some satisfyingly strategic card combat, Runespell: Overture gets the job done in style. There's a lot of potential in the card battling that has yet to be tapped, and with more RPG mechanics to fill a few of the game's more sparse areas, I think a sequel could be a sure-fire hit for RPG and puzzle fans alike.