I’m not going to lie to you – there’s a particularly delicious feeling that accompanies every game that spews from the Game Debate spigot for me to review. But sometimes, when it’s a game I really want to love, or something I’ve really been looking forward to, there’s also sometimes a pang of apprehension – what if it doesn’t meet up to my expectations?
This is particularly true of indie games, of course. You’d need to be dead inside to not admire a dedicated group of coders who have an idea that they all love so much that they’re going to get it out there for people to play against all the odds. It takes vision and belief to join the indie revolution, and these days even the big boys are sitting up and taking notice of these plucky dudes. So it’s always heart-breaking to play an indie game that’s a festering heap of videogame faeces.
So with that in mind, I covered my face and peeked out between my fingers reluctantly while Runespell: Overture was loading. Another entry in the overstuffed fantasy RPG marketplace… is this really going to be worth my while?
Let’s cut to the end. Yes, it is. Very much so.
Here’s a puzzle game posing as a RPG adventure, much like Pop Cap’s Bookworm Adventures. The story revolves around an amnesiac immortal (which is you), trying to breach Castle Skullgrim… but the story is really just a delivery system for interminable rounds of combat. There’s not much more here – a couple of shops, and a few talky sequences, oh, and a simplistic map screen, but basically it’s one punch-up after another. There’s not even really a levelling system to speak of. So, if the combat turned out to be anything less than marvellous fun, Runespell would be doomed.
But it’s great. The word of it is ‘elegant’. In a nutshell, you and your opponent try to make winning poker hands by moving cards around a bit like you do in Solitaire, shifting piles from stack to stack to free up the cards underneath. The better the poker hand, the more damage you deal your opponent. Simple. Each attack builds up rage, which can be used to power certain special attack cards for extra damage and a couple of other minor tweaks.
There’s really nothing to it. As a card game, it holds together well enough, but when you’re desperately waiting for a four of hearts to finish a hand that’ll deal the killing blow, and your opponent is chipping away with pairs and threes-of-a-kind, inexorably whittling you down while you wait for a card which might never materialise, it can actually get kind of tense in a way most RPG combat doesn’t.
There are really two games going on at once, here: The card game in the middle of the screen and the rage-activated power cards. These two co-games don’t really intrude on one another much; I expected there to be power cards that would help you complete hands, or block your opponent from certain moves, but there’s actually no real interplay at all. Which, it turns out, is actually quite a good thing. These two separate elements mean twice the tension, and twice the tactics, without really muddying one another.
It’s true that you will find yourself in battle after battle after battle, and all of them are handled in more-or-less the exact same way. But since the fall of the cards can add such a dynamic element, no two battles are really the same. Additionally, the learning curve is intuitive and natural: At first you’ll concentrate on getting all the best hands you possibly can to score the huge damage, then as you play you learn that blocking the opponent’s moves by taking his cards is a viable tactic. Then you learn to use lower-scoring attacks to bump your rage to allow you to use certain important power cards, and… well, suffice to say there are many strategies, and I’m sure I’ve not mastered them all.
Production is of a pretty high quality for an indie game, mostly made up of beautifully drawn still screens. There’s no voice acting and very little animation, but Runespell knows what it wants to be and does a really good job of delivering.
It won’t be for everyone, of course. I think it’s fair to say, though, that if you’ve ever played Solitaire and enjoyed the process, and also enjoyed any turn-based combat RPG, this genre mash-up won’t let you down. It’s well under a tenner on Steam, and will probably give you six or seven hours’ worth of very low system requirement fun. I’m definitely going to recommend this one. Go play cards!