Monthly Archives: January 2015

Assassin’s Creed Unity: Dead Kings Review

Whether it's a sequel from an annualized racing series or an expansion pack to a well-received game, there's comfort in the familiar--and, potentially, boredom as well. Dead Kings, the first downloadable content for Assassin's Creed Unity, is an unfortunate example of the perils of taking the beaten path and the design bugs that go with it. So it's a minor blessing that protagonist Arno Dorian returns without a thirst for vengeance or a love interest to protect, his two motivations from the main game. All he wants to do is leave late 18th century Paris...almost as much as I do.

It is from a "one last heist" premise that Dead Kings springs forth. Without the need for money or emotional attachments to complicate the situation, Arno comes into the job as a brooding ex-assassin who just wants to get away from all the dark memories of his time in the city. This is also why Dead Kings is set in the Parisian suburb of Saint-Denis rather than in Paris proper. Safe passage to Egypt is Arno's reward; all he has to do is find a manuscript and solve several tomb puzzles. One would think that a ticket from Paris to Egypt would be less complicated, but it wouldn't be much of a game if Arno just spent a day pickpocketing for boat fare, now would it?

The Marquis de Sade, one of the highlights of Assassin’s Creed Unity, makes a welcome return.

The sight of a new set of vertical bars in the Progress Tracker provides an initial (and irrational) hope that Dead Kings might aspire to more than the usual half dozen story missions expected from Ubisoft's post-release add-ons. Suppress your enthusiasm early: aside from one bar devoted to tracking the six main assignments, the other columns represent an unremarkable swath of optional missions and collectable trackers.

Dead Kings is a wholly unsurprising sampler pack of many of the mission types from Assassin's Creed Unity, right down to the easy-to-solve environmental puzzles. Tailing objectives are painless, as are the foot chases, which both benefit from thick urban designs. As one who was indifferent to the much flaunted crowd densities of Assassin's Creed Unity, I greatly preferred maintaining pursuits from rooftop to rooftop even if my target was on the street. A combination of patience, guard patrol observations, and an ample supply of stealth gear ensures that you can clear a few missions completely undetected, if that's your preference.

Of all the Parisian characters sporting inexplicable English accents, these Raiders have some of the strongest cockney accents.

If you guessed that the title “Dead Kings” implies that tombs are to be raided, then you are absolutely correct. Much as in the search for the Well of the Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark, you have an advantage over the looters desecrating catacombs for treasure. Dr. Jones had better information than the Nazis; Arno has wall climbing skills, which is all he needs to get ahead of the Raiders, the new faction of this DLC. They're not an especially bright bunch. In fact, compared to elite guards, alley gangs, and other factions from prior Assassin's Creeds, the Raiders are no more than annoying thugs with longer lifebars.

As if to recognize that we may not have patience for these bullies, Ubisoft included one of the most useful and potent weapons in franchise history: the Guillotine Gun. If you can buy into the absurdity of the Animus, then you won’t laugh when I tell you that I assumed that this weapon would fire wide guillotine-inspired blades, like a primitive version of the plasma cutter from Dead Space. The reality is less novel, more practical, and resoundingly brutal. The Guillotine Gun is a bayonet on steroids; two blade swings can take down brutes and the firing mechanism functions as either a grenade or mortar launcher, depending on the distance. As with any high damage weapon in the series, dealing death is utterly satisfying, provided you don't get caught in the blast of your own gunfire.

The completion of a campaign should leave you with the sensation of a job well done. It should not leave you with the relief of knowing that you won't have to endure another second of a mediocre game. I experienced the latter during my playthrough of Assassin's Creed Unity and had similar impressions of Dead Kings, albeit in a slightly more tolerable bite-sized package. This new content is best experienced by those who have yet to complete the main story, since the Guillotine Gun is a sufficient stress relief tool for coping with Unity's glitches (although you will experience the story out of sequence). As much as I appreciated the shift away from the crime investigation premise of Assassin's Creed Unity, sending Arno on a mere fetch quest turns Dead Kings into the blandest kind of open-world adventure, in which a man who used to be a hero is reduced to a mere errand boy.

Rumor: Spider-Man to Appear in Avengers 3

Update: Not surprisingly, Sony has denied the validity of this report.

According to CBR, a Sony Pictures representative called Latino Review’s story an "old rumor" with "no validity whatsoever." Does that mean Spidey isn't joining the MCU? Or is Sony just covering its bases for now? Time will tell.

Original story follows...

Most of us probably know by now that Marvel once talked to Sony about getting their prodigal son Spider-Man to be in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The original plan was for the web-head to appear in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, but to our knowledge that plan fell through. However, a new rumor suggests that Spidey will appear in Marvel's The Avengers: Infinity War, Part 1 in 2018!

Continue reading…

Lost Constellation Review

The storyteller's art involves more than simply repeating tall tales of old, or reciting scripts that have been committed to memory. A true spinner of yarns is a conduit that filters a story through his own experience, drawing you in not just through the epic he relates, but also through the embellishments he gilds it with. He knows how to tell a legendary fable as if it's the first time you've heard it.

Lost Constellation's great accomplishment is that it captures the improvisatory spirit of the bard and the jester. Characters in games don't often speak like people actually speak--they speak like writers write. In this ephemeral 2D adventure, the characters aren't people; they are cats and mice, snowmen and alligators. Yet they speak as if they are individuals unto themselves, rather than exposition machines. What they say might baffle you: "I'm not following this line of logic," exclaims the game's heroine to a mouse that serves as the gatekeeper of a mysterious totem. Later, the young cat that stands in as the game's audience asks the narrator--her grandfather--what this story is about. "What do you want it to be about?" he responds. Whether or not you find that reply helpful or unhelpful depends on how important it is to you that a tale provides all the answers and dutifully states its meaning.

As the alligator astronomer that stars in Lost Constellation, you move to and fro as you might in an old-fashioned platformer, but this is a PC adventure of the classic sort, gating narrative developments behind light puzzles and exploratory tableaus. Interactions are simple: you gather snowballs and throw them, build and customize charming snowmen, and speak with the delightful denizens of the woods you travel through. The simplicity complements the story, stressing the graceful snippets of dialogue with object collection and chime-ringing. Lost Constellation is not so much about "what," however, than it is about "where" and who."

The "where" is a forest of wintry beauty. The trees grow towards the heaven as you watch, rising from their current infinity to an even greater infinity, if such a thing were possible. You enter a coffin salesman's hut, and the background peels away, leaving you to bask in the warmth of the tiny cottage. It's such a small but meaningful detail, the way the falling snow dissipates and you are left with the orange glow of a cast iron stove and the comforting presence of a pipe-smoking fox resting in a rather cozy coffin. The "who" is a funny and diverse bunch, from a royal troupe seeking audience with a spirit, to a rat forced to confront her own wickedness. Lost Constellation's surreal soul, however, emanates from those snowpeople you build, who come to house the lost spirits of the wood.

He isn't beautiful, exactly. But he's in a class of his own anyway.

The question of "why" still lingers when Lost Constellation draws to a close, but by then, it has fulfilled its purpose admirably, not just as a brief adventure, but as a companion piece to the developer's forthcoming Night in the Woods, a more expansive game set in the same universe. The game's clearest and most human sentiment accompanies that finale, at which point it muses on how we seek connections to the things we least understand--a suitable conviction for a story with such free-associative ideas and dreamlike tangents. To play Lost Constellation is to wrap yourself in a fleece blanket and shelter yourself from the cold.

Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth Review

A defining moment of Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth comes at the end of the second dungeon. Throughout the five floors, in between random battles, dodging damage floors, evading high-level enemies, and drawing a detailed map of places you've been, you are asked to answer questions about what you want in an ideal partner. Lo and behold, right before the penultimate dungeon boss, I was plopped down into a flowery, fairytale-wedding wonderland with Marie, a mysterious, bitter girl with a secret penchant for writing terrible poetry. As we progressed towards the boss, I was given the option of making all manner of cheesy, romantic gestures towards her for the sole purpose of watching her get adorably flustered. After defeating the boss--a disturbing, four-armed caricature of a minister--I exited back to the hub, only to find another piece of poetry Marie had tried to hide about her would-be marriage to me. It was then and there, with that ridiculous bit of character interaction, that my love for Persona Q blossomed.

Persona Q is a mix of the Persona series’ character interaction and the careful first-person labyrinth exploration of Etrian Odyssey. It takes place between the events of Persona 3 and Persona 4, uniting the casts of the two games in a strange alternative dimension that resembles the Yasogami High School festival. Everything about this world is off: the otherworldly shelter known as the Velvet Room is in shambles; time stalls like one never-ending day; the festival attractions have morphed into elaborate labyrinths filled with enemy shadows; and the only people from the bizarro Yasogami who pay any attention to the squads are the enigmatic--and unsurprisingly amnesiac--Zen and Rei, two students unknown even to the P4 team. It’s up to this motley crew to challenge the dungeons and solve the mystery of the endless festival.

The first thing you notice about Persona Q is the visuals. While the interface and overall presentation are comfortably familiar to anyone who has spent time with Persona 3 or 4, the characters have been transformed into adorable caricatures. They might be more cartoony, but it doesn’t mean that they’ve lost their appeal. In many ways, these precocious polygon models are even more expressive than their pre-Persona Q counterparts. It’s tremendous fun to watch the chibi cast members emote their way through the game’s various scenarios, including some truly absurd situations (like the would-be wedding) that are bound to make you smile.

The visuals go hand-in-hand with the game’s overall tone. The mainline Persona games strike an interesting balance between the serious and the comedic, with humorous scenarios lightening the tension after dramatic encounters. In Persona Q, the emphasis is firmly focused on the “comedy” end of the scale. Character traits and quirks are played up heavily (sometimes to the point of minor annoyance--yes, Chie likes meat, we get it), and putting both casts together allows the scenario writers to create fun interactions that weren’t possible before: Teddie trying (and failing miserably) to hit on the stone-cold Mitsuru; Kanji developing an intense affection for adorable Persona-using doggie Koromaru; and everyone in the game mocking poor Theodore. That’s not to say that there aren’t serious moments in the game--there are some touching exchanges, like Yukari talking with Rise and Fuuka about her character flaws, and them giving her a dose of harsh truth in reply--but the seriousness is relatively rare. Typical story sequences, optional side quests, and bonus scenes tend to portray the characters as adorable little goofballs, more than anything else.

But once you step foot into the first labyrinth, the Persona elements take a seat behind the Etrian Odyssey influence. These multi-floor, grid-based mazes are presented in first-person format (much like the original Persona, actually), and you can map the dungeon and its various hazards on the bottom screen by drawing and making notes with the stylus. The mapping element adds to the fun of exploration and the feeling of progress and completion. There’s even an onscreen indicator that tells you how much of the current floor you have yet to see, which intensifies that compulsive, completionist drive to find absolutely everything. The dungeons themselves are fun, too: a strange Alice-in-Wonderland labyrinth; a take on the ill-fated Group Date Café from Persona 4; a spooky Japanese-horror-film school/hospital; and so on.

They’re no relaxing stroll, however. The maze halls are filled with mysteries, puzzles, traps, and hazards. Damage panels, collapsing floors, dead ends, hidden passages, treasure chests, and item collection spots are among the things you might encounter. Every so often, you run into character dialogue and story bits as well. While generally entertaining, these scenes are sometimes placed awkwardly, interrupting exploration just when you’re getting into a groove.

These precocious polygon models are even more expressive than their pre-Persona Q counterparts.

Of course, these wouldn’t be proper dungeons without enemy encounters. The combat interface here is pure Etrian Odyssey: you fight enemies from a first-person view, seeing your party members only during special attacks. You make menu-driven action choices for all of your characters in one go for each turn, watching the combat between you and your foes play out after you’ve entered in all your party’s commands. It’s markedly different from P3 and P4, where (depending on AI settings) each character’s turn allowed them to be controlled individually. Because of this shift, the weakness-exploiting system of P3 and P4, which granted characters extra actions, has been changed into a “boost” system: by scoring critical hits and exploiting enemy weaknesses, characters enter a “boost” state that reduces skill costs to zero and allows them to act first on the next turn.

At first, combat seems a bit overwhelming--enemies hit hard, and your characters start out with very few usable skills. Soon after launching your dungeon-crawling escapades, you gain access to more Personas to utilize. Unlike P3 and P4, where only the lead character can change Personas, every character can equip a sub-Persona that grants them additional skills and status boosts--with the caveat that these Personas cannot be changed mid-fight. This can help characters cover weaknesses and augment their combat capabilities, but the inability to switch mid-fight means that you can sometimes find yourself in a battle with few, if any, effective skills on hand. In a pinch, you can also use extremely helpful navigator skills from Rise and Fuuka, depending on what Personas they have assigned, and provided you have enough energy in your gauge to do so.

At first, combat is tough. If you’re unfortunate enough to run into some of the fiercer enemies that appear directly on the map--the dreaded FOEs--the first time you explore a floor, you’re bound to regret it very, very quickly. The ever-present threat of the FOEs quickly becomes the biggest source of tension in the game, as they can usually down you within a few turns if they catch you unprepared. Fortunately, they also follow specific behavior patterns, and learning to recognize these patterns allows you to avoid them... unless you screw up, of course. When you’re even mildly low on resources and eager to explore more, the question of “Do I go back? Or do I run around some more and risk getting cornered and wiped out by a potential FOE lurking in the next room?” is a real conundrum.

FOEs are extremely dangerous, but even the standard encounters are very rough if you don’t use the combat system to its fullest. A few floors in, when you’ve started to get the hang of fighting, the combat never quite reaches the challenge level of some of Etrian Odyssey’s most harrowing random encounters. Particularly open to abuse are dark and light instant death spells, as many enemies have a weakness to either one or the other. (Naoto, who can access both skills naturally, quickly becomes one of the game’s most powerful party members as a result.) Finding the most effective skills and fusing them onto as many Personae as possible significantly reduces the challenge, though the scarceness of cash (and the Etrian Odyssey sell-dropped-loot-for-cash-but-you-have-limited-inventory system) can make the expensive process of Persona fusion a bit of a grind. Combat is enjoyable enough, but it’s not as much fun as the character interactions or the dungeon exploration process.

Once you step foot into the first labyrinth, the Persona elements take a seat behind the Etrian Odyssey influence.

Persona Q doesn’t quite hit the peaks that Persona and Etrian Odyssey do on their own. It does, however, take some of the best elements of each game, blending them together into an immensely satisfying and lengthy RPG. Persona Q is proof that this series has the power to delight, surprise, and engage, no matter the form it takes.

Kalimba Review

Kalimba is bereft of both filler and fat, an especially impressive feat for a game that forces you to control multiple characters at once. Unlike many platformers that let you get comfortable with a newly introduced gameplay mechanic across multiple stages, Kalimba's developer, Press Play, is perpetually eager to show you something new in every area. For example, one stage introduces character swapping, while another enlarges your heroes to four times their normal size. It's a notably streamlined approach, not only compared to other side-scrolling adventures, but also when measured against Press Play's prior platforming endeavors like Max: The Curse of Brotherhood.

Whether they be crystals, orbs, or emeralds, the malicious scattering of valuables is a time-honored adventure game premise. In Kalimba, the catalyst is an evil shaman, whose goal of disrupting the island setting's good vibes is simplistically akin to a bully kicking over someone else’s sandcastle. Specifically, the shaman breaks up a totem into its separate animal parts, blanketing the island in darkness. The equally plain protagonist tasked with retrieving the totem pieces is called the Shaman Lady, essentially just a marker that travels throughout the stage select screen. The real heroes are the totems who traverse Kalimba's highly hazardous two-dimensional levels. You are told that the Shaman Lady controls these totems, but that single-sentence factoid is as unnecessary as the lady herself.

The fear in the totems' eyes is justified.

From the first stage, Kalimba looks like two platforming games split horizontally down the middle. The goal of getting to the other end of the level is straightforward enough; the challenge is that the halves are never alike and you're controlling two totem characters with a single control stick. With levels abundant in deadly pools of black lava (among other numerous dangers), learning to move one totem without endangering the other becomes quite the puzzling task.

Any sense of novelty from controlling two characters simultaneously is forgotten early in Kalimba with the introduction of color matching. As in Outland and Ikaruga, matching colors is essential, and touching conflicting colors with your totems fatal. You often have time to plan your next move, but there are numerous moments without this luxury. When both characters are launched from a cannon and sent flying through multiple screens filled with colored waterfalls, survival is only possible through adept color-matching character swaps, often in rapid succession. One of the stimulating joys of Kalimba is how it rewards presence of mind and the ability to think two or three steps ahead. But when you try to plan four or more steps ahead, you're penalized for being too clever. Consequently the temptation to outsmart a stage (and by extension, the developer) is ever-present.

One of the few visually vibrant areas that is pleasing to the eye.

When Press Play isn't trying to outsmart you with its level designs, the studio balances that fine line between cruelty and fairness. Kalimba's approach to retries isn't so antiquated that you start out with the standard issue three lives. You also don't have to worry about getting 100 coins or rings to gain additional lives. Instead, there are 70 item pickups in each stage; dying reduces a portion of those pickups. Perfection, which means keeping all 70 pickups, is rewarded handsomely with a gold totem, while poor performers are shamed with a deformed block of wood. No matter the result, getting to the end of a stage unlocks the next one. In a game that demands a lot for the highest awards, I admire Press Play's leniency, enabling subpar players to continue progress. Racking up double-digit deaths in a given area may make you cringe, but you'll smile as well. Like many other well-tuned platformers, Kalimba instills you with confidence that a perfect run is only a handful of retries away. And even after you've restored the land with a 100% gold totem pole, the taunting digits of friends' completion times and the drive to set new records will give you the incentive to revisit each level.

Patience is a prerequisite of all good platformers, but saintly patience is helpful when enduring Kalimba's couch co-op levels. Press Play wisely avoided the lazy route of merely repurposing the single-player levels, since giving each totem independent movement would make a playthrough too easy. With levels specifically designed for co-op, this mode is reminiscent of the same-screen co-op Super Mario Brothers games from the past few years, just slightly less hectic and with a lower risk of damaging relationships.

You saw this ice level coming a mile away.

For all the engrossing elements that drew me to replay the same stages in the pursuit of perfection, I was surprised that I felt indifferent about many of Kalimba's features beyond gameplay itself. While the vibrancy of the art direction is pervasive, the colors are seldom complementary and lack cohesion. It was also difficult trying to get a handle on Hoebear the Metabear, the narrator and teacher who is meant to supplement the in-game hints. His blunt attempts at fourth-wall-breaking humor fall flat, as does his unperturbed attitude about some of your accomplishments. His laid-back demeanor is poignantly out of place and his casual attire makes him more suited as a Margaritaville tour guide than an island sage.

The few memorable visuals are the moments when characters, structures, and the user interface smoothly disintegrate into tiny triangles. Watching these triangles float around the screen conjures mental images of polygonal models from the PlayStation's early years, only now these shapes fly through Kalimba's environments with graceful fluidity.

Some co-op levels require controlling four characters at once.

The beauty of Kalimba is in its high replay value, even more so than the gratification of solving its platforming puzzles. A lifetime of experience in this genre might lead to a gold totem in your first attempt in a given stage, but don't be disappointed if such achievements are rare. Kalimba doesn't need to pad its overall play length with similarly-styled levels, because getting all 70 pickups without dying is a test in and of itself, especially when you have to keep your eyes on two characters simultaneously. From a multitasking standpoint, I could see skilled drummers quickly picking up on Kalimba's platforming depth.

Scrolls Review

My opponent is smart. After laying a laughable ambulatory eldritch owl creature on the board in her first round, she lulled me into a false sense of security by laying a warrior on the battlefield on her second turn. Sure, he can attack at every single turn, but he only hits for two damage and only has two health. He can wait. I already have a deranged cultist on the board that will kill her warrior on my next turn, but to be safe, I put a putrid shrine between my cultist and her warrior. But that eldritch creature gives her small army more resources with every turn, and she lays down a forest shrine that periodically heals her Nordic warriors. I can't kill the shrine in this turn, so I sacrifice a small bauble that would allow me to curse my opponents so I can play a ravenous zombie from my hand. In a couple of turns, she will regret not laying out more offensive weaponry.

Or so I thought. On her next turn, my fiendish opponent gave her warrior a magic ring, and suddenly his attacks hit harder. "It's fine," I told myself. He still only had two health, and my cultist was going to kill his protection that turn, leaving my zombie free to tear him to shreds next time. I laid down a wolf. I had three attackers to her one. I killed the shrine only for my opponent to lay down a cheap scout, and then my troubles really began. She cast verdant magic, and suddenly, this simple peasant warrior had more health and was immune to my own necromancy. A couple of turns later (and more foolishness on my end), that single unit had health and attack in the double digits and was slaying my units whenever they entered the battle. I surrendered and congratulated my opponent on her clever play.

Decks can be single-resource or mixed.

Scrolls, the latest game from Minecraft developer Mojang, is full of opportunities for stories like that. A potent mix of turn-based tactical strategy with collectable card games, Scrolls understands the basic quality needed for either genre to succeed: choice. Whether it's the hard-scrabble battles being fought on the 3X5 hexagonal grids that each army calls home or the painstaking decisions made in moment-to-moment card-drawing and laying, Scrolls forces players to make smart choices at each step of play or fail. You will fail a lot. Scrolls stakes its claim as one of the more difficult and complex games in the crowded CCG market, and unless you've already sunk countless hours into titles like Hearthstone or Magic the Gathering: Online, you can expect an arduous hike up this game's immense difficulty curve.

In Scrolls, players battle one another or the computer in a series of matches with decks of up to 50 cards. Players start with one deck--the Growth deck, which is a basic nature rush deck--but you can eventually unlock starting decks for all four of the game's main resources: Growth (nature/rush), Order (knights/buffing), Energy (machines/direct damage), and Decay (zombies/debuffing). Players generate resources and gain cards at each turn to lay their cards as units on their half of the game's grid. Units deal damage or proc magical effects to units in their row with exceptions for special ranged artillery units, which have a wider area of effect for their attacks at the sacrifice of complete immobility. The end goal is to destroy three of your opponent's idols, which are hidden at the back of each row. And you will likely swear uncontrollably, mostly in a good way, while doing it.

Some of the later trials are hellishly difficult.

Part of what makes Scrolls so unforgiving is its resource system. Unlike Magic or Pokemon, which have dedicated cards that one sacrifices to slowly but surely play more powerful cards in your deck, or something like Hearthstone, which has an auto-resource generation system, Scrolls forces you to sacrifice cards in your hands to generate resources or to get two other cards. It's rare for a match to begin without both players sacrificing a card for resources. If your deck is constructed well, you'll have few cards that you'll want to let go of willingly. And while you have to keep sacrificing cards to get enough resources to play the best units in your hand, if you only sacrifice cards for resources, you're asking to end up top-decking against your opponent. Scrolls is not a game where top-decking is a sound strategy.

So a constant balance is struck between sacrificing for resources and sacrificing for cards. And the longer you play, the more times you'll see an opponent use a card that you thought was an easy sacrifice choice in a new and interesting manner and crush you. And you begin to recognize the situational value of each card in your hand. And that makes the choice of what to let go that much harder. But you have to let something go. If you don't sacrifice one way or another, your opponent will break away in resources or cards, and either one is a lethal advantage in Scrolls. The choices become agonizing because every choice you make has immediate and measurable consequences.

Scrolls would be difficult if that were the only quirk in its systems, but the grid combat itself is just as punishing, though significantly more tantalizing in its complexity. Units, with the exception of ranged artillery and structures, are laid on the grid, but they have freedom to move about it. Units also have countdowns that determine when they can attack and when they can simply hope to defend, although “defense” is perhaps the wrong word because units attacked during their opponent’s turn do not do any damage to their attackers. They simply have to endure the attack and hope that they can vanquish their abuser before its countdown resets.

Scrolls forces players to make smart choices at each step of play.

And if there are enough pieces on the board--it's very easy to simply be swarmed by your poor decisions and good draws/decisions by your opponent--Scrolls becomes akin to a game of chess. Do you place your strongest units at the back of the row to ensure that they remain in play, or do you put them in the front to shield your weaker units while putting your most powerful players at major risk? Do you throw intentional sacrifices on the board to force your opponent to waste turns attacking meaningless units? Matches are won and lost in the minutiae of troop placement, and mastering that system is as important as understanding the competing values of your cards.

Fortunately, Scrolls offers a large and substantive training mode to ease players into the game before you take on human opponents. Beyond the basic tutorials, the Trials challenges (of which there are dozens) teach you to think situationally about the game. The Trials range from Easy and Medium to Hard. The Easy Trials give the player stat bonuses and various other buffs/extra units to start matches. They are used for situating yourself with the Growth deck and help you unlock the other decks. They can still be lost if your draws are bad enough; no matter how tactically driven Scrolls is, there's still a random element to the game. But, by the time you finish all of the Easy Trials, you should understand the basic ebb and flow of Scrolls matches.

It's when you reach the Medium Trials that Scrolls brings out its claws and teaches you how to react to the odds being stacked against you. While you may occasionally get buffs in Medium trials, your opponents also get bonuses like extra units and their own enchantments. And you will play these trials over and over and over again until you solve the puzzle. And while the opponent's advantage may seem unfair, the lessons are invaluable. You learn how to deal with opponents with comical health stacks. You learn to eliminate units that generate other units first. Sometimes wins in Medium Trials seem as if they came down to pure luck, but that element is at play in all card games. Hard Trials are for only the most masochistic, as the computer's advantage is nigh insurmountable unless you are a top-tier Scrolls player.

Matches are won and lost in the minutiae of troop placement.

Scrolls is one of the best-looking games of its genre. When cards come into play, the units on the board transform from cards into the units themselves. And with a visual aesthetic that is drawn equally from Western and Eastern inspirations, Scrolls' character models recall the art style of Nickelodeon's The Legend of Korra with a touch of George R. R. Martin. Units have unique battle animations for attacks and will sprint across the board to attack their opponents. It's a small touch, but it adds to the feeling that your cards are waging a war on your behalf, and it removes from the abstraction of health points and damage boxes. When a hulking, carapaced blob tears through three of your units in one go, it feels more satisfying than a glowing card and flashy ephemera for damage ever could.

Another highly redeeming feature of the game is its minimal microtransaction model. Real money can be spent for "shards," which allow you to buy things like preconstructed decks, individual cards, or entries into the game's "drafting" mode, Judgment. But there's a limit to how often money can be spent on shards, and there's almost no reason to "pay to win" in the first place. Even matches that you lose pay out a decent amount of gold, which can be used to buy anything you can buy shards with. The various Trials reward with gold as well upon completion. And in my time with the game, I had enough gold to enter Judgment three times, buy over half a dozen card packs, and purchase four of the six preconstructed decks. Shards also can't be spent on the random deck packs, further minimizing the advantage that wealthier players can accrue. Here's hoping that more CCGs follow Scrolls' suit in this case.

Zawh-hawmbie Zawh-hawmbie.

For all the ways, then, that Scrolls rewards players who are willing to delve into the caverns of its mechanics and possibilities, it's a shame that the endgame is often such a drag. Scrolls matches are long. If neither player concedes and one opponent isn't squashing the other with a nasty rush deck, matches can last between 30 and 50 minutes. It's easy to tell when you're too far down to have any possibility of coming back. Many matches are won in the first five to seven turns, but if you have enough hope to struggle forward on the off chance you'll get the one card you need to survive, matches can drag on for an eternity as you and your opponent slowly pick away at each other's defenses. You know you aren't going to win, but you don't know it with enough certainty to throw in the towel. It ties into the game's countdown system, which keeps units from attacking at every turn, and while that adds a delicious layer of tactics to the early and mid-game, it manages to rob the endgame of that urgency. It's especially problematic when you and your opponent have so many units on the grid that neither of you has the mobility to execute complex strategies in the first place. It just becomes a repetitive slug fest.

The endgame isn't always a drag. I played in (and lost) a ranked match against a player running an Energy deck against my Decay deck. My deck was built around surviving to the endgame because I had a spell that would transform all of my creatures in play (which would, I hoped, be a lot by then) into re-animated husks with high damage that could attack immediately. And I could then play a creature that summoned more husks like that every two turns. But Energy decks revolve around area-of-effect ranged attacks and a ton of direct damage, and we were trading pieces back and forth for almost an hour until he played a spell three times in a row that wiped essentially my entire army off the board on the third go (a spell that attacks every unit connected together, which at that point in the game is every unit). It was a frustrating loss, but the match was thrilling from start to finish.

Dude's a fan of orange

Scrolls also suffers from a handful of bugs. The most benign simply erases the attack/health/countdown information about the units on your screen unless you hover over the unit, though even that bug can cause serious headaches if you momentarily forget numbers and do bad math in your head. The more serious bugs require regular resets of the game because the game will simply refuse to connect you to Trials or to put you in the queue to participate in multiplayer ranked matches. They don't happen often, but they are far from rare. The matchmaking system is also somewhat disappointing, and there have been dozens of times where I've fought the same opponent multiple times in a row, which can be frustrating when the game consistently fails to match you with other players around your rank/rating.

Scrolls shouldn't be your introduction to collectable card games; Hearthstone serves that purpose far better. In fact, you should probably pop in Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea should you need a primer on Scrolls’ strategic concerns. But if you crave a challenge and a new type of CCG experience, Scrolls may fulfill that role. The community needs to grow, and some general balancing issues need to be addressed, but it's not hard to imagine Scrolls becoming the home of the most dedicated and talented of the CCG community.