January is an astonishingly busy month for me, and as I’ve been playing a lot of games that I’ve already reviewed (Zelda, Final Fantasy XIV, etc.), I think that now would be a good time to give a sort of brief overview of the mobile games that have captured my attention for one reason or another. And since these games have some pretty similar mechanics, I decided I’d sort of group them into the same review and discuss the ways they are similar and different, and which are actually worth playing.
Is Mobile Madness already taken as the name of an article or other publication? I’m not sure, but I really, really like Marble Madness and so I thought it was pretty clever. I also apologize that this article has nothing to do with Marble Madness. But, so it goes.
The games: This time around, I will be focusing on the similarities and differences between three mobile (or ‘casual’, more on that later) games that have caught my attention: Spirit Stones, Heroes of Dragon Age, and Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. Now, even from the titles you can probably tell there are certain similarities in naming scheme, which is part of what sort of made me mentally link them together. So first, some background info on the games.
Up first, we have Spirit Stones: The first game up for consideration is kind of a mixed bag. I didn’t really know what to think of this game at first, and probably wouldn’t have given it a shot if it hadn’t been free. But, as it turns out, the game is an interesting little take on the match-three genre. It isn’t quite the same as a Bejeweled-style match-three; rather than swap the positions of the colored gems on the board, you draw patterns which connect adjacent same-color gems, linking as many as you can at one time. You create a party of four characters from character cards that you collect along the way through various means, and each character class corresponds to one color of gem on the board. Using combinations and ‘special attack’ gems, you aim to deal as much damage as possible using as many characters in your party at once. While it might seem complicated to explain, it’s actually very simple in practice while still lending itself to a certain amount of strategy.
Additional character cards can be collected in a variety of ways. You get them as rewards for completing battles, you get a free ‘daily draw’ card each day, you can pay in-game gold or ‘hearts’ given to you by friends to obtain additional draws, and you can pay gems, the far more rare currency, to guarantee yourself a card that also has more rarity. You can combine cards to evolve them, or consume extra cards to increase another card’s power. Each system in the game is fairly simple, but there are quite a few of them, and the specifics of each system aren’t really conveyed very well to the player at first. There are also, of course, microtransactions; you can buy gems for real money, which is so standard of a thing in these types of games that I barely have to mention it anymore. Also, more on this later.
So why wouldn’t I have given the game a shot, initially? Well, the art style. Specifically, the game seems to be geared to appeal to the same types of people who would click on those “Real Men Play Here” ads that were the bane of the internet a couple of years back. Seriously. Over half of the character cards are female, which I mean that’s cool except that the things they ‘wear’, and I use the term loosely, definitely fall into the ‘the less it covers, the more powerful it is’ fantasy armor trope.
So sure, that might draw some people, but others would likely find it a bit off-putting, no matter how good the underlying game is. And that’s a shame, because it really isn’t a bad game at all, especially for free.
Next, we have Heroes of Dragon Age: This game is a tie-in to Bioware’s highly popular Dragon Age franchise. However, if you’re expecting anything resembling the same sort of experience, you will be, quite frankly, disappointed. Basically, this game shares quite a few mechanics with Spirit Stones in every aspect save for the combat. Just like in Spirit Stones, you construct a party of four heroes (and one ‘large monster’ creature) and have them fight other parties of heroes.
Again, you can use in-game gold to draw additional heroes to place in your party, and you can use the rarer ‘gem’ currency to obtain rarer heroes. You can also obtain runes that you can use to temporarily power up your party to give them a bit of an edge in combat. You can also power up your party by having four heroes of the same faction in your group. Basically, there is at least a little bit of strategy that goes into setting up your party.
Which is good, because your party setup is the only way in which you can affect combat at all. The actual fighting is automatic, carried out while you simply spectate. It’s a lot like Ogre Battle, really, except that even in Ogre Battle you can activate tarot cards in combat to sway the outcome. In Heroes of Dragon Age, there is no reason whatsoever to not hit fast-forward on combat and skip to the end. It feels like there could have been a pretty great game in there somewhere, but instead we got…something.
That being said, the passive nature of the game actually means that I probably put more actual playtime into it than either of the other games in this article. I found that I could just tap the screen a couple times, idly, while I was otherwise occupied. Plus, I’m at least slightly inclined to play anything that is Dragon Age, and it was pretty neat seeing what characters I could come up with. So there’s that, at least.
And last, we have Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft: It might seem like this would be the least original of the three, given that its name contains both ‘stone’ and ‘heroes’, which seem to be really popular words to use in the titles of games these days. However, this game probably shares the least with the other two, at least in terms of mechanics. It actually has a lot more in common with Magic: the Gathering, in that you choose a hero and build a deck of spells, abilities, and creatures to summon and have a one-on-one duel with another hero.
I should also point out that this game, unlike the other two, isn’t actually a mobile game yet: it’s currently in beta on PC and Mac, though mobile versions are forthcoming sometime within the next year or so. It’s a good thing, too, as the game really does seem designed with mobile platforms in mind.
While the game is really similar to Magic, the rules are just different enough to throw Magic veterans for a real loop. Things such as being able to have creatures directly attack each other, and the ability to equip weapons onto your heroes and have them directly attack, are things that I really had to get used to in order to be able to win fights against even the computer-controlled opponents. Just like in the PC versions of Magic that have been released over the past three years or so, you start out with one hero (Jaina Proudmoore, for people familiar with Warcraft lore), and unlock others by beating them in combat. You can also buy card packs using real money or in-game money that you can use to customize your ability decks.
It really is a neat little variation on Magic, and is, at the moment, also free due to its beta status.
So, just to recap, what are the similarities between the games?: There are a lot of them. Each game features at least some sort of party or deck-building mechanic, with both Spirit Stones and Hearthstone using actual cards as the motif for doing this. Each game also features various degrees of online combat, though in Spirit Stones and Heroes of Dragon Age, it really just amounts to ‘line up your respective groups and see who wins the numbers battle’. Hearthstone has the most robust online combat, and in fact, dueling other players is the real meat of that game (even though Arena mode is, at this point in time, unfortunately paywalled). Each game includes the ability to pay real money to get more cards/abilities/whatever, a thing which I still don’t see as being ‘worth it’, in any definition of the phrase. Despite the microtransactions, though, each game is otherwise free-to-play, so it isn’t like there is any other barrier to entry there.
And the differences?: The level of player participation varies with each game. In Heroes of Dragon Age, the player takes a completely passive role in the actual combat, just sitting on the sidelines and watching. In Spirit Stones, the player is a more active participant, drawing patterns in the colored gems which give the party more attack power. And in Hearthstone, the game is extremely player-centric, in that you have to strategize and choose the right ability or creature to use for the situation. Also, since I pointed it out for Spirit Stones, I’ll mention again the variation in art style. As mentioned above, Spirit Stones goes for a very ‘fantasy pin-up’ inspired style. Hearthstone has the art style that you’d expect from anything Warcraft: very cartoony, exaggerated proportions for everyone and everything, and a certain amount of odd adorableness in the creatures and game board backdrops. Heroes of Dragon Age, on the other hand, goes for the series’ typical realism, both in features and proportions and also in garb (you won’t see much ‘boob plate’ here, as characters’ weapons and armor look very functional).
So which is your favorite?: Well, it depends on how much attention I have to give at the moment. If it’s a busy day, Heroes of Dragon Age is something I can idly poke at without it demanding much of my attention. For lunch breaks or something, Spirit Stones provides bite-size chunks of strategy and puzzle-based combat. And for something a little more involved, Hearthstone is a really neat simplification of typical CCG mechanics that still has a certain depth of strategy to it. So, I guess I’d say, all three achieve what they set out to accomplish, and I mean, they’re free, so why not?