Developer: Playtap Games
Price: TBC (Estimated £1.99/$2.99)
Release Date: 1st October 2014
At first glance, Card Dungeon bears a striking similarity to Blue Manchu’s fantastic Card Hunter. In actuality though, the games are vastly different in terms of gameplay. Card Hunter sees your three man team fight through single room battles using a set deck of cards; these cards are allotted by the equipment attached to the heroes and combat feels like a traditional SRPG. In Card Dungeon, your hero is very much on his own, forced to scavenge for cards from lootable objects. The combat comes across as a tabletop roguelike as you traverse large dungeons. The comparison is easy to make but deriding one game for resembling another when they are both massive homages to the same source is missing the point somewhat.
Defining the gameplay is a rather troublesome task; visually it looks like a stunning and faithful recreation of boardgames of yore. Characters are literally paper-thin and are supported by traditional plastic bases, the cards are convincing in design and bear the wear and tear beautifully. The lack of dice-rolling, replaced with eight-directional movement and exploration of long corridors that open into mysterious rooms hidden behind the “fog of war” are reminiscent of traditional roguelikes. However, very little can be accomplished in game without utilising the card combat that bears the hallmarks of CCGs with rarities, varied effects and humourous flavour text. It’s the synergy between all the genres that defines Card Dungeon for me; the sum of the parts make it unlike anything I’ve ever played.
True to the roguelike blood running through its veins, Card Dungeon is punishing. You’ll start with a basic understanding of the mechanics and whatever experience you may have from games of its ilk but that’s all; it grants you no favours when you struggle and the subtle nuances of truly succeeding are garnered only through hard work and clever tactics. Whilst I’m generally not a fan of difficult games, especially those that mistake frustration for challenge, there’s an ingenious balance here that ensures you’re always advancing via your knowledge if not through the game’s levels.
You begin with three set cards; a melee attack, a long range shock spell and a summon. You’ll make pretty decent progress with these cards alone, electrocuting distant foes and stabbing the rest but just as you begin to get over-confident, Card Dungeon throws a major curve-ball that dramatically increases the tension. Each card can only be used a few times before they start to wear, the corners scuffing and the text fading with each use until it’s moth-eaten and dogeared. Once it’s destroyed, it’s totally unrecoverable; suddenly you’re down a card just when you needed it and the horde is closing in fast. You can make do with your other offensive options but once they too start showing signs of damage then the panic sets in, mistakes get made and in this game that proves to be fatal.
Luckily, there are a large amount of lootable items scattered throughout the dungeon; chairs, mushrooms patches, slime puddles and the obligatory chest all offer a chance to find a new draw. The range of cards available is rather impressive, some taking the form of equipment that provide permanent bonuses whilst worn and others fit in one of the three action slots. This is another moment the multifaceted gem of a game shines, finding a great card when you’re fully decked out requires a sacrifice regardless of whether you keep or leave it. Do you discard a good attack that only has a few uses left in favour of something weaker but in good condition? Can you afford to wield a healing spell instead of an offensive option? You’re constantly strategising as a single poor decision can leave you utterly defenseless, desperately sprinting from container to container hoping it bears your salvation.
Ultimately, it’s one of the best options on the platform regardless of which of the three genres we’re discussing. It offers a huge amount of hours in the first playthrough alone and with the massive variety in creatures and the attacks they use every replay stays interesting. The perk system is promising too, with successful heroes unlocking more variety in the characters you control. While the camera can prove a little clunky at times, it’s ironically impressive to see the pieces in full 3D so you’ll quickly forgive it, if not for the visuals then definitely for providing one of the most compelling and addictive iOS games I’ve played in years.