Card Hunter is a game the eschews the traditional trappings of genre. It is at once a deck-builder, a CCG, a dungeon-crawler and a tactical strategy game. But where other games might have fallen in a jack-of-all-trades compromise, Card Hunter comfortably extends across genres with elegant design and charming writing.
With the focus on the future of gaming, Card Hunter‘s loving take on gaming past breathes hope into my cynical soul. Card Hunter is framed as an old-school Dungeons and Dragons adventure, run by an inept novice Dungeon Master. Monsters and player characters alike are represented by papercraft figures on a grid-covered map. It’s a homely and engagingly handcrafted aesthetic, a reminder that design is more important for atmosphere than sheer grandeur of graphics.
The characterisation is spot on too. Gary, your fledgling Dungeon Master, is a bundle of nerves, dominated by his power-gaming older brother and terrified of the cute pizza girl. The small snatches of dialogue provide a framework for the action without overstaying their welcome or becoming twee.
The action, then. It’s a grid-based strategy game, similar to Final Fantasy Tactics and Disgaea. Those familiar with those systems will find an instant feeling of familiarity with Card Hunter‘s combat. Characters move around the graph paper levels, attacking and casting and healing and that’s the combat in a nutshell, really. Where it differs from its more famed spiritual precedents is in its character development. In traditional tactical RPGs, characters have intrinsic abilities and attacks that unlock with increased experience; gear merely acts as a stat bonus. Card Hunter reverses that formula. Here, gear is king.
Each piece of equipment in Card Hunter carries with it a bevy of attacks and abilities, represented by a selection of cards. These cards congregate in a character deck, with a hand of cards drawn from this deck each turn that dictates the actions you can perform in battle. A spear will carry piercing attacks that strike outside of your normal melee range, while a club will add cards that bash opponents backwards. There’s a flexibility here missing from similar tactical games; it’s impossible to permanently screw up ability choices when a change of gear will essentially respec your entire character. My elven wizard began life as a mobile ball of static, frying anything within reach, but currently work geomancy magic, laying terrain effects down on tiles to create choke-points.
There is an inherent contradiction though between the random nature of drawing cards and the tactical nature of combat. You’re limited by the luck of the draw, which can breed dissatisfaction. There’s been a Groundhog Day worth of repeated attempts at particular levels. Often so close to victory, I found myself bereft of movement cards or spells, while the enemy sits just out of reach, whittling away my team’s health. Some matches have ended within the first few turns, such was the lack of options provided by the hands drawn; with a limited number of retries at each battle, it can be frustrating to lose one of those precious restarts due to the capricious nature of lady luck. It’s not game-breaking by any means and the game does retain a strong sense of tactics and forethought throughout. It’s just that the random nature of cards available to you makes the highs of victory sweeter and the lows of defeat often feel undeserved.
There’s little customisation present outside of gear. While this is a beta and I’d hope more races and classes are added, there’s little to currently play around with. Three races (human, dwarf, elf) and three classes (warrior, wizard, priest) are available in the beta right now. Racial differences really come down to a difference in health and mobility (though racial cards do appear at a high enough level), while the classes follow the archetypes you’d expect: tank, DPS and healer respectively. A little more customisation is allowed by the real money store, which allows you to purchase new paper figures for your characters but in the beta thus far, there are limited customisation options.
Yes, Card Hunter has microtransactions. Represented as slices of pizza, purchasing these with real money allows you to purchase new adventure modules ($10 for all 10), random items from chests ($5 for the rarest loot) or the aforementioned new appearances ($2.50). The option couched in the middle there is the only one that gives me a twinge of worry. Having purchased a few chests, it’s worrying to see that the loot within was spectacularly powerful, more so than any item I’d found naturally from completing adventures. While an attempt has been made to counteract this (more powerful items use up talent points, each character having a limited number available), the game is teetering too close to pay-to-win for my liking. The usual caveat applies: as a beta, this could all change before general release. A subscription model offers an alternative to micro-transactions, offering extra loot after each battle, but it’s perhaps to early to judge whether this is worth your money yet. I will say however that this extra loot (shown to non-subscribers as a temptation to join up) is no more impressive, and is sometimes less useful, than the loot normally gained.
Card Hunter is exactly the game I wanted to play after a deluge of exams and E3 and work. It takes old-school mechanics and a lo-fi yet attractive aesthetic and creates a compulsive strategy game. Free-to-play, charming and challenging, it’s the cure for E3 ennui; forget drivatars and man-shoots for a while and join us at the table.