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Spectromancer

Score: 90%
ESRB: Not Rated
Publisher: Three Donkeys
Developer: Apus Software
Media: Download/1
Players: 1; 2 (Online)
Genre: Card Games/ Online

Graphics & Sound:

I'm a big fan of Collectable Card Games (CCG), so the chance to play one with ties to Magic: The Gathering creators was an opportunity I couldn't resist. Although Spectromancer doesn't quite scratch my CCG-playing itch, it is still a fun and addictive game.

When it comes to CCG visuals, there are two approaches: either use the flat, 2D card art or try to bring the cards into a 3D world. Spectromancer opts for the first choice and it was a good one. The interface is clean and easy to use. Cards are big and, once you know them, you can easily identify them just by the picture. It doesn't sound like that big of a deal, but I've played enough computer-based CCGs to know that sometimes this is a major issue. The art style is consistent across all cards and for the most part looks good.

Card battles are little more than the two shuffling around and overlapping each other. Disappointing, somewhat, but any other method would either slow the flow of gameplay or look cheesy. (If you've played Culdcept, you know what I mean). Spell effects are a little flashier; cards like "Wrath of God" or "Lighting Bolt" fly from your deck and produce some neat effects while dealing damage.

Sound is very low key. Background music plays on a constant loop in the background. It isn't annoying, but I don't think anyone would blame you if you wanted to crank on iTunes or something in the background while playing. Some sort of sound effect accompanies most spells, though other than that, there's little else going on.


Gameplay:

Spectromancer follows the same turn-based structure of other CCGs, though in an abbreviated form. Turns are broken up into phases; first you earn casting points in each of the disciplines. Cards are split into four main categories - water, air, fire, earth - and players can choose from another set - Death, Chaos, Control, Illusion, Holy, Mechanics - to round out their deck. The choices are basic, but work. Once you have casting points, you cast a spell from your hand and attack.

There are two basic spell types: Summon and Spell. Summon cards call creatures to your side and are your main method of dealing damage to opponents. Each has an attack number and health total that depletes every time they take damage. Most also have a secondary ability, such as dealing damage when they come into play or healing each turn. The scope of the abilities isn't massive, but there's enough variety that games can quickly become interesting with the right combinations on the table. Spells are instant-use cards that either deal direct damage to a player or creatures or heal damage.

A key problem with Spectromancer is that you can't customize your deck. Instead, cards are randomly doled out before the game and you're stuck with whatever luck decided to bring you for the rest of the game. I understand the idea behind the system; it keeps people honest, especially during online matches. At the same time, deck building has always been one of my favorite parts of playing CCGs, so with that element missing, I didn't enjoy the game as much. The only thing that gives you any sense of personalization is choosing your fifth discipline, though even then, you're given a random set of cards, so it doesn't feel as personal. Were it not for the award cards granted after certain matches, it could even be argued that Spectromancer is just a card game, not a collectable one.


Difficulty:

Spectromancer is divided into three play modes: Single Duel, Campaign and Online Duel. Matches usually last anywhere from 5 - 10 minutes, regardless of match type and usually end when your opponent's life points are depleted. However, duels in Campaign throw in additional conditions to add a little spice to games. Players have the same number of life points in the other game types, but in Campaign, NPC's life points vary. Some will have less, others will have more. Additionally, some will begin the match with one or two creatures already summoned. Some matches throw out life points and challenge you to survive a certain number of rounds.

As cheap as some of the alternate conditions sound, they add a lot to play. Even on the hardest difficulty, I never felt like I was getting the short end of the stick and found that winning was much more rewarding. On the other hand, your selection of cards is always a crapshoot, so there's always the possibility of getting a bum deal. The only time my hand really seemed to hurt was when I faced opponents with significantly higher life totals. One of the earlier opponents has double your life points and it wasn't until I got a selection of direct damage and creature removal/ control cards that I was able to defeat her. Strategy plays a big role, but sometimes you need a little luck.


Game Mechanics:

Once you have your points, you can either cast one creature or a spell. Although your choices are limited, it works in your favor. Even with two choices, there's a lot of strategy behind choosing which card to play. Should you go for quick damage or get a creature out? You could also hold onto the points and build up for a bigger creature, even if it means taking a little damage in the meantime. Since you have little power over which cards you'll receive before the game, much of the gameplay depends on how quickly you can formulate strategies and think on your feet, which I really liked. The downside to deck building is that once you know how your deck works, games become less about strategy and more about getting that two- or three-card winning combo in play. Throw in the "rich kids" who buy cards by the box, and some of the fun is lost. Without that to deal with, games feel much fairer and, in the long view, much more enjoyable.

Another difference between Spectromancer and other CCGs is that you have access to your entire deck from the start. There's no mystery about what card you'll draw next, which helps when planning out long-range strategies. Also, there's no limit to the number of times you can cast a spell; the only "limit" is the number of creatures you can cast.

Attacking with summons is odd; once summoned, they are placed in "holding cells" at the top of the screen. Unless their secondary ability states otherwise, creatures can only attack the creature in the opposite cell. It works for the flow of gameplay, but limits your strategy just a bit - especially if you have summons that can reduce damage or heal. It also puts you at a disadvantage during Campaign games since opponents always seem to have big creatures on hand and know how you open gaps in your defense.

Though it may not play like one of the CCGs, Spectromancer is still a good game. The lack of deck customization may scare off a few veteran players, but at the same time, it brings a new level of strategy to the game. Even if you're intimidated by CCGs, but curious about them, for $20 Spectromancer isn't a bad deal.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

Minimum System Requirements:



800MHz CPU, 128 MB RAM, Videocard with 32 MB RAM, DirectX 8, 50 MB of disk space, Internet Connection
 

Test System:



Windows Vista; 1.6 GHz Dual-Core processor; 2 Gig RAM; DVD drive; 120 GB HDD; GeForce Go7600; Cable Internet Connection

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