Spectromancer Review

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Spectromancer Publisher: Apus Software and Three Donkeys
Developer: Apus Software, Hidden City Games and Three Donkeys

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC

Windows System Requirements: 800 MHz Processor, 128 MB RAM, 32 MB Video Card, Windows 98 or more recent operating system

One thousand years ago, Dorlak condensed the astral power of the universe into a Great Prism that nearly allowed him to control all of existence. Dorlak would have succeeded had an assemblage of mages not narrowly defeated him in the War of Darkness. Following the final battle, the Great Prism was shattered into six indestructible pieces, each of which was distributed to a powerful mage. One mage from each of the six schools of astral power, each a bitter rival of the others, formed the council that rules the land of Revnia.

Celestia, the guardian of Revnia, has visited a mage, begging his aid, for the various members of the council have been driven mad by the shards of the Great Prism. With Celestia's assistance, that single mage must amass enough power to defeat all the members of the council and reforge the Great Prism, using it to save Revnia rather than enslaving the land.

Kyle Ackerman

Spectromancer is a turn-based strategy game styled after competitive and collectible card games that offers some interesting game mechanisms to keep things balanced and interesting but is plagued with a variety of presentation errors that a decent editor and a little more quality assurance testing could easily have eliminated. A few of these issues have been patched since the play for this review began, but far from all.

Don't Worry About Deck Construction

Spectromancer includes six types of mages, (Cleric, Necromancer, Mechanician, Dominator, Chaosmaster and Illusionist). Each style of mage has access to the same pool of fire, water, earth and wind cards, along with a set of cards unique to that mage's style of magic. Unlike collectible card games, you have no control over the cards you play with – only the type of spectromancer. That has advantages, in that you pay a flat fee ($20) for the game. It's particularly satisfying to play a game of this style that doesn't require a massive investment just to see all players gravitating toward the same, few optimized decks.

At the same time, I can't explore card synergies that make so many such games fun. Essentially, everyone is playing with preconstructed decks. This becomes problematic in Spectromancer because certain combinations of cards are crippling. If the point of the game is that everyone has a level playing field, that field needs to be fun, and certain card distributions aren't. And unlike games where you constantly draw cards from a deck, I knew at the start of the game whether I had a shot in hell at winning. I don't feel good about resigning at the draw against a human opponent, but against the computer I usually knew whether I would win based on my draw, not my play, and happily resigned hopeless causes.

Spectromancer's design is particularly nice in that the power base upon which players draw to cast spells grows steadily (modified by cards in play). Like more recently launched collectible and static card games, that prevents players from being stuck without power thanks to a bad draw, but (as I mentioned above) it's still possible to get a very bad shuffle.

The AI Can Play, But Can It Write?

The campaign mode in Spectromancer is a long series of duels with the AI, often under a series of special conditions, loosely tied together with a badly edited story. The duels are fun, because the special conditions range from a few extra monsters on one side or the other to special locations that can completely transform play. These cards, unique to the campaign, make duels interesting, but make the issue of your card line-up even starker. The wrong set of cards can make such a duel impossible.

A much bigger issue is that the game has tons of editing problems. Most of the linguistic errors in the story and descriptive text boxes can be ignored. Some of the problems, however, are in card descriptions where either words in Spectromancer don't mean the same thing as they do in so many other hobby games (e.g. kill vs. destroy) or the code doesn't quite deal correctly with all contingencies. It would be really helpful if there were an index of all the defined keywords that do things in the game (e.g. are "kill" and "destroy" different?). Furthermore, the hyperlinks in the game that are supposed to explain certain cards (especially unique locations) are often missing or wrong. By the time I'd played a bit, I knew what cards were supposed to do, but the first time I encountered something in campaign mode I often misunderstood the card.

The graphics in Spectromancer are primitive, but they get the job done and work on older machines. The faces and pictures of monsters are well drawn, but the static art is confined to the tiles that represent cards in the game interface. That said, graphics (and sound) just aren't the important thing here. The fun in Spectromancer fundamentally comes from understanding the interplay of the cards and taking the best tactical action in an individual match.

Sometimes, Other People Aren't Hell... Just Necromancers

The single player mode in Spectromancer is entertaining enough, and nearly justifies the price, but Spectromancer's extended play comes from the ability to play live opponents. To the game's credit, the AI does an admirable job, and can put up quite a fight. This may be because of the game's limited card pool, but is still a commendable achievement (would that the grammar were as strong as the AI). But human players are always more fun.

The impressive thing about Spectromancer's multiplayer community is that there always seems to be someone available for a match. That's amazing. Yes, you can play against friends, and even play hot-seat matches, but I was never at a loss for a game when I logged on, and nearly every player I encountered was both competent and polite. Given the skill of most of the online players, you should know your cards well before logging on, but I thoroughly enjoyed my matches online.

Given the surprising depth of the game that you get for $20, anyone interested in collectible card-style games will find plenty of entertaining play for the money. What stops the game from achieving a much higher score isn't poor gameplay, it's simply a lack of polish. Not only are there myriad language issues, and occasional problems with stack order (the way in which cards interact), some things are unduly difficult. For example, it takes a little effort to figure out how to pay for the game and then purchase a license. Given that the play is worthwhile, it should be easy for players to find it, understand it and enjoy it.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on December 8, 2008 10:25 PM.

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