There’s been quite the card game renaissance in the last couple of years. Digital trading card games, or TCGs, like Hearthstone are blowing the market up, and it brings back a lot of nostalgic memories for me. Card games were my life as a kid; from Yu-Gi-Oh to Naruto to Pokemon, and even Duel Masters and Zatch Bell. I loved the customization that came with making your own deck, the excitement of buying a new pack of cards every week, and the thrill of testing out new ideas for decks and strategies with your friends.
The new era of digital TCGs brings all of that back, but in the convenience of containing it all in your computer or your pocket. It’s a scene that I hadn’t really dived into until I came across Duelyst. Combining the TCG tropes with the gameplay of a tactical RPG like Fire Emblem, it’s addictive and engaging at it’s core. Unfortunately, it’s far from finished, and far from perfect.
Duelyst utilizes a lot of the same ideas as are at the heart of Hearthstone. Players are represented by a General that distinguishes between 6 different in-game factions, each of which possesses not only different kinds of cards, but different overall playstyles as well. Lyonar is all about direct attacks and building up offense, while Abyssian is focused on quantity over quality. You unlock each faction by beating an AI opponent using that faction in the training mode, which also helps you learn the ropes of the game before hopping online.
Once you’re up and running, you can customize a deck of 40 cards made up of spells, summonable minions and artifacts to equip on your own character. While factions have their own sets of cards, there is also a huge array of neutral cards in the game that can be used by any faction, allowing for plenty of playstyle customization.
You sometimes obtain new cards by leveling up, which you do by winning enough ranked matches, but most of your new cards will come from orbs. These packs of cards are purchased using gold, which you earn in game through completing various milestones and daily challenges. I felt like I was earning enough gold for a new pack of cards after roughly every 2 hours of play, although the fact that there is no consistent gold reward method like getting a certain amount of gold for simply participating in a match felt a little limiting.
Deck in hand, the goal when you jump into 1v1 battles is to reduce your opponent Generals HP to zero. Instead of the typical flat TCG board, Duelyst plays out on a grid-based map that has the opposing heroes standing on either side. On your turn, you can move your hero, summon moveable monsters, cast spells, perform attacks, and equip artifacts. All of this plays out in a tactical format akin to Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy, and it’s an incredibly fresh concept. Characters are represented by beautiful neon pixel art reminiscent of Hyper Light Drifter, and the various attacks and abilities in the game play out with beautiful animations and heft.
While I’m a fan of deck building games, a lot of the intricate depth available in them is lost to me. Duelyst has a wide variety of toolsets and playstyles available to you, but for beginner players who might have trouble figuring out how to start using a different kind of style, simply switching your faction will create a noticeable difference in how your deck operates. From there, you can tweak it as you choose to make it even more personalized. Most games against random ranked players lasted around 8-10 minutes for me, but I had games with friends of mine where we tried insane strategies that went on for over half an hour. The game can be whatever you want to make of it, and that provides a lot of replay potential.
Unfortunately, most of that replaying will either be done with strangers or AI. Duelyst has a few multiplayer modes, but they’re all focused on ranked play and encountering unknown players. While you can add players to your friends list and challenge them to a duel any time, there is no kind of room or lobby support, and no microphone support. Naturally, this is to prevent bad player behaviour, but it was an inconvenience when setting up matches with two other friends. Oddly, inviting the third person to watch required that we set up a separate stream, despite the game having a built in match viewer. This can show any in-progress ranked match, but doesn’t let you want games between friends.
Though understandable to avoid cheating, you gain no experience points during friendly games, and gain no progress toward your daily challenges. Playing with my close friends was the most fun I had with Duelyst, yet the game almost felt like it was punishing me for doing so. It’s hard to go back to playing ranked matches against silent strangers after the goofy fun I had with my own friends, but I have to if I want to make any kind of progress in the game.
The game does offer another way to obtain gold and experience points, via the robust single-player Solo Challenges mode. In this, you’re presented with over a hundred almost puzzle-like encounters, with the opposing teams teams, cards and field-layouts already set up. It’s up to you to fulfill a specific condition and complete the challenge. These usually involve killing the enemy general in one turn, using a specific card, or something similar. They’re bite-sized encounters that offer a new kind of way to play, and you’re given small amounts of gold for completing each one. It helps beef the game up with diverse ways to put your time into it.
You can also explore the game’s lore, which is much richer than I was expecting. After reaching certain level milestones, you unlock new story chapters that delve into the history and events that make up the factions, as well as the various characters and monsters you see in the game. There’s a lot of personality to the story, though the fact that chapters are tied behind increasingly difficult gameplay milestones is a little awkward. I would love to blast through the story and find out more, but I don’t know how long getting those next few levels might take me.
Duelyst had me hooked, as I put hours and hours into it almost every day. If I had written my review for it at that point, it would have done incredibly well in my books, with it’s fascinating tactical RPG twist on the familiar card game play. But after playing with friends, I struggle to go back to playing against anonymous opponents in ranked play, and I just don’t know how much more time I see myself putting into this game.