Cardpocalypse is a love letter to lunchtimes spent playing cards while growing up. Whether Pokémon or Magic was your playground poison, this is a game that will take you back to the good old days.
The year is 1993 and you’re a kid in a new school. Your name is Jess and you love the TV show Mega Mutant Power Pets. Everything in Cardpocalypse is centred around this show. Even the opening of the game has a Saturday morning cartoon style intro theme, which tells you in no uncertain terms that “school has gone insane”.
This is where we pick up the game. On your first day at your new school, you bond with some other kids over your mutual love of the show, your new friends give you some cards, and you pick up the basics of the game. Unfortunately, you then get the game banned for everyone at the school and everyone immediately hates you. Yay.
Over the next five days, as you meet other kids, form allegiances, trade cards and battle your frenemies, you get better cards and start to improve at the game, just like when we were kids.
Mechanically, the game plays like a stripped down version of Magic the Gathering’s Commander format. While Magic has five colours, Cardopcalype has four — one for each of the game’s four animal factions – and your choice of commander will decide the colour identity of the deck you then build. You can’t have purple cards in a green deck, for example.
From there, we have the expected similarities — Deathtouch has become Lethal, Goad has become Defender, etc. Basically, if you play Magic, you already know the most of the game mechanics here.
Where the game diverges is how you win each match. Each champion starts with 30 life and has an ability. The aim is get the opposing champion down to zero life. However, as soon as they hit the half-way mark, they go mega. This powers them up, granting both a triggered ability and a more powerful passive.
As you learn the ropes and discover what each champion can do, you’ll also find a surprising amount of gameplay depth on offer. Eventually you get to modify the cards yourself, using crayons and stickers to the best of your childish ability, turning this homage to a youth well spent into a game-design class for dummies.
Towards the end of the game, you even get the ability to change the rules, making everyone start with more resources, or making all cards with a certain mechanic cost more or less. Making rule changes is very important if you’re to take down the big bad at the end of the week — a supernatural enemy which is bringing the game to life around you.
There’s also the everyday school life aspect of the game — doing missions for your fellow kids (annoy X or beat Y at a game) to unlock new card rewards. These missions are a bit repetitive at times, requiring a lot of effort on your part, but they’re worth it for that sweet, sweet cardboard. Even when they feel a bit much, they’re saved by the quality writing, references and jokes.
All in all, Cardpocalypse has an excellent premise backed up by some fantastic gameplay. It really feels like the devs were trying to capture the spirit of youth as we all got into cardboard crack behind the bike shed, and they’ve done an admirable job. The way that each champion has a theme tune that plays when you acquire their card, and the way the kids energetically sing when you finish a mission for them will almost certainly put a smile on your face.
I also love the way they’ve made the main character’s disability — being wheelchair bound — a core part of the game. Jess can’t use stairs and she has to shrug off comments from the other kids, which range from simply curious (asking if they can have a go in the chair) to being mean (calling you a cyborg). The game is as diverse as it is good, and remember, the game is excellent.
Cardpocalypse isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and there are a couple of issues which hold the game back, making some parts of it extremely frustrating. In a couple of matches I had bugs where end-of-turn effects didn’t end, making the opponent significantly more powerful than they ought to be. In Magic speak, imagine if Threaten was actually In Bolas’s Clutches, but it only cost U. Yeah, that’s pretty broken.
In other places, including in boss fights, the game bugged, making me watch the entire pre-fight conversation all over again before having to fight the boss a second time. That’s pretty egregious as far as bugs go.
There’s also a missing gameplay element which could improve the card-game gameplay, and that’s having a graveyard for cards which have been used/killed. When the opponent casts something, you only see it for a second before it is gone forever, along with one of your creatures, leaving you wondering if this is another bug or if the card is supposed to work that way. Having a graveyard is a small change that would really improve quality of life through the game.
Last but not least, we have the recently released DLC — the ‘Out of time’ end-game pack which sees Jess trapped in a time loop. It should have come with a spoiler warning, as I loaded this up before beating the main game, but alas. Still, Out of Time is some great end-game content as it strips you of your cards and gives you a unique ‘Neutral Champion’ who is capable of using cards of all colours in your deck. It’s like a WUBRG Commander in Magic. Your Champion is a weakling that, by all rights, shouldn’t exist, but has a unique upgrade tree which allows you to build it into the right card for your play style. It’s a cool idea which is fairly well executed. The only issue is that time loops can be extremely repetitive and boring to play through, which means this DLC will not be for everyone.