Collectible card games are a great fit for mobile devices. You can play them in small doses, and the quest to find more cards will keep you coming back from day to day. One such game that has kept me hooked lately is Elemental Kingdoms from Perfect World Entertainment and Time 2 Play Studio.
What Elemental Kingdoms lacks in mechanical complexity it more than makes up for with a lengthy story mode, asynchronous online battles, and tons of special events to keep the game fresh. Learn the ins and outs of the game in our comprehensive review!
The campaign begins in the kingdom of Tundra, part of the Northern Alliance. A former ally, the Scarlet Nation suddenly joins up with the Black Swamp Tribe to invade Tundra. Your Hero will need to seek help from another kingdom and investigate the cause of the Scarlet Nation's aggression.
The story unfolds through brief conversations between the player's party every time a new stage is visited. Although the dialog is well-written, it only really concerns the team's trip from place to place. Nobody receives any actual characterization, making it hard to care about the narrative.
The world of Elemental Kingdoms is divided into 12 maps, each with multiple stages (battles) to conquer. By simply winning a battle, you'll gain one star for that stage. Every level has Medium and Hard goals too, such as using certain cards in your deck or winning without losing too much life. Revisit stages to complete these extra goals and win up to three stars for the stage. Three-starring all of the levels in a stage often unlocks hidden levels.
Working through Elemental Kingdoms' campaign and earning stars is quite a lot of fun, but eventually the opponents will outpace the player's growth by a wide margin. Around the eighth map or so, you'll come up against enemies with significantly better cards and runes than you could possibly have at that point. I've often had to grind for days just to overcome the next battle or two, killing the pace of the game.
All the window dressing in the world wouldn't matter without a good card combat system. Thankfully, the 1-on-1 combat in Elemental Kingdoms is both easy to learn and addictive.
Every round, both players draw a random card from the deck, moving it to the preparation zone. Each card has a unique Wait Time representing the number of turns it must stay within the prep zone before moving into the battlefield where it can be played. This timer is easy to read during battle. But within the actual deck building interface outside of battle, the Wait Time is all but hidden – you have to zoom in on a card to see it.
Cards placed on the battle field will automatically attack the enemy card placed directing across from them. Each card has its own individual HP rating that decreases as it gets attacked. Having knocked out the card across from your own, your card will then be able to attack the enemy player directly. Whichever player runs out of life (or cards) loses the battle.
In addition to HP and Attack attributes, cards also have special abilities. These usually activate automatically during the card's attack phase, and include such functions as stunning an enemy card, refilling the HP of a home team card, and immunity to other abilities. Cards can also be leveled up, raising their HP and attack. They start with one or no abilities, but at levels 5 and 10 new abilities will unlock. Those extra abilities can make a huge difference in battle.
All told, the combat is much simpler than in Magic: the Gathering. Most of the strategy takes place outside of battle, revolving around how you construct your deck and which cards you choose to level up. The game even allows players to set battles to automatic if they desire. Watching your tightly-constructed deck trade blows with the opponent's proves surprisingly enjoyable. It's also very convenient, being able to start a fight and then take your hands off the phone for a few minutes.
Gathering cards and runes
Players can acquire cards in a variety of ways in this game. The Shop sells random cards or bundles of cards for gold (the soft currency earned from battles), gems (premium currency), and fire tokens (earned by completing in-game achievements). You'll also earn cards from completing stages, special in-game events, exploring stages, and completing mazes.
Most of the campaign maps have a maze that players can explore once per day. You'll earn tons of cards from the battles within, which can then be kept or used to level up other cards (as shown above). After starting a maze battle, you can even choose to skip it completely, unlike normal campaign battles. These mazes are an essential source of gold and EXP. But they lack for visual variety, with every single maze looking identical. It's not like palette swaps are hard to do.
On top of customizing and leveling the cards within your deck, you can also outfit it with Runes. Each Rune has a condition that triggers its spell. Trigger it during battle and it begins casting its spell. Runes drop much less often than cards, but you can get random runes by paying gold in the Temple. Balancing your gold spending between card packs and visits to the Temple is part of the game's strategy.
Multiplayer battles and Clans
Every day, players can participate in up to 15 player-versus-player (PvP) battles in the Arena. The game provides a list of five opponents for you to choose from. Beat one and you take that player's rank. The actual PvP battles are asynchronous and automatic, so they come down entirely to deck strategy, card level, and luck of the draw.
Winning ranked battles gets your gold and experience. After reaching level 18 and joining a clan, you'll also earn clan points from ranked matches. These points contribute to the clan's level, increasing the number of members who can join. Individual members also unlock exclusive cards based on their point contributions.
Clan members can also chat with each other, but only if other players are online. The lack of asynchronous chat (or even a notification of new chat messages) is a huge hindrance for clan chat. Clan membership is still worthwhile for the rewards you can unlock, but the social aspect goes sadly undeveloped.
Energy and In-app Purchases
Like many free to play games, Elemental Kingdoms limits player progression with an energy system. All campaign battles, exploration, and maze battles consume energy. Ranked battles, thief battles, and demon invasions (group battles against super-powered enemies) don't use energy as they have their own separate counters/timers.
The energy mechanic is a necessary evil in games like this. The developers don't want players racing through the game; they want us to play daily forever and ever. That said, energy takes awfully long to refill: one unit every ten minutes. Buying more energy with gems actually proves to be the best use of premium currency in the game, but even that ability is limited. You can only buy ten or so energy refills per day before the game cuts you off, oddly enough.
Gems can also be used to buy card packs or unlock new decks. The quality of the cards you'll get from a pack will exceed that of packs that cost coins, but not always by a huge margin. Unlocking a few extra decks to use in different situations is a lot more useful, in my opinion. The coins you need to spend in order to level up cards and runes can't be bought, only earned from playing.
Elemental Kingdoms is not the most balanced card game. Certain cards are truly overpowered and capable of decimating the opponent's entire deck if things go their way. The simplicity of the card battling mechanics doesn't give you any options when facing such high-powered cards, so your only option will be to grind and hope to win an MVP card of your own.
Still, getting those killer cards come down to luck and grinding far more than spending actual money. Avoiding in-app purchases won't put you at any real disadvantage, which speaks to the game's favor. Elemental Kingdoms gives players so many ways to keep busy, with a better-than-average campaign, PvP battles, clans, and constant special events. Look past the simple combat and balance issues and you'll find a fun and free card game that you won't be finishing anytime soon.
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