Runespell: Overture Review (PC)

Game Review: Runespell: Overture
Release: July 20th, 2011
Genre: Puzzle, RPG
Developer: Mystic Box
Available Platforms: PC
Players: 1 (for now)
MSRP: $9.99
ESRB Rating: E

Runespell: Overture is the first game to come out from the indie developer Mystic Box.  A puzzle-RPG hybrid, Runespell: Overture puts you in the boots of “The Changeling”, a mysterious man who’s not quite like you and me.  As you play you learn more about where you came from and what your purpose is in the world.

The game uses a 7-card poker game for its battle system and gives you runespells to bolster your attacks and defenses. When you start each battle you and your enemy each are given seven rows of cards with which you build combos to damage your enemy. You start each turn with 3 RP, which is what the game calls moves.  Each time you move a set of cards you use one RP (or move) and you must build a 5-card combo to attack. You can make a combo that uses all five cards, such as a straight or full house. Or you can create smaller combos such as a three of a kind, and fill the remaining two cards with “junk cards”, ones that don’t match the rest of the hand.  The better hand you make the more damage you do, with a Royal Flush doing 50 damage and a single Pair doing just 9.

You can also steal cards from your enemy, and vice versa, to help build a better combo. However once cards are part of a combo (which counts as any two cards that you put together, even if they don’t match) they cannot be stolen. This adds a little strategy because you may want to build certain combos early to prevent them being taken, or take a card an enemy needs to stop him from creating a powerful hand. As you move cards a new one will flip over and take its place in endless succession.

While the idea of a smaller hand sounds good in theory, it still uses RP to move those cards which means it’s almost always far more effective to start building another hand instead of making a bad one. Especially since it’s extremely easy to get a Full House, which will do much more damage than hands with junk cards.

You also use runespells to augment your abilities and attacks. As you deal or receive damage you acquire Rage Points (Mana) which let you use these runespells. There are 11 types of runespells that do a variety of things, from simple offensive spells that do a set amount of damage, to defensive spells to protect you from enemy attacks, and spells that increase your Rage or RP. There are specific defense spells that protect you from only one type of damage, such as Fire Shield, however this spell, and the other ones like it, seem very superfluous since you rarely fight enemies that deal in only one element.

You will also collect Ally cards which act like runespells but are permanent.  You gain an ally card for each ally you acquire along your quest, and they are generally quite powerful. These can be put in your deck and never run out of uses, making them quite handy.

You can collect a ton of different runespells, however you can only bring eight into battle, including allies and blessings/secrets, so you have to pick and choose what you want – be it a combat heavy selection,  something based on buffs and defense, or anything in-between.

The enemy AI is smart enough to make good combos and steal cards, but not frustratingly skilled or lucky. However the enemies do usually have a gracious serving of HP, making it difficult to beat some of them on the first try.

Runespell: Overture is very reminiscent of Puzzle Quest, another game that combines the puzzle and RPG genre. Not only are they the same genre but mechanically they are similar, in the way the battle system and enemy encounters work. You navigate the world through a map embedded with a network of points, just as in Puzzle Quest. They also have almost identical interfaces, with the board in the middle and spells and abilities arranged in a column down the side. I noticed the similarity almost immediately and the comparisons kept entering my head as I played.

Runespell: Overture claims to be a hybrid of a Role Playing Game and a Puzzle game, however even to say it contains RPG elements would be a stretch. You don’t level-up or acquire skills like you do in other RPG’s and your character doesn’t even have numerical stats.  The only way your character improves is through acquired “Blessings” and “Secrets” cards which give you more Health or Rage.  Your allies are also static characters, with their card abilities staying the same throughout the game, meaning early allies will be shuffled out of your active deck and forgotten as you progress.

Puzzle Quest on the other hand perfectly integrated the two genres, giving you an option of character classes, skills, mounts, and branching quest lines. Runespell just feels like a card game with everything else poorly tacked on. That wouldn’t be so much of an issue if it was just a good card game, but it’s pretty unsatisfying. The games runespells operate like cards, if you have one Thunder Strike card, for example, you have one use of it, then the card is spent and you must acquire or buy a new one.  All of the cards operate this way except for your permanent allies and the blessings and secrets.  This means using a card in battle is a larger investment for you than a enemy. This is because your character persists through the world, what cards you have in your inventory carry over until you use or sell them, and early on you don’t have enough money to buy many.  However an enemy only has one battle to use them, so as soon as they have enough Rage Points they will use them. Early on this isn’t a problem, but late game when offensive runepells do upwards of 20 damage, and fear runespells can empty your Rage meter in a single use, it becomes a hassle. Enemies will often have a healthy number of cards, and when used aggressively then can remove around half of your hit points in just one move; where as if you were to use your cards in the same manner you would soon run out of uses and money.

The basic mechanics of the card game are also a bit too simple. You can only make ten different combos, so it gets quite repetitive pretty quickly.  Building poker hands also isn’t as addictive or fun as other mechanics used in similar games, such as the Bejeweled clone in Puzzle Quest.

Many aspects of the game are just not fleshed out nearly enough. The “Blessings” and “Secrets” cards only do one thing, give you extra health and extra mana, and while you don’t have to put them in your deck, not using them would guarantee losing, especially near the end of the game. So they end up not feeling like abilities at all, just boosts you take for granted.  In most matches a chest will be spawned that you can open for extra money or runespells by completing a card combo, but every single time it appears it’s always the same card combo, One Pair, which is such a poor hand it’s not even worth the investment to make it.

The game is also only about 15 hours long, which is a lot compared to other genres but quite short for both puzzle or RPG games, especially because there is almost no fun in replaying Runespell: Overture. After you complete the brief campaign you unlock a “Continue+” mode which lets you start at the beginning of the game but this time the money and spells you have collected carry over, however the enemies are the same difficulty which makes the first half of the game so easy it’s tedious.  Runespell: Overture lacks any sort of Skirmish mode, so if you did want to keep playing you are forced to trudge through the beginning again.

Runespell: Overture has selectable dialogue trees but it has little or no effect on the conversations with other characters, and absolutely no effect on the quest line, so there is no variety to be had there either.

While I wouldn’t punish a game just for being short, I have to say Runespell: Overture ended quite abruptly. Just as I felt like the game was getting in full swing, with a collection of spells and allies at my side, and for the first time some true variety in combat, the credits began to roll! While it is supposedly just an overture, it was still very off putting to have the game end at such a promising point.

The one thing that stands out in Runespell: Overture is the presentation.  Being the first game from Mystic Box, this is even more astounding.  What could be a mostly static game is given little bits of detail and motion everywhere.  When you enter camps or are in the battle mode, subtle, yet noticeable animations play in the background giving the game a surprising amount of atmosphere. When you traverse mountains on the map there is an  effect that makes it feel like you are really changing elevation instead of just sliding around on a picture. On top of that both the music and visuals are beautiful and refined, and again contribute to the games character and atmosphere.

I read all the text hoping the story would be more than the typical medieval tale of danger and mystery, and it seems like it could be interesting, but as I said before it ended before I got to know more. The dialogue though is very inconsistent and breaks the mood. The game is set in an “alternate medieval Europe”, and some characters speak in the olde thyme way, but then other characters will break the consistency completely with out of place modern language. Another bad habit of Runespell: Overture is to confuse sarcasm with indifference. While trying to create some sarcastic characters they instead made ones with far too many lines containing “Whatever” or “Okay , get on with it already” and things to that effect, which just made me as disinterested to read the dialogue as the characters seemed to be speaking it.

Mystic Box is a small company, and has been very active in responding and communicating with the community. They have stated intentions to add multiplayer and other improvements and I hope they continue to add features their fans want. Its great to see a company get active in the development process and continue to add features even after release.

Runespell: Overture is available on Steam for $10 ( £7.99, €8.99) which is quite a low price, so keep that in mind when mulling over this games pros and cons.

+ Great visuals and music
– Too short, abrupt ending
– Shallow mechanics

6 out of 10

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