Developer: Mystic Box
Some games are designed by committee. Others are built on the shoulders of giants, leveraging decades of evolution and experimentation. And others, we assume, are roughly thrown together in five minutes on a Friday afternoon to capitalise on a film license. But every once in a while, a game is constructed around a single breathtakingly simple idea; a "what if?" moment of laser-sharp focus and clarity that defines the entire gameplay experience.
Runespell: Overture is one such title. After all, us gamers love RPGs. We love Solitaire. And we love Poker. "So what if," wondered Mystic Box, "we combined them?"
As luck would have it, the result is a game that isn't entirely recognisable as any of the above - but is entirely exceptional in its own right.
Runespell Overture stakes its RPG claim from the very outset. Players assume the role of a mysterious changeling thrown into a fantasy version of Saxon Britain, hellbent on an epic tale of self-discovery and revenge throughout an enormous game world. Allies and NPCs will help and hinder you throughout your journey. Numerous subquests provide many hours of value and valuable resources. Yes, Runespell: Overture is very much an RPG... until you reach for your sword only to be confronted with a deck of cards instead.
Upon entering a battle, both you and your foe will be presented with a deck of standard playing cards dealt into seven separate piles. The objective is to drag and drop them into groups of five, using standard Poker or Yahtzee scoring rules to determine how much each set is worth. Solitary pairs or small straights will deal a small amount of damage to your opponent when deployed, whereas full houses, five-of-a-kinds and the elusive straight flush will guarantee massive critical hits. However, you'll only have a limited number of moves to make per turn - and to make matters more interesting, both players can steal cards from each others' hand. This transforms a simple game of solitaire into a tense battle for supremacy, with each player needing to pay close attention to their opponent's combinations and block them from attaining flushes and straights.
The AI will intelligently defend the cards you need to complete your plays, and the enemies frequently use regenerating shields or elemental effects to inject an extra tactical dimension into the proceedings. Some foes only drop their defences every once in a while, meaning that you'll need to stockpile your combinations until the window of opportunity opens. And, of course, you'll need a good head for poker in order to work out whether to quickly amass small attacks or bide your time for the perfect straight flush.
As an RPG, Runespell: Overture also features a mind-boggling selection of special abilities which draw on a Rage Meter (read: Mana bar) that replenishes as you deal damage. Direct hit point attacks, elemental spells and even nifty defensive measures can all turn the tide of tough battles, but are tempered with a limited supply that needs to be refilled at shops and markets. Earning money for new spells and extra charges is a key part of the game, and though you'll need to log a fair bit of grinding every now and again, the variety of opponents ensures that it rarely becomes a chore.
Runespell: Overture absolutely nails the sought-after middle ground between tactical depth and instant accessibility thanks to its simple yet engaging mechanics. If you've ever played Poker or Solitaire before, the battle system feels perfectly natural and intuitive - providing scope for lengthy, entertaining battles and grand stratagems without sacrificing the fun. It's brilliantly addictive to boot, and Puzzle Quest fans will find a rewarding new home that blows away Galactrix and even Puzzle Quest 2 in terms of storytelling and compulsive draw.
Once again, there is one major disadvantage to replacing RPG mechanics with puzzles and poker... and it always comes down to Lady Luck. She's a fickle mistress at the best of times, and though skilled players will usually be able to force a win, your opponent will sometimes receive devastating combinations as you desperately fiddle around with measly pairs and a hopeless hand. You'll lose (and win, admittedly) a fair few battles simply by the strength of your starting hand, which can be extremely galling after it happens a few times. It's a necessary evil, but one that unfortunately comes with the territory.
Runespell: Overture is no slouch when it comes to presentation. Sumptuous artwork, crisp sprites and impressive 3D attack animations conspire to create an attractive and believable game world, bolstered by a rousing orchestral accompaniment. There's a case to be made that Mystic Box has slouched on the functionality side of things, mind, as most of the fonts and icons (pleasing as they are) remain irritatingly small and difficult to read regardless of screen resolution. The dialogue system is also a touch disconnected and requires you to dart around the screen and keyboard more than ought to be necessary. It's a small gripe in an otherwise exceptional package - and in no way should it put you off.
Finally, it's my duty to mention that Runespell: Overture is extremely repetitious - but no more so than most loot grinders and dungeon crawlers. There's nothing wrong with games sticking to what they're good at, and in this case, it's very good indeed. Just bear in mind that the demo doesn't leave much to the imagination.
- Lengthy, satisfying quest
- Refreshing and engaging poker mechanics
- Polished presentation
- Repetitious by design
- Luck can be as important as skill
- Bitty, if beautiful, GUI
The Short Version: Runespell: Overture is the perfect example of a simple, brilliant idea that's been expertly executed. Mixing the depth and scope of RPGs with the immediate, tense fun of Poker is a sure-fire winner, and makes for an experience that caters to practically any gaming palette. It's one of the breakthrough Indie hits of an already exceptional year and deserves your immediate attention.