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Review: Clash Royale

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Clash of Clans, backed by a big marketing campaign, has become the public face of strategy gaming that none of us want. Sure, it’s actually pretty competent as free to play base-builders go. But that very model is so repellent that it’s a bit like saying Genghis Khan wasn’t quite so bad as barbarian warlords go. Clash of Clans is still the inanely grinning face that launched the steamrolling of our hobby under the freemium juggernaut.

So when its sister franchise, Clash Royale, appeared on the scene, my instinct was to run a country mile. Yet, for the sake of journalistic completeness, I felt compelled to try it. I headed into my first match with every fibre of my being straining under duress. I left it with a hot itch to play another. Right away. And another, and another, until I was forced to admit that actually, Clash Royale is really good.

It’s a true mini-mobile MOBA. Unlike other games in that hallowed turf, like Vainglory, it doesn’t carry a ton of baggage over from its PC roots. Matches are incredibly fast, at 4 minutes tops before a draw is declared. There are only two lanes. Each player has three castles, and the aim is to destroy more than your opponent does. There’s no heroes to learn, only a variety of different missile and melee troops that you launch onto the board at a time and place of your choosing. From thereon in, the AI takes over and directs them for you.

You can take eight units into battle. There’s a default eight everyone gets at the start, and a small selection of new ones you can unlock through pay or play. It’s a bit like a card system where you can put things in and out of your deck as you get access to them or upgrade the ones you have. As you rank up, you slowly gain access to more and more cards and this slow drip keep the learning curve nice and shallow.

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If it seems surprising that there’s any learning curve at all in such a simple, stripped down game, that’s down to the genius of the design. Units don’t have many statistics but what there is creates an intricate web of attack and counterattack. Swarms of small units can be quickly removed with splash damage. Splash damage units can be effectively countered by flying troops. Flying troops are vulnerable to swarms of small missile units. And so on, ad infinitum.

That would be enough to make an interesting game. Yet richness is added to the mixture through a thousand tiny decisions in timing and positioning that can help win a battle. You pay for units through a slowly refilling bar of elixir. To win through to an enemy castle, you need to throw a mix of units into the offensive down one lane. But if you’re out of elixir, and you suddenly find yourself assaulted down the other lane, you’re in deep trouble.

Following a successful defence, you’re then in a dilemma with what to do about the survivors. The ragged, wounded band will march grimly on toward the enemy keep, where they’ll meet with a quick death unless you support them. Cash in too little, and it’s wasted points. Too much, and you leave yourself vulnerable. So, so many little decision points that can swing the tide one way or the other.

The result is a surprisingly deep and beguiling mix, where there’s a hint of randomness in your card selection and a lot of skill. With things being so smooth and fast it’s ideally suited to the mobile medium. The quick matches, predominance of player skill and multiple, interlocking collection and upgrade systems make it dangerously addictive. A quick five minute session can expand to eat an hour with terrifying ease.

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t’s not all a bed of roses. Matchmaking is based solely on your ladder score, but you also have slowly increasing levels for your towers and all your cards. That can lead to some frustratingly one-sided matches if you happen upon a higher-level player down on their luck.

Bigger, though, is the monetisation model, which is so odious that it makes me wish Clash Royale wasn’t as good as it is. Winning matches wins you chests, which contain gold and cards. You need gold, because it upgrades your existing cards and is the only reliable way to obtain the most powerful cards. However, you can only own four chests at once, and opening one takes up to twelve hours. Unless you pay with premium, real-money fuelled, currency to take the timers away.

The reality is that while you can, in theory, play forever for free, you will lose a lot of matches and will struggle to get anywhere unless you pay. It doesn’t have to be a handsome amount, but it’s still effectively a paywall unless you have the patience of a saint. And if you’re at all impulsive, or if the game gets its substantial hooks in you, it would be easy to spend a lot of money. Top players are already taking about hundreds of dollars.

 What’s so tragic and infuriating about this is that Clash Royale would have worked brilliantly on a Hearthstone style pay model. Earn gold through quests or through victories, up to a sensible daily limit. Buy card packs with your gold, or with real money. It’s made plenty of profit for Blizzard. But SuperCell weren’t satisfied with that. Instead, they chose the greedy path with Clash Royale and made what could have been a truly great game into merely a very good one.

Sad, but it’s an effective and instructional metaphor for the direction mobile gaming seems to be going. So Clash Royale sticks us in a bind. Enjoy this excellent game and hasten the demise of the things we love, or miss out on a cracking strategy game and stick to our principles? On the assumption that I’m in too tiny a minority that cares about the latter, I’m going to have to recommend we all go with the former.

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Review Kingdom Rush

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The Kingdom Rush [Free / Free (HD)] series has been one of the most popular tower defense franchises out there, and it’s thanks in part to its introduction of action and RTS elements with the summonable reinforcements, and the hero units that can be sent across the battlefield to help take care of any threats. It gives this genre a fresh feel, and not just about sitting back and watching towers annihilate enemy creeps. Now Ironhide Games continues the franchise with Kingdom Rush Origins [$2.99 / $4.99 (HD)], a game that iterates on the formula that previous entries established. It’s still a solid game, but it’s pretty clear at this point that it’s a series just for fans of it, and I failed to find any reason for newcomers to particularly jump in to this entry in particular.

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The game’s elements will feel largely familiar to Kingdom Rush veterans, as many of the unit types follow a similar structure as they did before, with archers, stone-throwers replacing bombers, magicians, and the infantry units serving as the towers to fend off enemies. There are a number of new enemies, different upgrades to play with, new special hero attacks to play with, and all sorts of the little tweaks and changes that series veterans will likely point out. There are a number of path designs across the game’s two-dozen-plus levels – pay attention to where the banners are to see where the enemies are marching toward!

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The production values are maxed out, to be sure. This game has spectacular detail, color, and animation. The levels are teeming with animated elements all over the place, including little random things that can be tapped in the levels. Some of them just do things like play music or trigger animations, but others can affect battle, though those are more obvious. The visuals are a bit small on the iPad mini 2’s Retina display, and I understand the lack of zoom functionality, but it can be hard to tell where hero units are in the heat of battle when there’s hundreds of units are on screen at once.

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Unfortunately, Kingdom Rush Origins‘ pacing is a real killer. Back when I reviewed Crystal Siege HD [$2.99], I noted that game lacked fast-forwarding and felt a bit slow. Well, I forgot that Kingdom Rush has always eschewed fast-forwarding, and the missions in Origins feel particularly lengthy, particularly when there’s no ability to move the action along. The game feels plodding at times, and missions contain ever-increasing numbers of waves. It’s a game that winds up feeling like a chore at times. Also, that game really pushes forward the usage of hero units in tower defense, where it feels a lot more trivial here.2.jpg

<img src=”http://cdn.toucharcade.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Kingdom-Rush-Origins-1.jpg” alt=”Kingdom Rush Origins 1″ width=”2048″ height=”1536″ class=”aligncenter size-full wp-image-162044″ srcset=”http://cdn.toucharcade.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Kingdom-Rush-Origins-1-300×225.jpg 300w, http://cdn.toucharcade.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Kingdom-Rush-Origins-1-620×465.jpg 620w, http://cdn.toucharcade.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Kingdom-Rush-Origins-1-624×468.jpg 624w, http://cdn.toucharcade.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Kingdom-Rush-Origins-1.jpg 2048w” sizes=”(max-width: 2048px) 100vw, 2048px full-width-image” />

Also a chore? The game has issues launching properly on iOS 8.1 – it would frequently launch to a black screen on the iPad Mini 2, and I see the same issue with Kingdom Rush Frontiers [$2.99 / $2.99 (HD)] on my iPhone 6 Plus.

I take issue with some of the in-app purchases. Now, I totally understand that hey, it’s hard to make money on the App Store, and I have no qualms with the game’s price. And if it’s fair, I can live with paid games having in-app purchases. But I don’t know, having a number of heroes that can only be bought with in-app purchases, and having an extra-powerful $6.99 hero in what is a $4.99 game on iPad feels icky to me. This is especially so when the game isn’t universal, so if you buy a character and want to play on your iPhone after playing on iPad, you would have to buy again.

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This criticism is possibly unfair considering that previous games have done similar things, and Crystal Siege has in-app purchases to buy exclusive items, but perhaps it’s that this game puts them out in front of the player every time they select a hero. It’s a combination of factors. Plus, the Android versions are $2.99 for tablet-compatible versions. It’s 2014, Rovio stopped doing iPhone/iPad splits a while ago, the HD moniker doesn’t mean anything any more since the iPhone is actually HD now, let’s just make everything universal. At least there’s iCloud support for saves.

Really, I’m just going to admit that Kingdom Rush Origins is not the ideal kind of game for me. I like my tower defense a bit faster, I like getting into more detail, and I perhaps like my in-app purchases a bit more subtly-placed! I realize that now. I imagine that fans of the series will love this one, and they can flame me all they want. I understand, but I hope they understand why I’m not all that keen on this one. For the person who wants to get into the series, this isn’t a bad entry point, and you probably ought to play one of these games for the cultural awareness. And hey, $2.99/$4.99 aren’t inordinately high prices in the grand scheme of things, so you can say you’re supporting premium game prices. But if you’re new to the series, and not even sure that you like tower defense, I’d suggest jumping into an earlier entry first – you can get Frontiers for free on iPhone through IGN right now, and there’s the myriad sales that pop up, as well, for the series. And I think Origins will play better if you’re acquainted with the series and wind up wanting more, versus just jumping in for the first time. This one’s for fans of the game already, which may be why $6.99 character IAP in a paid game is available, because people care enough to shell out for it. I guess I can’t really fault that, even if I’m not entirely comfortable with it.