Combat Monsters originally launched on mobile devices and did well for itself. Free to play and using microtransactions to build up your deck, it ticked the boxes of what we’ve come to expect from many mobile games. Now it’s making the leap to PC and surprisingly very little of the model of the game is actually changing. It’s still free to play with a huge number of microtransactions, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The question is does the base game do enough to be worth your time?
Although first impressions might have you labelling Combat Monsters as yet another CCG-style freemium title riding the Hearthstone/Magic bandwagon, in truth it’s something more complicated and innovative than that. Matches play out on a small hexagonal grid and each creature you summon appears on that grid. Some hexes bestow benefits upon your units or give you more summoning power for the next turn so it pays to keep some kind of creature standing there. On top of that you have your main hero unit that can take much more of a beating than others but if it falls you lose the game. You can only summon creatures immediately around that hero. Then finally there’s ranged units, spells, equipment (that can be seen on each unit’s 3d model) and runes that can be used to add extra advantages to your side.
It’s a simple game, once you rattle through the pacey and clear tutorial, with a lot of deep strategy evident immediately. Do you want to rush with as many fighters as possible to take board control? Do you want to build up and defend a few high powered units? Do you want kill the enemy hero as quickly as possible or concentrate on keeping his adds down? The AI is fairly simple and its strength is based primarily on the availability of the units in its deck, but as you start taking on real people it can quickly become just as complicated and interesting as any other well-built board or card game. Those of your familiar with the genre will be able to jump straight in as each unit has an attack value, a defence value and the possibility for some guard, and each turn they are summoned with exhaustion so they can’t be used immediately. The only slight change we’d like to see would be for defenders do deal their attack damage to the attackers as in Magic, but this might just be a personal preference.
So mechanically, it’s a sound and interesting game. You can play multiplayer in a hotseat mode or even asynchronous online play with up to 6 players on one board. It’s not something to just pick up and play and building a deck is vital for competitive games but if you can find some like-minded players it can be a blast.
Unfortunately this deck-building is where it begins to fall apart. The UI is cluttered with suggestions to spend real money on more in-game currency to be able to buy more cards and boosts. At the end of each match you’re reminded how many coins you would have got if you’d have paid for a boost and then it’s cruelly taken away from you. Games have to make money but the obnoxious self-promotion and invasive suggestions remind us of Ryanair’s approach to selling scratchcards to a (literally) captive audience. Somehow it just doesn’t feel sophisticated or polite.
Graphically it’s clear this is essentially a mobile game with low-res textures, large blocky characters and a UI that would be at home on a touch device. There are nice little flourishes like the way your hero approaches the board as a looming giant, reinforcing the sense that this is some kind of physical board game. We also enjoyed the fact that using a piece of equipment actually gives that creature the item to hold, a simple thing that you rarely see. Unfortunately none of this makes the game attractive or visually pleasing.
Overall this is a great little game mechanically but the constant reminders about micro-transactions manage to suck most of the pleasure out of playing. We’d love to see a proper paid-version with the same rules and can imagine that making at least some small waves on the competitive scene.