I’ve been looking for a solid card-based strategy game for my phone for awhile. Naturally, it was Blizzard Entertainment’s upcoming Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft that sent me down such a path, but given the company’s infamous reputation for taking forever I decided to play the field a bit. It ended up being perfect timing for the release of Elemental Kingdoms, the first mobile release from Perfect World Entertainment. Elemental Kingdoms is more akin to a deck-building game than your Magic The Gathering, which, again, is perfect since I’m a massive fan of Dominion.
The mobile game showcases the typical features of a solid title on the touch-friendly platform; a clean, intuitive user interface, natural screen pathing between features and options and various customizations. Screen space is used smartly, cards are well drawn, contain obvious fantasy staples and careful design has gone into their interactions. During the review time this critic was unable to repeatedly find opponents using the same card or strategy in the Arena. Quite a feat. But discussing balance and player-versus-player interactions is getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
Players start off with your basic (optional) tutorial describing the core elements of Elemental Kingdoms. Anyone that’s touched a TCG will inherently understand the specifics. Cards feature a handful of numbers pertaining to their attack power, health pool and how many turns until a card can be played. That’s right, no opportunity costs in EK. A card is played instantly once its cooldown has elapsed. Outside these key numerical values, cards may feature various on-played or on-attack capabilities from DoTs to heals, buff/debuffs or AE assaults. They’re also bound by realms of magic, each realm specializing in its own focus, such as Tundra cards freezing opponents. Coupled with level-based perks that include new abilities at key levels, cards can begin fairly weak only to become the crux for a strategy at the level cap, currently level 10.
A strategy game at heart, Elemental Kingdoms speeds up the gameplay for the fast-and-furious consumption common of the mobile platform with an Autoplay option in various game settings. The only reason this truly works is because of the simplistic in-match gameplay. Cards come to a player’s hand randomly from the deck, then move immediately into play as their cooldown elapses (unless you chose to Pass in manual play). If there’s an opposing card opposite it on the playing field they do battle until one dies. Otherwise, the card will attack the opposing hero’s health pool directly. Once all cards are killed or a hero’s health pool reaches nil the match is over. There’s zero strategy or interactivity during this time. A player is simply a bystander.
It’s important to note that the lack of interaction when in the heat of battle, while upsetting to to some hardcore players, does not mean EK lacks strategy. It’s simply moved to deck building. As a player hero’s levels they unlock larger deck sizes from a single card to a limited deck of ten. It’s constructing this menagerie of cards from a potential pool of over a hundred that will suck tactical junkies in. The pool will have you weighing power and sustainability against traps and tanking or long-term effects with healing power. Ultimately, the removal of this crucial aspect of a trading card game leaves this reviewer unfulfilled. Matches end up lacking that defining A-Team moment of a plan coming together. The match plays itself out like a game of War with a bit of preselection before the first shot is fired.
Believe it or not Elemental Kingdom contains a full campaign. The lengthy campaign quickly increases in difficulty after acting as the tutorial phase. The story – yes, there is one – isn’t anything to write home about, just a guided tale. The point is a game mode where players can farm for cards, experience and gold. All of these are required to upgrade ones deck with more powerful abilities through enchanting, or sacrificing one card to donate experience to another. The system is simple and required for all kinds of advancement. It’s also crucial to PvP, either in singles matches or the newly-introduced Kingdom Wars. The Temple, which gives players another access point for Runes, acts as your classic gold sink. It’s poor planning that the numerous features, from the ability to Enchant other cards to Arena play and Temple farming unlock so late in EK. Numerous players likely quit well before the full game is available to them. It’s poor pacing, not greed, that causes the misfire.
As with many free-to-play titles Elemental Kingdoms has time requirements and turn limits for certain activities, like campaign turns absorbing Energy and Demon Invasions and Arena matches having classic cooldowns. Often abused, Perfect World Entertainment gives EK a solid balance of free activity and short cooldowns with numerous daily perks to keep the real cost of EK to a minimum.
All in all, Elemental Kingdom is a well designed strategy-focused TCG for anyone that prefers deck building to outwitting an opponent on the field of battle. Caution though; for no matter your tactical prowess, you’re bound to lose to the Random Number Generator here and there.