Runespell: Overture Preview
I don’t believe I have ever played a game quite like Runespell: Overture. I have played many games that share aspects to it, but nothing with all of them at once like this. Runespell is set in an alternate 1046 AD England, the Danes and the Vikings have been driven out by Edward the Confessor, and now a strange blizzard called the Grim Whyte blankets the lands. You find yourself in the midst of this world with no memory of who you are or why you are here, but it soon becomes apparent that others in the world are aware of just what you are, if not exactly who.
You are a Wendol, often called The Changeling, an immortal creature that wanders the world and lives many lives but remembers none of them. As the game progresses you learn more about what you are, and eventually why you feel drawn toward a distant place. Along the way you meet and befriend others who wish to join you on your journey, be it for riches, knowledge, fame, or just simple curiosity. A good thing they come along too, because the way is littered with enemies who wish to do you harm, they want to brutally defeat you at a strange combination of poker and solitaire.
That’s right, this fantasy RPG uses cards for combat, arrayed in a solitaire layout. You create groupings of five cards based on the standard Poker and Yahtzee hands. Weaker hands, say a single pair, do a small amount of damage, while a royal flush does a massive amount. The solitaire layout means you have seven “slots” in which to build these hands throughout the battle. You can use any cards in your possession, and any cards not currently paired in your enemies possession. They of course can use any cards of yours that are not currently attached to an in progress combo as well. You can perform three actions per turn before the enemy gets their three turns, once each of you has gone a full round has elapsed in the game. What this means for combat is you may be missing an ace in your royal flush, you finish your three actions and the enemy begins its turn. The enemy, being a horrible monster who hates all good and happiness in your life, will notice you got that ace you needed as your turn ended. It will take that ace, and you will weep.
This keeps you and your enemy on your toes: cards that are not currently engaged to a possible combo could be snatched away at any time, so you need to watch all possible combos, be they yours OR the enemies. The combat gets deeper yet, as you also have an inventory of spells and companion abilities to employ against your enemy and to aid yourself. These spells and abilities are equipped between battles via an inventory screen, and many items have a limited amount of uses, requiring you to either replace them or purchase additional uses for them from a merchant. To use these items you equip, you build up a rage meter be doing damage to the enemy, or by being damaged yourself. Giving damage fills it faster, while taking damage only nets you a small amount of rage. What this all adds up to is a deep and tactical system that is built upon a fairly randomized base due to the nature of the cards, creating some very tense turn based battles.
You and your opponent will constantly be trying to build up powerful hands, but those require rather specific cards, which means it could take anywhere from one round to one hundred before they all crop up. Not to mention the enemy, who is actively looking to deny you those cards to protect itself. To offset this you reserve some slots to build weaker attacks on faster, to do damage and to build your rage meter, which allows you to deal direct damage, add actions to your turn, heal yourself, and many more such effects. Some spells also let you attack rage points rather then hit points, a strategy your enemies will use to great effect, and you will too if you know whats good for you. Some of the harder encounters can really be nerve wracking as you try your best to keep track of fourteen different card slots, both sets of rage and health meters, all while doing your best to make and disrupt combos.
The random nature of the cards keeps you guessing, frequently putting you in live or die situations that revolve around one specific card that one of you desperately needs to pull off a victory. The random nature of the cards does present a potential problem for players though, some of the tougher encounters pit you against an opponent with powerful spells and more health then you. While standard practice in a game to have a stronger enemy to overcome, when your basic attacks are formed through a randomized set of cards, you may find yourself completely outgunned as opposed to just slightly underpowered. It goes from being a challenge to being an exercise in frustration and futility.
One particular side quest I chose to undertake put me up against another Wendol, this one crazed and feral at the top of a mountain. As stated before, he was better equipped in all ways and represented an optional challenge for me to overcome. Problem is the first, oh I don’t know, twenty or so times I took him on, I found myself with a total hodgepodge of cards. He, meanwhile, moved first and took advantage of being able to place four out of five cards he needed for Royal Flushes, Straight Flushes, and a number of times five of a kind hands. It was like trying to out-swim a dolphin. It was laughably one-sided thanks to that initial draw that always put me way behind. Once or twice the game shuffled in such a way that we were mostly even, each time ending with me just narrowly losing. In frustration I left to get some ice cream and weep silently into a pillow, reliving each failure until I had my fill of Pistachio ice cream and came back to resume my beatings. I won on my first new attempt. Not just won, but decimated and salted the earth afterwards, the cards had shuffled in such a way that it didn’t even pose a threat. Most of the time the cards distribute in such a way that you enjoy yourself and get a nice fight out of each encounter. Sometimes though, those cards will just choose a side and flip it off hardcore. The game is still a month away from release, and it hasn’t even officially entered beta yet if I remember correctly, so this may not be an issue when I come back to review the game proper.
The mechanics of the game, which I adore aside from the few instances when the cards play favorites, are nestled in some very beautiful artwork. The cinematic portions of the game that tell the story are wonderfully animated paintings and illustrations, the over-world map likewise is a beautifully detailed illustration that you move your marker around between encounters and towns. Character portraits are also nice and detailed, full of character and charm, while the 3D character models are designed with a bit of Blizzard inspired love. The Changling in particular is reminiscent of some Warcraft Undead models, while the viking warriors are right out of WoW’s human cast. As of right now the character portraits are static images, so the dialogue will come with stage directions of a sort, letting you know when someone is smiling or laughing. They may add emotion portraits later on, which is something I would like to see implemented myself.
As for the dialogue coming from those characters, that can range from genuinely witty to groan-worthy writing. I haven’t run into that many characters in the portion of the game I was given to play, to its possible that this is simply how the two warriors in my party talk. The story is something I haven’t gotten to see terribly much of yet, but I am genuinely interested in seeing more of it. The amalgamation of fantasy, Norse myth, and various old world cultures makes for an engaging and interesting setting, and I look forward to learning more about the past events of The Changling’s life and the reasons why he is embarking to Skullgrim. I would tell you what Skullgrim is, but I don’t want to spoil anything for you at this point, I may go more into the story with the review next month.
Overall I am liking what I got to experience with this preview build of the game. The story hooked me despite the iffy writing that drives it, and I really enjoyed the combat system despite the few flaws that cropped up for me. I’m excited to see where the game goes next, both story and gameplay, I want to see what new companions will emerge and how elaborate the spells and abilities will become. The game will be entering beta soon, so keep an eye peeled for a possible demo or beta signup if this is the kind of game that you enjoy to play. You can find it in the Steam Store, or you can check out the website here. Check back in a month for the full review!