Title: Prismata Released on: PC, March 8, 2018 [Early Access] Genre: Card Battle Game/Resource Management/Real-Time Strategy Available on: PC Developer: Lunarch Games Publisher: Lunarch Games MSRP: $24.99 USD / $28.99 CAD
Despite having been around the block a few times when it comes to playing video games, I have never, ever experienced a game quite like Prismata. It’s this strange and wonderful combination of a card game, a resource management game, a real-time strategy, an MMO, and a whole lot of other bits mixed in as well. I found that as I played it, I was more and more amazed by how much this game had to offer, and how deep the gameplay really went. The strategy, the cards, even the lore really is really something to behold.
Swade Wong and the No Good, Very Bad Day
Prismata‘s story takes place sometime in the mid-to-late 2100s on Beacon One, a planet that is tidally locked to its star, meaning one side is eternally day while the other is eternally night. As such, Beacon makes heavy use of solar energy on the light side, while robots reign supreme on the dark. Industry has become completely automated by massive factories pumping out drones and other bots to keep the planet’s power grid running.
The player takes the role of Swade Wong, a war veteran who was once a master of the Swarm Wielder (essentially the battlefield conduit of Prismata) and his associate, Logan Pearson. Pearson serves as the game’s comic relief and backstory delivery man. What begins as a simple outbreak of rogue bots that Swade must dispose quickly goes out of hand as the duo discover a widespread virus called VILE. From there, Swade and Logan uncover a mass conspiracy all the while demolishing evil robots (and creating plenty of rad explosions in the process).
Between battles the player is graced with some exceptionally clever and hilarious writing. When each character is introduced you get a text box with a brief biography, their previous work, and their most recent online searches. Swade and Logan are perfect foils for each other and their relationship is so entertaining to watch develop. There are tons of references to tech and gaming culture, and even a scene where the characters take a shot at modern-day games’ use of micro-transactions, which made me actually laugh out loud.
Fight Against Hordes of Robots using…More Robots!
The centerpiece of Prismata is, of course, the battle game segment. Since this game is a combination of multiple genres all rolled into one, the rules feel familiar but different at the same time. It’s always a delicate balance to try and meld together aspects of completely different genres, and while I found this to be somewhat jarring at first, the tutorials and controls were intuitive enough for me to get a handle on it easily.
Your objective as the self-imposed robot killer is to eliminate all forces on the enemy side of the field whilst defending your own from being destroyed as well. Depending on the episode (at least in the campaign), you only have certain cards to play and a limited number of each that can be played. Some cards generate the currency needed to play other cards (Drones, Animus, Blastforges), others are used for defense (Walls, Engineers), and others still are used to attack and come in flavors both robotic and cyborg (Steelsplitter, Tarsier).
The game’s complexity comes from the variety of cards within the game, but also because of the vast array of strategies needed to win each game. Because you start with a different set of cards every time and there are more enemy types than card types, the player must modify their way of thinking to adhere to the puzzle. I use the word “puzzle” here because in the campaign your options for cards are restricted and thus each episode has one solution. These solutions usually require focused use on one or two cards and a specific type of strategy to complete the episode.
To destroy enemy cards, you must have the firing power to completely eliminate them; if not, they will block damage, but the card will stay in play. Not only that, but both the player and the opponent can choose how damage is distributed. This requires an additional layer of thought and strategy needed to achieve victory. Boiled down, Prismata has three stages: the defend phase where you distribute damage taken on your own cards, the economy phase where you purchase new units with the currency built up from the previous turn, and the attack phase where you choose what cards to engage, mindful that upon attacking they will be useless for the following defense phase.
Some of the best aspects of the battle card segment are the little things. You can see at all times how much defending and attacking power both you and the opponent have and how much of each you can expect the opponent to have for their upcoming turn. The game will remind you if you have any unspent resources, and will also let you know if your defenses will be completely eliminated or overrun during the next turn. You can undo any action at any point in the game and even go back as many turns as you want in case you made a critical error early on that resulted in an unfavorable outcome. I find this last detail to be a little bit game-breaking, since you can basically replay the same game over and over to get the match perfect without once having to admit defeat.
Easy to Learn, Difficult to Master
The tutorial segment of Prismata (basically the first half of Chapter 1 of the campaign) is excellently crafted and does a great job of introducing the player to new mechanics at a reasonable pace. At the outset, opponents can’t attack and the player just rips through loads and loads of enemies to get a feel for attacking. In addition to the core campaign, the player also completes mandatory interlude episodes that show them how to use different strategies like prioritizing enemy damage or balancing currency generators with firepower. All of this leads up to harder and harder matches with AIs, with later battles being immensely satisfying to win. I was stuck on the last episode of Chapter 1 for hours before I figured out the solution, and when I did, the feeling was unlike any other experience I’ve had in a card-game. Turning the tide of a match after so many failed attempts is exhilarating.
That being said, this game is hard. I didn’t expect such difficulty out of Prismata after completing the tutorial section (since they felt just like regular matches, not full on tutorials) but when you get to the later levels, it gets rough. Because campaign episodes have just one solution to the matches, I got discouraged pretty quickly when I couldn’t figure it out. I don’t blame the difficulty spike on the game’s mechanics for this reason; Prismata does not function how the casual player would expect since it is neither a card battle game nor a real-time strategy, but a combination of the two. The expectations of both genres (along with some tower defense and 4X type games as well) merge in this game, leading to a bit of disorientation when trying to understand any field of play.
This is why I would not call the difficulty a bad thing – the rules and mechanics have been crafted so that your options make up for how hard the matches are. For example, you can go back and forward in time as you play each match to hone in on whatever mistake you may have made. Even if defeat comes, you can examine the match’s stats to a very technical and detailed level with a chart of firepower, cards used and lost from each turn, and a replay video option. You can even go back to the game from the defeat screen with your newfound knowledge. If you’re still stuck, you can consult the global chat or friend chat at any time to ask for advice.
So Much More than Just a Card Battle Game
So far I’ve only been discussing the campaign, but Prismata has so much more to offer. In single-player you can engage in challenge mode versions of each episode of the campaign, or practice different battle strategies in the combat simulator (these are incredibly hard). You can also create quick battles with AI and customize how they play, but the real depth of content comes with the online aspect of the game. Not only can you create matches with friends or random players, but you can watch matches going on in real-time. Simply select the match you want to watch in the list and jump right in. I adore this addition because it makes the community feel so much closer. Every game whether it was created by you or someone else can become a spectator sport with an unseen number of audience members. You can access the aforementioned battle chat to discuss the matches or set one up yourself. Although you’ll need an account to access these, you can connect with your Steam account to make it easier.
Another similar part of the online functions that I find particularly interesting is the use of integrated streaming. If someone wants to stream themselves playing Prismata, they can use the game itself to market the stream. Then, anyone with the game who wants to watch a stream can access all Prismata streams from the game’s menu. Since streaming video games has become a popular practice in recent years, I find this function fascinating. I can’t help but wonder if this is a direction all online games will soon implement: the accessibility of watching other people from around the world play from the game itself. If it is, I’m all for it.
Finally, Prismata has a wealth of customization with tons of avatars, emotes, and even pre-built skins for each card so you can change how your cards look on the battlefield, and they range from badass to completely silly (Tarsiers can have googly eyes and Engineers can look like a gentleman with a mustache and bowler hat). The most noble thing Lunarch Studios has done by this token is state very adamantly that they aim to break the growing trend of “pay-to-win” in free-to-play games. They are on the record saying that aside from these strictly cosmetic changes that can be purchased there are no other transactions available in the game. And once complete, it will always be free. Players only have advantages from their skill level, not their wallets.
When I first learned of Lunarch Studios’ Prismata, I was incredibly excited by what I would experience within. My expectations were completely blown away by the deep levels of strategy, intriguing storyline, beautiful style and mechanics, and online capabilities. Despite that, the game has a sharp learning curve and my first hours were filled with frustration at constantly losing matches. It seemed like every game felt the same, with only a limited number of outcomes, and the trajectory of each match ending in who has more of the stronger cards on their side. But the more I played, the more I was able to appreciate just how intricate the system is and how much strategy and forethought you have to incorporate to win. That’s why when you do win, you feel incredible, like you just outsmarted all the AIs on the entire planet of Beacon.
After playing for over seven hours, meticulously beating each episode and engaging in AI battles, I gained a sense of nostalgia that many games don’t do often these days: the difficulty is there on purpose. To me, it hearkens back to the days of the NES and SNES, where although households had only a few games they were all so difficult that you could extend a two-hour-long game by several more hours. I do not see this concept as being inherently negative, especially concerning Prismata. The difficulty beckons you to challenge what’s before you, to really go deep and concentrate.
I want to close with my admiration for Lunarch Studios and their mission to accomplish what they set out to do, which was to create a game that borrowed from other games of its ilk, yet formed something distinctly different. Prismata really is a card battle game unlike any other, and I was phenomenally impressed by how it shaped its style. While only the first of five chapters of the game is available, updates are coming along with a ton of other features like an in-game guide, just to name one. I’m very excited to see how this game progresses with time.
Final score: 8.5/10
A refreshing take on card battle games achieved by implementing aspects of other genres, to create an impressive and extremely fun experience. Many parts of the game are highly difficult and could be discouraging, but winning matches makes the effort absolutely worth it.
A digital copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.