By Ken Allsop
The CCG (Collectible Card Game) genre is a busy one, so it can be tough for a newcomer to stand out. Duelyst seems intent on stealing hearts and minds - from its lovingly hand-animated pixel artwork to a deeper, more tactical underlying combat system than the average card game offering. But can it stand out from the crowd and appeal to a hardcore audience whilst also remaining approachable to newcomers?
Basics and Mechanics
At first glance, it’s easy to draw comparisons between Duelyst and Hearthstone. When it comes to digital CCGs, Hearthstone sits proudly atop the pile right now. Developers Counterplay Games certainly weren’t afraid to borrow from the top player and have cherry-picked key elements of the framework and design. As a result the basic interface and structure of Duelyst will feel instantly familiar to any Hearthstone players from the moment you hit the menu - from the way cards display their stats and abilities to the card packs which vibrate at a touch and explode into five common, rare, epic, or legendary cards to add to your collection.
Those comparisons continue when building your deck, too: you choose from one of six factions and build a 40-card deck out of a mixture of spells, minions, and artifacts. The similarities to Hearthstone come to an end, however, the moment you enter a match. Encounters in Duelyst play out in a fashion much more akin to turn-based tactics games. Here, the battlefield is comprised of a 9-by-5 grid of squares. At the outset of a match, the two players’ generals face off across the board - these are the centrepiece of your army, and the unit whose defeat spells the end of the game.
On your turn, each of your units (the general or your other “minions”) may move up to two squares in any direction and attack once. You may also play additional minions, cast spells, or power up your general with artifacts, pulling from an increasing mana pool to do so. Additionally, each player has the option to replace one card from their hand each turn with a fresh one from their deck, which feels like a perfect solution to the luck-based nature of card games and minimises the feel of games coming down to “top-decking” that perfect card once both players have emptied their hands.
This grid-based combat means that movement and board control play a key part in encounters. At a glance, it’s a more complicated system than your average CCG; but you shouldn’t let that put you off, because Duelyst manages to remain one of the most easy to pick up games I’ve put my hands on in recent years. It won’t take you long to grasp the basics, and the card explanations (which appear by any card or unit you hover the mouse over) do a fantastic job of clearing up any abilities or skills that you might not know or have forgotten about.
Visuals and Sound
The UI in general is incredibly easy to read, and the pixel art models stand out clearly, making it easy to differentiate between units on sight. There are also a whole ton of unique hand-crafted animations for the units, making Duelyst just as visually engaging as it is mentally. There are plenty of delightful crunches and splats to accompany the good looks, too - and the “Victory!” cry is so spectacularly satisfying that it alone will drive you to want to pursue more wins, if only to hear it again. My only minor gripe with the display so far is with the Battle Log system, which displays the past few actions taken but doesn’t specify targets of spells or attacks, making it easy to lose track of what has happened.
There are six factions to choose from - each with their own unique flavour and special abilities. The Lyonar have beefy units that specialise in close-quarters encounters and benefit from being adjacent to your general. However, they struggle at chasing down distant foes. Conversely, the Abyssian favour sacrificing hordes of small minions to power their stronger creatures and abilities. They also generate Shadow Creep, which lingers on the board and damages enemies who step on it.
Every faction feels truly distinct from one another - so switching up your deck can instantly make Duelyst feel like an entirely different game. You even have a choice of generals for each faction, each of whom comes with a unique “Bloodborn” ability - a powerful skill which may only be used on a two-turn cooldown. This means that, even within a given faction, decks may adopt rather different strategies; so there’s no telling when you go into a match exactly what you’ll be up against.
Modes and Matchmaking
As for the matches themselves, the bread-and-butter is the standard matchmaking - which is very quick, with it only occasionally taking me more than ten seconds to find a game - complete with a ranking system similar to that of Hearthstone, where you work your way up a ladder over the course of a month and earn a reward at the end based upon your final position. There is also the option to take on AI opponents in single encounters. Matches are generally quick and snappy, rarely feeling lethargic even when they venture into more drawn-out territory.
Additionally, there are a series of solo challenges, where you must win in a single turn given a pre-set board state. There are also one-off daily challenges, which can range from fairly straight-forward to some of the most head-scratching conundrums in the game, and have so far proven to be some of my favourite content available. The only real issue is that they only last 24 hours each, and there doesn’t appear to be a way to revisit old challenges should you miss one.
Finally, you can take on the Gauntlet, where you draft a deck of 30 cards from a series of three random choices each pick, select one of your chosen faction’s two generals, and play matches with your newly-constructed deck until you either win 12 games or lose 3. Rewards increase with each successive victory, and reaching the 7th win earns you a guaranteed ticket for another Gauntlet attempt, making it possible to keep going back in over and over if you’re good enough.
Free-to-Play Pricing Model
Before we wrap things up, it’s worth taking a moment to cover Duelyst’s free-to-play model. As with Hearthstone, you earn in-game Gold for wins and for completing the solo and daily challenges which may then be spent to buy Spirit Orbs (the pack equivalent, which contains five cards with at least one rare) or purchase Gauntlet Tickets. Both Orbs and Tickets may also be bought using real money. Cards you have no use for may be broken down into Spirit, which can then be spent to craft specific cards that you want right away.
There are also a selection of cosmetic items on offer - card backs, emotes, special general models, and more - which may be bought with real money or crafted using excess Spirit (albeit rather a large quantity). The model feels fairly reasonable - it’s easy enough to build a decent deck with only the basic cards, and Gauntlet provides an even playing field which you can theoretically play forever for free if you are good enough at it. My only qualm with the model is that end-of-season rewards come in the form of crates containing cosmetic items or “prismatic” (shiny) cards, which require paid keys to open. It feels a tad galling to earn a reward for your efforts that month only for the game to ask you to pay to receive them.
Duelyst’s combat systems manage to differentiate it from the pack, engaging a slightly different part of the brain from the majority of digital CCGs on offer out there and feeling fresh and new as a result. It’s an incredibly pretty game, but it can be easy not to notice this after a while as your mind is drawn in and melted down into a bubbling pot of numbers and manoeuvres. Duelyst is a game which innovates in all the right places, but isn’t afraid to borrow from the best to wrap its unique encounters in a framework that will feel comfortable and familiar to both newcomers and veterans of the genre. As a result, players of all levels should find plenty to love about this game and if you have even a passing interest in either card games or strategy games then Duelyst absolutely deserves your time.
Stay tuned to The Midnight Gamer for all the latest and greatest from the video gaming world. Duelyst is developed and published by Counterplay Games for Windows and Mac. It’s out now on Steam as of August 2016 (as well as being available on the official website), with plans for PS4 and Xbox One releases to follow.