Review: Adventure Time: Card Wars

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You’d think, given the rampant (and well-deserved) popularity of Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time, that Jake, Finn, LSP and the gang would be the stars of an absolutely unstoppable videogame juggernaut. Instead, they’re the dubious owners of a big pile of mediocre. While DS and 3DS owners certainly enjoyed the wordy Hey Ice King! Why’d You Steal Our Garbage?, last year’s wannabe Diablo-esque Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon Because I DON’T KNOW! was nothing short of a raging dumpster fire.

So it’s with some trepidation that fans might approach Adventure Time: Card Wars, an iOS offering that spins a sizable collectible-card game campaign off that season four episode where Jake and Finn flip cards in the tree house. The sigh of relief you just heard is your own: Card Wars manages to balance goofball, Magic: The Gathering-style gameplay and monster amounts of fan service against some truly baffling/irritating freemium-style mechanics. As Jake is fond of saying, sucking at something is the first step to being sort of good at something.

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If you’ve ever played or watched a game of Magic, you’ve got the basic idea. Card Wars adds its own spin to the proceedings: Your battlefield consists of just four lanes, each of which gets filled with one of five flavors of landscapes you choose—things like the useless swamp and Nicelands. You’re given a certain number of magic points per turn to populate those lanes with creatures, cast spells and “floop” your creatures to activate special abilities like bonus damage and extra cards. The use of Magic points—and you just know the name is as deliberate as it is un-ironic–introduces a clever level of strategy that’s like Magic without directly ripping it off.

Card Wars does a great job of steeping itself in the flavor and look of the show. The signature, hand-drawn art style extends to the creatures and spell effects, and the show’s voice actors all make an appearance. Winning matches makes you “the cool guy” while losing makes you “the dweeb;” tutorial hints offer hilarious tips like not using your elbow to spin the piece of pizza/dead fish bones/hot dog spinner that determines who goes first.

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The cards are copious and hilarious, even if you have to grind an awful lot of AI matches (disappointingly, there’s no multiplayer here) to either win them or the necessary pieces to craft them. Things like the Strawberry Butt, a card that lets you draw two additional cards, and the rare Pickler, a card that reduces the attacks of all your opponent’s creatures, are hilarious; watching a spell card like Volcano eradicate both sides of a lane with oozing lava makes me wish Wizards of the Coast had invested in cartoony card animations for its annual Magic: The Gathering iOS offerings.

It all ought to be endless hours of card-flooping madness, but here’s the weird and annoying thing: There are timers. Timers have become an accepted and occasionally annoying piece of plenty of freemium games—EA’s egregious Dungeon Keeper reboot notwithstanding, it’s a reasonable way for developers to wring a few dollars out of players who aren’t interested in waiting half an hour (or more) between making moves and/or rocking play sessions. But in a game with a $4 price tag, they feel more than a little out of place. Here, the timer governs hearts, the currency you spend to play matches. You can replenish your heart meter, but you’ll have to part with a gem to do it. And those gems are vital and rare little items. You can spend them to do things like open chests that contain random rare cards and, more crucially, expand the limited number of cards you can have in your collection. (By a piddly five cards per gem. ZING.)

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Gems are also the bulwark that prevents losing progress. If you lose to your AI opponent, you’re given the choice to spend a gem to avoid the potentially stiff penalty of losing gold, experience points and cards. Pay up, and it’s effectively an automatic victory—your health bar refills completely and you get a new, full hand of cards. But here’s the thing: The only way to acquire gems in-game without paying a whopping dollar per gem is to complete the additional two missions per opponent—think of the shield-collecting mechanic in the Kingdom Rush games. With all these key game mechanics tied to their use, you can see how quickly you’re likely to run out of them–and run out of ways to earn them without cracking your wallet. That’s a level of insidious even the Ice King can appreciate.

The timer and IAP mechanics aren’t really enough to rain on Lady Raincorn’s pink-infused parade—with a long campaign and sizable card library to play around with, there’s plenty to see and enjoy here. It’s just hard not to think of how much better Card Wars would have been without them. Given that Cartoon Network is hoping fans will pay up to $16 for a deck in the actual, physical Card Wars game they’ve released alongside this app, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Great use of the license and art style
+ Gameplay mechanics offer a wide range of deck-building strategies

Cons:
– Timers? In a game you just paid four bucks to own?
– No multiplayer
– Advancing deep into the campaign—i.e. getting the best, coolest cards–requires grinding, careful gem management

Game Info:
Platform: iOS
Publisher: Cartoon Network
Developer: Kung Fu Factory
Release Date: 2/16/2014
Genre: Collectible Card Game
Age Rating: 9+
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.