Runespell: Overture mixes two games that wouldn't ordinarily seem to go together: poker and role-playing. Well, clubs, diamonds and kings are involved, so maybe it isn't quite a stretch after all.
If you enjoy such casual-oriented titles as Puzzle Quest, Battle Slots, Bookworm Adventures and Sword & Poker, you'll likely enjoy Runespell as well. The one main complaint is that it doesn't have the same amount of depth as the competition, but then again, its asking price is less than ten dollars.
All Hands on Decks
You can read more about how the game plays in my Runespell preview, but here's the gist: you and your opponent each has a replenishing deck of cards that's used to create poker hands.
Each side has three turns to do the following: move cards to build a five-card hand, steal cards from the opponent's deck, use a magic-based power card, or play a completed hand.
Once you've created a hand, you can use it to inflict damage on your opponent, the amount of which depends on the hand's ranking (full house, straight, flush, etc.). Power cards are separate from the traditional deck and are either won in battle or purchased throughout the course of play.
These special cards offer you magic-based options to damage your opponent, protect yourself against attacks, heal yourself, and so forth. All require a varying number of rage points, earned by dealing or taking damage, before they can be played. The more powerful the card, the more rage points it will cost you.
Planning Your Moves
The different attack options add some strategy to the battle phase. Since the computer's cards are always visible, you can thwart potential powerful hands from being stacked by taking away cards or protecting your own by moving them to another pile (stacked cards cannot be stolen).
Your limited-use power cards can be a boon, but attacking too early on some enemies will build up their rage points faster, allowing them to use one of their own power cards. Some, like those that increase the number of moves on a given turn or regenerate health, can be a big setback.
There's also a random element to the proceedings, from the cards that are revealed to the results of certain power card attacks. One type of power card, for example, deals 1-40 points of damage when used.
So there's an element of gambling while playing the game -- whether it's waiting for a particular card to complete your straight flush or hoping that a certain power card will deal enough damage to finish off the enemy before he or she kindly returns the favor.
Runespell's story has something to do with an evil presence causing a giant snowstorm in England, but the narrative takes a backseat to the battles. One interesting approach is squandered: Runespell gives you dialogue options during encounters -- and your allies will even talk to each other -- but the choices aren't meaningful. The text might as well just say "click here to continue." If you're going to have dialogue options, then let players make moral or financial decisions that will influence the events that follow.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the lack of character customization, especially since you can only play as one character. There are no experience points, levels, stats, equipment, special abilities, or skills to acquire, so you can't build up an immunity to elemental based attacks or increase your damage capacity against certain creatures. Everything is tied to the power cards, which aren't quite as diverse as you might expect. If you loved the character progression in Puzzle Quest, you'll likely be disappointed with the approach offered here.
While the lack of a level system suggests that the game doesn't involve a heavy amount of grinding or repetition to rank up, you still have to replay more than a fair share of battles simply because you need the money. Your power cards require "uses" that must be purchased at a trading camp -- and these uses ain't cheap. On the flip side, it really makes you think twice about using a card in battle.
Sweet Music or Out of Tune?
Another potential drawback is the absence of a difficulty setting. Some of the boss battles are extremely challenging, as the encounters handicap you in different ways. Some bosses possess cards that are far more powerful than anything you have -- such as the ability to increase the number of turns by double digits or instantly increase rage points by 75.
Other encounters essentially force you to build either a straight or royal flush right from the start to have any hope in winning. If the cards don't fall your way, expect to repeat the same battles over and over again until you luck out.
By this point, you'll start to wish your power cards were better designed. While there are 53 to collect, a majority of them function the same way. What's the point of having fire, nature, lightning, iron, poison, ice and other elemental attacks if they all do the same damage? Enemies don't have weaknesses against certain attacks, so unless you enjoy watching a particular spell's animation sequence, there's no need to aim for a complete card collection.
It would be much more interesting if the power cards could directly affect the playing field in some way, such as freezing a deck, burning a rival's hand, mixing up the cards and so forth. You really only need one or two damage dealing power cards, a healing card, and a card that gives you extra turns. The rest seem to be superfluous.
So Runespell isn't quite the Puzzle Quest killer that it could have been. The story could be better, there's no multiplayer component, and the replay value is limited thanks to the linear design and lack of character progression. Yet when you consider the game is only $9.99 and good for 10 or so hours of entertainment, it's hard to dwell on the negatives.
The beautiful visuals, great (though somewhat repetitive) licensed music, and interesting battle mechanics all make for an addictive title that's easy to get into and hard to put down. While there is definitely room for improvement, Overture hits enough of the right notes to make it worth its price of admission.