Even though I haven’t completed Cardpocalypse, I’ve spent enough time with it to get a good sense of how steeped in nostalgia it is. Not only does this card battler literally riff on Pokemon as its inspiration, it also nods to just about everything I loved about growing up in the 90’s.
Yes, from an early side quest that has the player drumming up attendance at a “Gamagotchi” funeral to the kids wearing t-shirts with a certain baby quoting “not the mama” on them, Cardpocalypse touches on just about every aspect of 90’s life. This felt like quite a personal exploration of my own childhood to me, and it’s one of the things that kept me returning to Cardpocalypse.
The game itself takes place over two relatively straightforward modes — exploring and combat. The player takes on the role of Jess, a new girl at school who initially feels nervous about her lack of friends, but rapidly finds her feet thanks to the Power Pets Starter Deck that her mum adds into her lunch box.
The story develops through a unique and attractive two-dimensional art style that I really like, and the text-based dialogue is smart, often humorous and extremely well done. Cardpocalypse deals with bigger issues than you might expect, including childhood loss, bullying, the fleeting nature of friendship.
The fact that Jess is wheelchair-bound is another feature that I think will make players think differently about what a hero should look like. Cardpocalypse handles this well, and other characters are rarely mean enough to use that fact against her, whilst she is smart, witty and capable.
Aside from conversing with friends and advancing the story during exploration sequences, the player will also happen upon other kids to battle with and occasionally those who wish to trade or dish out side-quests. The trading system is fun and uses a slider system to indicate the fairness of a trade (and therefore its likelihood to be accepted).
These side-quests boil down to fetch quests when you really assess them, but within the narrative construct of Jess’ life at school, the reason you’ll actually go there, do that and come back again are all quite fun. Thankfully, none of the side quests I encountered were overlong or laborious, and the rewards were often new and rare cards.
On that note, the main draw for Cardpocalypse is obviously the card combat. Battles centre around 1 vs 1 combat between decks of twenty cards plus a leader. Each leader subscribes to one of four factions, which broadly align to a particular style of play — defensive, aggressive, trap-based and so on.
After a brief period of neatly delivered tutorial battles, the player is free to add and remove cards from their own deck(s) and it is possible to save more decks than you’ll ever need, organised by their faction in your trapper-keeper (or ring-binder if you’re in the UK). No spoilers, but the deck building doesn’t really kick off until a life-changing event for Jess and her friends that comes perhaps an hour or two into the game.
The battles in Cardpocalypse are rather basic, and for me that’s where the limiting factor for this game is likely to lie. Matches feel like a stripped-down version of Magic: The Gathering, wherein the players gain one additional resource per turn (food) and play progressively stronger cards as a result.
Attacks can be launched at any time in the battle (although a newly played card can’t attack on the turn it arrives, unless it has the Charge keyword) and there is no formal turn structure. In effect, there’s no first main phase, attack phase or end phase, it’s simply one turn on which you do all you can when you can.
Equally, whilst there are no “response” cards that are played out of turn, there are trap cards that are played face down on the table, activating automatically when a trigger is met. I like these cards and their effects, which are often powerful and imaginative but rarely game-changing. That’s appropriate really since every trap card in the game costs just one food.
The winner of a battle is declared when the leader card has its health reduced from thirty to zero (or less.) Leaders can actively participate in combat, dealing damage to opponents and often bringing their own unique benefits. When a leader is reduced to fifteen health, it will enter it’s “mega” state, which will double its attack and usually cause a further beneficial effect such as spawning some minions or increasing its passive benefit.
Each battle is a puzzle and there is enough variety between leaders and factions to keep things interesting for the majority of the game. The only issue can be that with only twenty cards per deck and leader cards appearing relatively slowly, I found myself getting a bit bored with my deck a few bouts before I had the chance to change it.
Whilst again trying to avoid spoilers, Cardpocalypse does feature a fairly large story twist (hinted at by the title) that also has a knock on effect on some of the cards. The ability to splice two cards together to create a new effect, for example, is one of the neatest things I’ve seen in a card battling game. I don’t think I’ve explored this area enough to comment on how deep it is, but having played with the system briefly, it’s a nice inclusion.
So, with about six hours played I think I’ll likely carry on to finish Cardpocalypse, even though it’s starting to feel like a bit of a drag at this point. It’s hard to know who to recommend it to though — the nostalgia is perfect for people between 25 and 35, whilst the gameplay probably suits younger players. Either way, if you like a card battler, it’s well worth giving Cardpocalypse a look.