I’ll admit it, I play free to play games infrequently and review them almost never, but occasionally, one does catch my eye. The last, I think, was World of Tanks about five or six years ago, but recently, I’ve found myself sinking hours and hours into a very different prospect; that of BattleCON Online, which is available now on Steam.
BattleCON Online is the digital interpretation of Level 99 Games card and board hybrid game that shares the same name (albeit lacking the Online bit). In either version of the game, two players choose a character (from a large and hugely diverse roster) and then do battle using cards from two decks — one unique and one generic. The combinations of different cards result in an unusually complex dance thanks to the use of a horizontal battlefield that is not unlike the two-dimensional space used in classic brawlers like Street Fighter.
The battlefield features seven spaces from left to right, with each of the combatants placed three spaces apart. Each character brings their own set of style cards to the fray, alongside a standard deck. On every turn, the players choose one card from each of their decks and combine them, merging the sets of numbers on both cards to create a strength, range, initiative and defensive value. These combinations create attacks such as “Steeled Shot” and “Reload Drive.”
Once the cards are chosen, the players can then spend Ante points (which are slowly regained with each round) to add points to the strength, speed or defense of their attack. With these modifiers decided, the cards are revealed (and modified accordingly) and then the combination with the highest initiative will strike first based on its range. If the opposing player is within the attack radius, he or she will be hit. Crucially, if the defense of their cards exceeds the attack value of the incoming hit, then they can counter with their own attack, but if not, they’ll be stunned and the turn will end.
Not only are these relatively straightforward considerations a key part of BattleCON Online, but so too are a number of characters that change the rules completely. Take Karin Brandtford, for example, who is one half of a pair of twins that share one human and one wolven soul. When she does battle, her brother Jager is also present — in wolf form. Many of Karin’s unique attacks involve the position of Jager’s token — either because he attacks on her behalf, or because he supports whatever she is doing. There are numerous (and I do mean numerous) characters who do similar things in BattleCON Online, which makes the characters feel incredibly diverse.
Crucially then, a large part of BattleCON Online mixes on-field tactical choices with long term strategy, which comes in the form of having a mastery of both your own character and an understanding of a foes capabilities. The interplay between the two different decks results in a wide number of choices and whilst you will soon learn favourite tactics, there are many factors to consider in every fight that make BattleCON Online feel unique every time you play.
As a free to play title, BattleCON Online presents players with four characters to choose from in the base form, but there are of course ways in which the full roster can be unlocked. The available characters change every week or so, which does at least mean that if you wait long enough, you’ll be able to test every character in order to determine how best to invest either your real money, or your hard earned in game credits. It takes a fair number of matches (especially if you lose) to unlock characters permanently and more to access secondary outfits and other features. Even so, BattleCON Online is far from the stingiest free to play game that I could name.
On the note of winning and losing, I felt that BattleCON Online offered a fairly weak offline mode, which is really just for practicing. There’s no campaign or even a structured arcade mode (in the classic sense of stringing several fights together) but I suppose the clue is in the name — this is an online experience predominantly. When you do venture into multiplayer, you’ll rarely struggle to get a game, but the person you play against will likely be the veteran of tens or perhaps even hundreds more fights.
Despite these obvious mismatches in experience, BattleCON Online features no inbuilt balancing (or unbalancing) for players who have spent more time or money. There are no bonuses or benefits that one player can bring to the fight that the other cannot and perhaps more importantly, players are happy to share hints and tips after the event. This is a complex game and the kind of mistakes I still make to this day often involve tiny margins — adding ante to power instead of initiative, or mismanaging my range, for example.
Visually and aurally, BattleCON Online is quite the achievement given the indie roots and likely small production team. I haven’t ever played the physical version of the game, but the characters in the digital version are extremely well represented and filled with life. The surrounding special effects, animations and interface features are just as good – players are provided with all the relevant information about the sums of different numbers and the effects of cards in a fast, clear way, which is necessary given the ingame timers. The sound effects and music are fairly basic, but very fitting given the anime styling of the game.
BattleCON Online is a very compelling experience and even more so since it is (potentially) free to play. It looks and sounds better than almost any digital adaptation of a board game, but what actually sets it apart is how superbly it implements the excellent mechanics of the board and card game that it replicates. The card combination system is fantastic in its own right, but by combining it with an unusual (and simple to understand) range system, BattleCON Online becomes a very interesting experience. Combine interesting mechanics with imaginative and varied characters and you have something rather special and well worth your time.
BattleCON Online is available now for PC, Mac and Linux via Steam Early Access.