A couple of years back, my main gig was reviewing free-to-play mobile and social games from a business perspective. This proved to be something of an eye-opening experience.
One of the things I discovered during this period of my career was the astronomical popularity of a type of mobile game collectively known as “card-battlers”. Distinct from more traditional card games like Hearthstone and Magic: The Gathering, mobile card-battlers are usually of Eastern origin — they’re particularly popular in their native countries — and are one of those breeds of mobile games that have lots of people making them, but very few people genuinely innovating in them. In other words, most of them are almost identical save for the artwork on the virtual cards you collect throughout the game.
Moreover, a lot of them are extremely unpolished affairs, their ’90s website-esque user interfaces, frequent lack of sound and music, reliance on data connections and excruciatingly slow loading times a clear hangover from the feature phone era. So why, why, why on Earth are these games so popular? And is there any redeeming value in them whatsoever?
Only one way to find out.
In keeping with the MoeGamer spirit, the game I chose to explore in the interests of research was Nubee’s Valkyrie Crusade. This is a cross-platform title available for both Android and iOS that someone I follow on Twitter often jokingly refers to as “Oppai Crusade” due to the fact that the cards you collect throughout the game all depict female warriors in varying degrees of undress. There’s a strong degree of moe to the aesthetic, though the characters depicted on the cards themselves vary from badass, fully-clothed warriors to lolis in poses best described as “suggestive” and everything in between. Something to please everyone who likes the sight of pretty anime-style girls, then.
I picked Valkyrie Crusade because I’d had some limited contact with it in the past, and it had struck me as that rare thing: a particularly polished example of the genre. Rather than having an interface that was little more than a glorified website, some effort had been made to make it look, feel and sound more like a “real” game. And it was surprising what a difference that made to the overall experience; it felt immediately more engaging from the moment I started playing, though I also noted it was riddled with the same sort of common mobile free-to-play tricks I tend to find a turnoff: wait timers, energy bars, premium currency and the like. I stuck with it, though, and before long I was surprised to discover I was actually having fun.
Valkyrie Crusade is split into a number of distinct components. First, there’s a simple citybuilding component in which you plop down buildings that subsequently produce resources for you. As you level up, you earn access to new buildings that can have knock-on benefits in the other parts of the game — building certain structures allows you to take more cards into battle at once, for example, and a couple of other buildings even have minigames to play where you can earn coins that can be exchanged for special items or new cards.
Then there’s the “Chronicle” mode, in which you take a handful of cards into battle against a series of gradually increasing challenges. This involves working your way across a linear world map, with each stage consisting of you expending energy points to advance and occasionally being thrown into battle against one or more enemies. The enemies take the form of the same cards you can yourself collect, so working your way through the Chronicle’s campaign can provide you with a “preview” of cards you might want to try and collect in the future.
The Chronicle also features regular special events in which you can earn cards and fight enemies you might not normally see. There’s a special Beginner dungeon you can challenge shortly after starting the game, and in a nice nod to accessibility you don’t expend any energy points to work your way through this one — so if you have the patience to tap the “advance” button several hundred times you can complete the entire Beginner campaign in a single sitting.
Where Valkyrie Crusade distinguishes itself from its peers is in its battles. Most “card battle” games actually play down their “battle” element somewhat, automatically resolving conflicts in the least exciting manner possible. Not so with Valkyrie Crusade; upon encountering an enemy, you’re thrown into an RPG-style turn-based battle in which you and the enemy alternate in directing your cards to attack and make use of their special skills, each of which has a percentage chance to activate each turn. There are four different “elements” that cards can be based around, meaning different cards have different strengths and weaknesses, and you can use this to your benefit to fight more efficiently.
You’ll also come across “Archwitches” seemingly at random and particularly during events. These are powerful foes that keep coming back a little bit stronger each time you face them, and offer decent rewards for beating them. Once they reach a certain level of strength, though, it becomes difficult to beat them by yourself, which is where the game’s online multiplayer angle comes in. You’re able to request help with subduing archwitches, which allows other players to join the same battle and deal as much damage as they can muster in a limited number of bouts. The combat then becomes a competitive affair, with whoever deals the most total damage to the archwitch receiving greater rewards than the other participants.
When not in battle, a significant part of the game comes from managing your deck of cards. Since you can only take a small hand into battle at once, you’ll find yourself focusing your attention on your favourites and using other cards you collect as “materials” to power them up. That’s not all you can do, though; fusing multiples of the same card together causes it to evolve to a more powerful form with a slightly different (usually recoloured, sometimes slightly disrobed) appearance, or occasionally to do a “flip over” evolution in which case it becomes something else entirely. You can also fuse certain seemingly unrelated cards together to produce a completely new card, or exchange rare cards for medals in order to power up other cards’ skills. There’s a strong incentive to collect as many cards as you can to see all the different pieces of artwork; you can even showcase your favourite cards in a gallery on your profile, which is a nice touch, and all cards you’ve seen at least once are recorded in a collection screen even if you’ve subsequently used them as material to power up your other cards.
Certain cards can only be earned in particular ways, too: for example, throughout the Chronicle you’ll collect coloured relics that can be turned into new cards upon collecting an entire set. The twist is that you can only collect some of these relics through playing the Chronicle; for others, you’ll have to challenge other players’ defensive decks. These battles are asynchronous in nature; you set your defensive deck up beforehand and the AI takes over when someone challenges it. The AI is quite stupid, but you can mitigate this somewhat by remembering to level up your defensive cards as well as your attack unit, plus recruiting “soldiers” for your cards that effectively become hit points. Seeing a deck with a high HP value is likely to discourage someone from attacking, particularly when there always seems to be at least one opponent who has left his defensive cards with just 1 HP each.
As you can probably tell from the 1,000+ words I’ve just managed to spew forth on what I initially thought would be a fairly throwaway experience, Valkyrie Crusade has proven to have a lot more depth and interesting gameplay than I initially gave it credit for. The polished presentation certainly helps it stand out as a much more well-designed game than more popular titles like Rage of Bahamut and Marvel War of Heroes, but there are small, more subtle tweaks that make it enjoyable, too. I haven’t once felt obliged to spend money on it, for one thing; even with the energy bars and wait timers, the game provides you with goodies to restore these limited resources at a reasonable rate just through normal play, and you’ll even find yourself scoring a few of the elusive “Super Rare” cards without paying a penny.
This is nice; this is how free-to-play should work. Paying should be an option, not an obligation, and when players are treated with respect by game makers, they’re more likely to cough up in support of games that they like.
Will I throw a few quid in the direction of Valkyrie Crusade? Questionable, particularly since Monster Monpiece just came out for Vita and I have a feeling that is going to fulfill my desire to collect cards adorned with pictures of pretty girls on a lot more effectively (and affordably) than a mobile game — expect further words on that in the near future. But to date I’ve certainly enjoyed my time with Valkyrie Crusade way more than I expected to, and will likely keep it on my phone as an idle timewaster for those times when I don’t have any other gaming devices to hand.
And, to be honest, that’s all I ask for or expect from a game on my phone these days; if I have the time to sit down and play something more in-depth for a protracted period of time, I’m going to reach for a handheld or console instead. But for those times when I’m waiting for a bus or sitting in a coffee shop waiting for a friend? That’s a prime opportunity to send Rose Knight, Aurora and Mecha Angel into battle against the Archwitches, and a fine way to pass the time.
If you’re a Valkyrie Crusade player, feel free to add MoeGamer as a Comrade.