Digital Magic: The Gathering games can largely be hit or miss. Some get the nuances of the game and rely on a lot of player thought, planning, and intuition. Others…not so much. This latest game, NetMarble's Magic: ManaStrike (available for free on Apple and Android) manages to show the good with the bad. But after playing we’re leaning more towards good. Why? Well... let’s take a look.
There’s not much of a plot in Magic: ManaStrike. It’s just a standard card battle/castle royale type of game. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun - it just means that the game experience is different. In the intro they try and make it out to be a standard ‘good vs. evil’ sort of battle, but that’s quickly neutralized when the evil ‘demon’ set up as the villain starts teaching you the tutorial to beat this alligator king thing. Get past that and you’ll have a good time playing against others.
Controls on the phone aren’t that hard to use. The Arena fields go horizontal, so it’s all a matter of hitting with your finger. You know, like any smartphone game. Selecting cards can get a little long later into games when you have a ton, but otherwise the controls are down pat.
The game itself is pretty straightforward. You pick a planeswalker who in allows you to play cards (summons creatures, cast spells, etc.) onto the battlefield. In a way, it's much like a player choosing cards in a game, and then build a deck. You build up mana over time, then spend that on new cards or to cast spells. Who you pick as a planeswalker will influence the rest of the game. I had one named Chandra in the beginning, who was red, so all of my cards/creatures were, in turn, either red or colorless. Each planeswalker has different colors/creatures/methods of playing, so you can customize what works best real fast.
At the same time you have to run the gauntlet going up against your opponent, each with a row of spots connecting to the opponent's bosses. The idea is to overpower them before they overpower you. Two of the bosses are worth a single point, while the big one is worth three.
Honestly, matches began to all feel the same after awhile. I tried different planeswalkers but it felt like, no matter who I chose, I would always get creatures that barely differed. And the goal of getting to the other side never really changed up. During Magic games you can always throw in a card or ability or artifact that just ruins their day. You never know what the other person put together. Here, you know the playbook for each planeswalker. Moves and everything started looking the same after awhile.
You can’t really plan ahead - it’s all off the cuff without much thought. You have no play like a novice Magic player without much strategy. There’s balance to the game, yet at the same time there’s anarchy. Oh, and you have only three minutes in each match before someone either loses or it goes into "sudden death."
Graphics are both good and bad. For a game mostly played on the phone, it’s fine. They look reasonably accurate. This wasn’t a game designed for a bigger screen. But they are also very last gen, and when you take a closer look you can tell where graphics break and hinge. Many also have this annoying large black outline over them. Creatures suddenly look cell shaded at a distance. Overall it’s fine when played casually, but it can be distracting if you’re a bit of an art discerner.
For the music and the sound, it’s a bit hard to put into words. The music and the voice acting (mostly pre-recorded one liners and exposition) meshing together is like having the Lord of the Rings soundtrack playing while in the middle of an arcade stocked with early 2000’s Sega games blaring. It’s all mystically music and clips. Other sounds aren’t bad, but they sound like they come from the Age of Empires II sound file. Eventually it sorta calms down, but all of these different sounds still came together at points and it was honestly a little distracting.
The good news is that the frame rate was excellent even with tons of things going on. Nothing glitched either, unless you count graphics with notable hinges a glitch. It was smooth, and for an Android game with this much detail, that is hard to do.
Overall ManaStrike plays like a somewhat altered Magic game. Think Magic but with more quick thinking, less planning, and a LOT more noise. That, with a dash more of formulaic play. It’s fun and still takes skill, but it may get repetitive. The mileage varies largely on the type of game you’re looking for.
But hey, it’s a free (read: microtransaction-backed) download, so it’s at least worth a shot.