Card games are amazing. I’ve a plethora of card games and the fact I’ve a few Weiß Schwarz theme decks should tell you everything about that habit. When it comes to video games that use card mechanics they can be a real mixed bag. A lot of card games tend to either be incredibly simple gimmick systems to get around having to create some interesting gameplay or ludicrously complex and far too difficult to understand without 3 hours of tutorials. The reason to keep playing games in the genre is for those rare amazing games like HearthStone, Slay the Spire or Shadowverse. Grey Alien Games have made a PC card game before; Shadowhand was a good albeit flawed solitaire game (check out that review over here) so is Ancient Enemy an improvement that fixes those issues or is it troubled by its past?
Ancient Enemy is similar to Shadowhand at its core. A mix of solitaire card game, mahjong and light RPG mechanics. What sets Ancient Enemy apart from its predecessor is how controllable and fun the card game is. The random nature of shuffled cards is less frustrating now, you can use active and passive skills to deal with the challenge. There are 3 suits of cards; Dagger, Magic and Shield. Each card you play from the suit builds up that suits skill and you can chain multiple for bigger combos. If you use a skill, it is guaranteed to help for at least one or two cards and this can sometimes lead to wild combo chains that create hugely powerful attacks. The addition of the Wyrm wild card is just the icing on the cake for helping the player to clear the board. The enemy skills charge per turn and the only action they take on the board is flipping to the next card from the draw pile. This opens the gameplay up to setting huge combos with skills that is incredibly addictive. Ancient Enemy simply excels at the ‘huge attack’ feeling.
There are options to customise your play as you unlock skills, items and magics but you’ll quickly find what works for you. Getting through the normal difficulty won’t cause too much trouble. Each chapter has branching paths that can be explored but each chapter is an enclosed instance. If you fight in a battle midway through the chapter and use up all your items you’ll have to restart the chapter, otherwise you’ll get to the boss with nothing left to use. This chapter strategy is enhanced with the ability before each combat encounter to scope out the enemy and see what magic and items work best. There are even handy popups if you forget to switch out your skills when an enemy is immune which is fantastic and stops you screwing up a run mid-chapter. The fixed campaign with this strategy element gives Ancient Enemy a rogue-like feeling without the random nature of the genre ruining an enjoyable card game.
Visually Ancient Enemy is a mixed bag. The cards designs all work nicely but the character designs are bizarre and the themes don’t really match. The enemies are made of magic, corpses and mushrooms which doesn’t really come off as menacing more bizarre. The story twist and narrative doesn’t really do a great job of explaining anything but this thankfully doesn’t affect the fantastic gameplay at all. Every line of dialogue is far too interested in trying to tell an epic tale, it never really bothers with a lot of the details or character building and is more focused on a constant need to carry on to the end. The presentation isn’t helped by backgrounds that are fairly bland and they really don’t do Ancient Enemy justice for how well it plays.
The sound design on Ancient Enemy is brilliant. The grunts, card swishes and spells all fit nicely and the music (albeit a little heavy handed at times) is impressively dramatic when a big boss battle occurs. There are no looping moments of annoyance, simply incredible pieces that bring an urgency to deciding whether to click on a 7 or 8 card or use up the last undo to gamble on a combo. There are ambient noises in some stages but you’re best off popping a podcast on for those and enjoying the gameplay. Ancient Enemy is one of those pleasant relaxing games that can still get the pulse racing from time to time. There are stages without combat that require the board to be cleared to get a higher star rating and the addition of gates that only open when enough of that suit have been used, key cards that unlock locks and hidden cards only unlocked by the light add to the challenge. The change from Shadowhand to make these obstacles enjoyable is superb and fleshes out the campaign as the levels get progressively trickier to the end.
When you’re in the thick of Ancient Enemy the gameplay is up there with Pocket Card Jockey in terms of fun and clever card gameplay. Ancient Enemy does desperately need a new game + mode rather than having to create a new game character as it’s disappointing not being able to take your mage powerhouse into the next difficulty or redo chapters to aim for a higher rating. There are no customization options for your mage’s appearance but these issues are minor when the main gameplay is so good. It can’t be understated how enjoyable it is to simply playing a round of cards in Ancient Enemy. It’s not perfect but it is absolutely fantastic and it’s a great example of a game developer refining a good gameplay idea into a great one. When you’ve gameplay this good even an Ancient Enemy seems a trivial thing.
8/10 – Flipping fantastic card game
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