Disclaimer: The opinions and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions and viewpoints of Neoseeker.
I could hardly contain myself upon hearing that Card Hunter was now available to play. A free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons inspired card game? Sold, sold, and sold again. I lost a good portion of my weekend to the newly released Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, another deck-building and dungeon-diving experience, and loved every second. Honestly, the Card Hunter developers could throw a plain deck of cards on the table and say the spades are orcs and the diamonds are dwarves and I'd be smitten.
However, my expectations were quickly thrown into disarray for a number of reasons. Some of which ultimately proved a bit too uncomfortable to keep myself playing. At the same time, there are many aspects of the game that are truly fun and worth trying out. Perhaps I can best summarize it this way: I expected a Dungeons & Dragons inspired card game that was free-to play, but what I received was a free-to-play game played with cards and inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. Does that make sense?
I digress, let's go over what Card Hunter is and isn't and whether it's worth the time is so clearly values so little.
On Co-op and Cost
My first grand assumption and disappointment was that Card Hunter was cooperative, or at least could be played cooperatively. Logging into the game for the first time a player takes on a party of three heroes. Almost immediately my mind bounced to old pen and paper sessions, roleplaying in online games, and how much I loved sharing those experiences with friends. In fact, the value I find in those party-based experiences comes almost entirely from the shared experiences with other nerds, whether they be friends or strangers. Card Hunter has no cooperative mode. There's competitive multiplayer, but that's something else entirely.
I mention cooperative mode, or the lack thereof, early because it truly frames the experience quite well. Card Hunter uses and references the themes and settings of a Dungeon & Dragons game, as well as what it means to be a nerd playing such a game, to create its basic structure, but at its heart is a much different experience. Here's where we dig into part two of my impressions: the pervasiveness of free-to-play mechanics within the game.
It's a rather damning claim to assert that any free-to-play title sells power, but there's really no other way to describe Card Hunter's business structure. Card Hunter is broken up into individual adventures spread across a map, each with their own recommended adventurer level so parties know where to go. Each adventure is broken into several battles, and each battle reward the player with a loot chest. Loot means upgrading the members of your party's weapons an armor and thus becomes method of progression in the game, though experience levels play a large role in that too.
Our first item up for purchase is the Card Hunter Club, a monthly ~$10 subscription that gives you an extra piece of loot from every chest you open. Not only that, but the item is guaranteed to be as rare or rarer than the best item acquired from the chest. There may be a randomness to it, but it states rather bluntly that members get better items.A $10 sub isn't so bad for awesome content, right? Yet that's only the first of many pervasive in-game purchase options. There's an additional 11 missions that won't unlock without purchase (that also have epic loot rewards unavailable to non-paying players), there's alternate skins for your party members. Oh, you can straight up by more treasure chests too, or just exchange real money for gold to buy the exact item you want from the store.
Meanwhile progress through single-player, which at first seems like a standard RPG grinding structure, slowly evolves into a very persuasive sales pitch in itself. Each adventure, when completed, becomes locked for 24 hours. On top of that, failing a mission multiple times will lock it as well. As low as level 6 players reach a point where experience and loot begin to scale noticeably slower. As we wait for old missions to reopen, those pay-locked adventures with rare rewards sit for players to stare at. It's almost too much. Even the narrative in the game seems designed in a way to subtly implore you to purchase the premium currency. Buy more pizza and win over that pizza girl, guys!
What sucks is that beyond the ingrained free-to-play-ness on the overworld map and in each mission's beginning and end, Card Hunter's actual gameplay is ridiculously fun. Each party member has their own deck of customized abilities determined by the items they have equipped. Fighters decks are packed with armor and melee attack abilities, wizards with spells and various support skills, and then there's a huge variety of enemies that with each mission introduce challenging and strategic gameplay.
It makes it all the more frustrating to complete a mission and see an item that would fit perfectly in my priest's healing deck locked behind a pay gate. It's not that I don't want to pay money for a good game. I'm a huge supporter of free-to-play games and the dumbest of in-game purchases. It's that it's so ingrained in the experience, as if taunting every success and failure. "Well Rory, maybe you should spend $10 here and things will go smoother." Yet I know that even that would only suffice to level up me so much more before the game's structure pulled me back down and ask for more money, or worse more of my time.
This is why I love subscription-based MMOs. I know I can spend $15 each month and be on even ground with every other player in-game. More than that, I know the designers are focused entirely on creating content to keep my invested from month to month. With Card Hunters, how much do I need to invest to receive that sort of security? There's a $99 bundle of premium cash marked "Best Value". Would that buy me equal footing with every other player? Would that buy me trust that the developers will focus on creating additional, affordable content versus more money sinks?
I'd like to play more Card Hunter, but I get the feeling there are two games at work here and one will continuously be overshadowed by the other.