Review: Astral Towers (PC)

Astral Towers
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Developer: Apus Software
Genre: Strategy/Card Game
Release Date: 09/26/2012

It can be a daunting task, searching Big Fish Games for something unique. There seems to be an endless ocean of hidden object games, puzzle games, and sequels. Still, when they put out a game a day, there’s bound to be a hidden gem or two that pops up.

That brings me to Astral Towers. When I started this game up, I knew I was in for something a bit different. I’ve lost count of how many games I’ve played from that site, so it was good for something to stick out like that.

The question is, did the game keep up the momentum, or does new not mean as much as we like to think?

Story/Modes

There technically is a story to this. It involves a young member of a the mage guild going out and investigating reports of an evil rival guild. However, there are no real characters to meet, no plot twists to unravel, the text just tells you what’s going on. It’s so non-existent that one can easily be forgiven for not realizing that it’s even there. Oh, and there were some horrible grammar issues as well.

There are three modes of play of Astral Towers. The story mode is the primary mode, taking up the most time and offering the most incentive for extended play. This works pretty much like Puzzle Quest, in that you have an overworld with points of interest. You select a point and start a mission. After you’ve beaten a level, a new one will open up. Occasionally, the path will branch out into multiple directions and give you a chance to clear a bonus mission or two. It works for what it is.

Outside of the story mode, you can play in a one on one match versus three tiers of enemy AI difficulty, or even play a two player game, provided you’re willing to hand the mouse over to a buddy at the same computer. The game is played differently in this mode. You don’t have a player character, the decks are random each time you play, and there’s no sense of progression. Still, most of the cards can only be used in this mode, and it’s nice that at least something outside of the main story was included.

What the game really needed was a way to edit your “spellbook”, or deck if you prefer. While you don’t draw cards per se, it would still benefit from the character being able to choose what strategies to employ rather than have to make one up on the fly with a host of randomized cards. The main mode is worth playing through, thanks to the RPG-like sense of progression, but the other two are likely not going to take up too much of your free time.

Graphics

This is a simple card/strategy game. The graphics are pretty unimportant, except that they work. As such, little time has been spent trying to make this game a graphical powerhouse. It’s mostly just the cards on the backgrounds with a few effects to show how play is progressing.

The art for the cards is typical fantasy stuff. You’ve got skeletons, goblins, dryads, and pretty much every other standby of the genre. The cards look good, and the drawing are pretty enough to look at. It may not be the cream of the crop, but it’s more than serviceable.

The effects are pretty bland. Attacks are represented by little arrows that move from the attacker to the defender. It doesn’t matter that different creatures use different kinds of attacks. A lighting bolt looks identical to a sword strike in this game. It keeps things looking uninteresting, but I can still forgive the lack of visual flair.

Most importantly, everything that involves actually playing the game works fine. The font for the cards and their powers is legible, the health of cards is prominently displayed, and you won’t lose any sleep trying to tell the difference between two cards. This was the one area where the game had to work visually, and I’m happy to say that it does.

Audio

Musically, the game is quite serviceable. There are the standard fantasy tunes to accompany battles, and they’re better than average. Best of all, songs during battle are dynamic, they get more dramatic as the battle wages on. A laid back tune starts the battle off, but when things start getting serious, so does the music. It was very nice.

For effects, the game doesn’t work as hard. Every attack is a simple “thwip”, while there are a few sounds for when cards are destroyed, spells are cast, etc. There is little diversity, and the effects themselves are just not of high quality.

If you’re going to play with the sound on, I’d suggest muting the effects and cranking the music. Or, if you prefer, mute the whole game and put on some thematic music of your own choosing.

Gameplay

To call Astral Towers a trading card game would be a disservice. Instead, it is a game about resource management and strategy. There is no deck customization, or randomization to what you do. The luck of the draw will never determine your fate. If you don’t have a good game plan, or you fail to react properly to an opponent’s threat, you will lose.

At the beginning of each turn, you’re given a point to use in each of five different areas of magic. These are fire, ice, nature, death, and craft. Each of these areas is represented in your spellbook to the left of the screen. On your turn, you can play one spell or one creature using these points. The more expensive the card, the better it will be. Each school of magic has its own themes, and they’re the typical ones you’ll find in comparable games. Fire magic is about dealing lots of damage with spells, death magic deals with regenerating corpses, and nature magic provides your most useful healing spells.

Not surprisingly, there’s a difference between how you play in story mode and the other two modes. In regular battles, the object is to destroy the enemy tower while defending your own. In story mode, you don’t have a tower. Instead, you have an avatar that has his own health and attack power. He levels up as you progress through the story. Likewise, the towers can be upgraded in other modes, except through the regular course of battle.

The turn order works as such. You start off by getting your resource points. Then, you either play a card or skip your turn. Whatever creatures are on your side of the field will attack if able. You can’t choose who they attack, but there are rules to govern where they do their damage. It’s not random. For example, a melee unit can only attack if he’s in the front line. He will attack whoever is in front of him first. If there’s no one in front of him, he’ll attack the next unit in the front line. Ranged units can attack from the back or the front.

The combat zone is organized into a 3×4 grid. You can place your cards in the bottom half, while the opponent uses the top half. In order to play a creature, you must have an open spot on the field. However, spells can be played even if every slot it filled. Choosing what position to play your cards in is paramount. You can easily place a wall or tough creature in front of a weak ranged fighter in order to shield it. Also, it’s best to create favorable match ups. You may have a superior melee unit on the field, but if he’s attacking a wall while your opponent’s melee units are wreaking havoc on your front line, you’ve kind of missed the boat on that one. Likewise, you can strategically place units to delay your opponent.

Even though there’s no deck building in the game, there’s still plenty of room for high strategic play. Using card combos is a must. For example, one of my favorite combos was using a gremlin that healed my buildings while gaining me extra craft power each turn. I’d use two of them in the back, and then use a fire tower in the front row. This tower channeled the nature energy I’d normally gain into fire energy. I’d use this excess fire power to unleash high level fire spells with a much higher degree of frequency than normal. Plus I’d use the extra craft power to summon some strong melee units to shore up my defenses.

What we have here is a fun little card game that I enjoyed thoroughly. I wish there was more room for customization, but it was certainly fun to play through the story mode. I’d certainly be interested in playing a sequel, or an expansion that offered more options for play.

Replayability

Getting through the main story, depending on your level of skill, will take several hours. There are eighty-nine challenges to plow through, but many of them are quite short. The longer, more protracted battles are less frequent, but often more rewarding as a result. The additional modes can add some time to your game, but only to a degree, as the randomization of the cards you use will be grating quite quickly. This is a game about strategy, after all. Not choosing what tools you’ll take to battle with you is a frustrating thing.

All told, I was expecting more replay value out of this game than I got. The campaign runs out eventually, and my character there has nothing to do. He can’t be used in the other two modes, and neither can the deck of cards you’ve worked so hard to unlock. With a bit more effort, this game could have been a real time sink. As it is, you can kill off a day or two with it and be done.

Balance

One thing the game does nicely is steadily build up in difficulty. You’ll be introduced to new types of cards throughout. Just as you’ve gotten used to one strategy, you’re given a tough encounter to test your skills. After that, you’re rewarded with a couple easier battles to let you get back into the swing of things. This helps keep your morale up even after several failures.

Every battle can be beaten. Playing the right cards at the right time can turn the tide into your favor. On the other hand, failing to develop a strategy can kill you quickly. Planning ahead is what gets you wins. There are two difficulty settings to conquer as well, with the AI using better cards and combos on the tougher setting. If you’re looking for a challenge, this game will deliver.

Originality

You don’t often see games like this on Big Fish. Most developers are happy to pump out the same kinds of games in order to appeal to the most people possible. It’s nice to see something more out there get released.

Comparing this game to something like Magic: The Gathering is really a disservice. Just because two games have cards doesn’t mean they play alike. Honestly, I felt the game had more in common with Puzzle Quest than MTG. That’s saying something.

If you’re looking for something off the beaten path, this game will likely appeal to you.

Addictiveness

I must say, I had a hard time putting this game down. It was one of those “one more battle” types of games. Each victory had the possibility of leveling up my character, or giving me a new card to try out. Plus each new enemy could employ new tactics, cards, and challenges for me to overcome. I played through all eighty-nine missions in two settings.

If you’re the kind of person who loves a constant sense of progression, this game will work for you in a big way. It’s what makes the lack of replay value so disappointing. Ad the end, I felt let down cause there was nothing more for me to do.

Appeal Factor

Fans of strategy games should definitely check this out. While it may not be a TCG in the proper sense of the term, it can still tap into some of the same areas of your brain that make you enjoy them so much. Collecting new cards, trying them out in battle, and moving forward is what makes the game fun.

If you’re not into that kind of strategic play, the game will not appeal to you. The card combat is the sole selling point of the title. If you don’t like it, there’s nothing the game does to make it worth your while.

Miscellaneous

I had the game crash on me at several points. When it crashed seems random, as it happened before, after, and during battles. Thankfully, the game saves automatically after each battle, so this rarely set me back more than a minute or two. Still, it was highly frustrating. This problem doesn’t seem to rampant for other players at this point, but I’m just throwing it out there as a warning.

Overall, I really dug this game, though it really needed to do more in order to establish some real lasting power. With the ability to create your own decks, the game’s appeal would have been through the roof.

The Scores
Story/Modes: Decent
Graphics: Mediocre
Audio: Decent
Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Below Average
Balance: Very Good
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Enjoyable
Final Score: Above Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
Despite a lackluster presentation and a lack of staying power, Astral Towers is a solid game thanks to fun strategic play and it’s addictive nature. It’s also fairly different from most everything else you’ll find on Big Fish, so it’s definitely worth taking a look at if you’re growing tired of the usual fare. There are several areas that could have used improvement, and I’m just hoping this game does well enough for a more advanced sequel to be made.

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