1007: Battle of the Cards

I’ve made my distaste for the growing trend for Japanese “card-battling” mobile-social games well-known on these pages a number of times in the past, but I’ve been growing increasingly conscious of the fact that I must be missing something. After all, these titles consistently show up in the Top Grossing charts on both Android and iOS, so there must be something to them that keeps people playing and, indeed, spending.

The other day, I reviewed a new mobile game from Zynga called Ayakashi: Ghost Guild. Before I go any further, let me explain something about the way Zynga does business for those who have always given their titles a wide berth for whatever reason.

Zynga behave very much like Apple do, in that they’re not trendsetters — or perhaps more accurately, they’re rarely the first to try something, as they’re both often the ones to make something popular. What both companies are inclined to do is hang back, watch and wait to see what early adopters of new technology and systems are doing. What is proving popular? What are users ignoring? What are the potential pitfalls in doing something new, and can they be avoided?

Once they’ve done this, they’ll swoop in with something fundamentally very similar to that which has come before, but polished to a fine sheen. Zynga’s games are rarely, if ever, original, but it’s hard to deny that they often have a significantly higher degree of polish than many other games that may have gotten there first. Similarly, Apple’s work on iOS frequently lags behind Android in terms of features — a frequent criticism in the interminably tedious fanboy wars — but when said features hit, they tend to be implemented very well. (Of course, there are exceptions in both cases, but these patterns are noticeable enough to be worth commenting on.)

Anyway, I digress; Ayakashi: Ghost Guild is a card-battling title from Zynga, and it follows the outline above to the letter. It’s clear that the specific developers behind it have examined what makes early trailblazers tick — many of which, like the inexplicably popular Rage of Bahamut, are very rough around the edges — and then given the whole set of proceedings a pleasing coat of paint. Where Rage of Bahamut is silent throughout, Ayakashi: Ghost Guild has an atmospheric, context-sensitive soundtrack; where Rage of Bahamut’s story is completely throwaway and irrelevant, delivered via blocks of text that most players will ignore completely, Ayakashi: Ghost Guild makes an effort to introduce characters and an unfolding narrative with first-person visual novel-style scenes; where Rage of Bahamut’s interface resembles a Geocities website from the late ’90s… Ayakashi: Ghost Guild’s interface resembles a Geocities website from the late ’90s designed by someone who owns a copy of Photoshop. (You can’t have everything.)

The thing that I’ve found most obnoxious about these games in the past is their seeming total lack of gameplay. But have I been giving them a fair shot? I have delved into Ayakashi in some detail over the past few days in an attempt to try and understand the appeal a little better, and I’m still not quite sure that I’ve made my mind up.

For those who haven’t played one of these games before, allow me to give you a rundown of how play works, with specific regard to Ayakashi. You start by picking a card, usually from one of three different types that have particular strengths and weaknesses. Cards have an attack rating, a defense rating and a “spirit” value. They also generally have some lovely (and usually rather boob-heavy) Japanese-style artwork on them. Ayakashi: Ghost Guild does not disappoint in any of these regards.

Following this, there are two main components to gameplay — the single-player component, referred to in Ayakashi as the “Story” mode; and the multiplayer component, described simply as “Battle” mode.

In Story mode, you’re presented with a series of linear chapters to work through. To work through a chapter in Ayakashi (and, indeed, in all other games of this type) you simply press a button. At this point, several things happen: an animation plays, you lose some health, you gain some experience and you gain some progress in the chapter. Occasionally you will discover an item or a card — each chapter usually has a set number of hidden items which are clearly marked and discovered completely by chance — or run into another player, at which point you can add them to your “crew” if you have enough slots left. If you fill up the chapter’s progress bar, you’re given a story scene and can then move on — or stay behind if you want to try and collect the remaining items — and if you fill up the experience bar, you gain a level, gain some points to spend on your basic stats and refill your health to full. Your first few levels give you more health than is needed to level up a single time; after you reach about level 8 or 9, however, you’ll either have to wait for health to regenerate (at the rate of 1 point per minute) or purchase restorative items using “Gold”, a currency which may only be acquired through in-app purchases. Generally speaking, health is exchanged for experience at a 1:1 ratio; as the story progresses, the health cost and related experience gain for a single press of the “Investigate” button increases.

When levelling up, you have three stats to power up: health, which upgrades the amount in your health pool, allowing you to play Story mode for longer; Attack Spirit, which determines the cards you can hold in your “attack deck” for Battle mode; and Defense Spirit, which determines the cards you can hold in your “defense deck” to protect yourself against attacks from other players when you’re not there.

Battle mode consists of you picking an opponent and then letting your attack deck compete against your opponent’s defense deck. Some cards have special abilities which boost their base attack and/or defense power, and these are triggered at the start of battle. Following this, the winner is automatically determined with no interaction required from the players. This allows battles to unfold without both players having to be present. After a battle, your available Attack Spirit is depleted by the spirit value of the cards you used, meaning at least initially you can only do one battle at most in a single session if you use your most powerful cards — and why wouldn’t you?

There’s a reason to play Battle mode in Ayakashi — the collection of Sealstones. If you collect all of the colours of a particular Sealstone set, you’ll get a rare card that is usually significantly more powerful than the ones you just find naturally in Story mode. Beat another player in Battle mode and you get to steal one of the Sealstones they have — but naturally, others will be trying to do the same thing to you, meaning you’ll have to leave a strong defense deck behind in order to ensure they don’t get nicked while you’re not playing. You can also, you guessed it, buy special items with that in-app purchase currency Gold to protect your Sealstones against being half-inched by randoms.

Despite being a massively-multiplayer game, direct interaction between players in Ayakashi is, like most other games of its type, very limited. You can add a limited number of other players to your “crew”, with the limit increasing as you level up. When you add a new crew member, you get more ability points — more than when you level up, in fact. You then have the option of “poking” or commenting at them once per day, and are rewarded with “Summon Points” for doing so. Collect ten Summon Points and you can get a free, usually shit, card. You can also get two additional free, usually shit, cards per day — one at any time, the other only at lunchtime.

Those free, usually shit, cards have a use, though — fusion. By picking a card to enhance and then choosing up to ten “material” cards to fuse with it, you can level it up, which increases both its attack and defense power and often makes any special abilities it has more effective, too. Some free, usually shit, cards are specifically designed purely for fusion purposes as they are otherwise terrible but provide massive experience point boosts; in other cases, ensuring you fuse cards of the same “type” (ideally identical ones) together nets you the biggest bonuses. Fusion costs in-game money to perform, though it’s the type of money you can earn in the game very easily without having to spend real cash — the game bombards you with it throughout Story mode and you can sell those free, usually shit, cards you’ve been building up over time.

That’s about it. You grind through Story mode, stopping when you run out of health (or until you purchase more if you just can’t wait); you twat another player or two in the face to nick something, then you set the game down for a few hours and come back later. Then you repeat the process.

Is that fun? I’m honestly not sure. There is a certain degree of satisfaction to gradually levelling things up and making them more powerful — progress bars are, as we all know, a powerful motivational tool. The fact that Ayakashi has actually made an effort with its story makes it considerably more interesting than most games in this oversaturated genre, too. But the lack of interaction bugs me somewhat; if I’m supposed to be “investigating” a location, I’d like to be actually doing that investigating, not just tapping an “Investigate” button over and over again. If I’m fighting an opponent, I’d like to do more than simply sit back and let the battle resolve itself.

On the other hand, there’s an argument that all Ayakashi and its numerous competitors are providing is the same experience you’d get from a “proper” MMO, albeit stripped down to its most bare essentials. What do people like to do in MMOs? Level up, so make that easy. What else do people like to do in MMOs? Compete against other players, so make that easy too. What these games are in effect doing is stripping down the conventions of MMOs into something that is a lot more friendly to mobile gamers’ lifestyles — you can pick up Ayakashi for five minutes and “accomplish” something, whereas to do the same in, say, World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2 takes a lot longer. But in that longer amount of time, you actually get to do stuff.

As I say, after having spent a bit of time with Ayakashi in particular, I find myself a little conflicted. With Rage of Bahamut, I felt justified in my dislike; it’s a poorly put-together, amateurish effort that actually felt quite insulting to play. With Ayakashi, meanwhile, Zynga has taken the time to do its usual spit-and-polish routine to make something that isn’t outright embarrassing to play from a presentation perspective. I’m just not entirely sure there’s a game worth playing — much less paying for – beneath the glitz.

I will feel even more conflicted when the Persona 4 card-battling game eventually makes it to Western app stores.

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