Developers: Spicy Horse Games
Release Date: December 5, 2013
Does any genre in gaming need a shakeup as badly as mobile card battle games? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way, because the similarities between almost all of these games can cause actual physical pain.
There’s a lot of pain in “The Gate” too, but that’s because American McGee’s team at Spicy Horse Games set it in hell, or at least a very unpleasant prison dimension full of demons that resembles hell in a lot of stereotypical ways and is called Miseria. Your goal is to escape by making some of the demons fight for you; collecting and upgrading them is where the card aspect figures in. But it’s the battle portion of the game that helps “The Gate” elevate itself above the reskinned clone masses clogging up the App Store.
The big difference between this and most card battle titles is that instead of a passive role as a spectator while cards “fight” each other by comparing stats, you actually control the demons in combat, which resembles something from a tactical RPG or a very scaled back MOBA. Though your units will use their default attacks if there are enemies within range (and battles can even be simmed completely if desired), you get much more out of the experience by actually calling the shots.
Controls are simple: tap a unit to select it and swipe a line to the foe you’d like it to attack. Healers work the same way except you trace lines to friendly demons. Special abilities are activated by buttons in the upper-left corner of the screen and have clearly visible cool-down timers to let you know when they can be activated again. The only minor flaw in this whole system is when all four of your demons are bunched together, making it easy to select the wrong unit and equally difficult to send them where you want.
An elemental system that works in a four-unit rock-paper-scissors fashion is also in play, but its biggest impact on combat is after you’ve killed a certain number of a particular element, when you can activate an extra power that affects your whole team. Otherwise, it’s a battle to the death, as enemies come at you in waves, and a level can only be passed when you’ve defeated them all. Every few stages a boss battle arises, and previously completed levels can be replayed if you feel you need more experience before moving on.
The spoils of war include three or more demon cards, which serve as the main fuel to level up your best troops. In classic card battle game fashion, unwanted demons can be sacrificed to give experience to your top guns, with bonuses given if both halves of the equation share the same element type. Demons can also be evolved by combining two cards of the same type and spending some coins (won in battle), and a special type of loot called Devil Blood is able to boost specific attributes like hit points, attack or defense ratings.
So far, so good when it comes to throwing ripples into the card battle status quo. Less progressive is the Arena mode where you can fight against other players’ decks. It’s hamstrung a bit by the long cooldown timers that relegate your most used demons to the bench for long periods of time after a single fight. That means for PvP it helps to have a deep bench, but everything else in the game is geared toward getting rid of dead weight to strengthen the units you use for PvE battles.
You could also gripe about the energy system that limits play sessions—though it’s cool and very much in keeping with the game’s theme that it’s called Hope—or the way the best way to summon powerful demons is to throw some real money into the game. Hey, even Spicy Horse even needs to make some dough. The graphics also disappoint just a tad in terms of sharpness and detail, though the designs and the card art shows the kind of demented genius usually associated with McGee’s projects. The real highlight might be the text that describes each level; it rises to literary quality and paints a vivid picture of each circle of hell. Or Miseria, which might be the same thing.
“The Gate” doesn’t exactly revolutionize a stale genre, but it certainly injects it with some much needed action and atmosphere. It’ll be interesting to see how it grows in terms of events and additional content, yet it’s already an intriguing option for anyone who likes the idea of card battle games but wishes the execution was more compelling. It’s free to try too, adding to the likelihood that it’ll find its way onto a healthy number of iOS devices.