Why am I reviewing a F2P game ported from tablets? Because it’s bloody good. So much fun that I can’t tell to what extent it’s P2W. Go download it and play, it’s quicker to get into than most CCGs. While playing the tutorial keep in mind that it’s always more fun shattering the spines of your fellow humans.
I remember an ancient dueling card game, long predating Magic the Gathering. I never played but kept seeing the ads in Dragon magazine. Each deck was a single creature and the cards represented specific attacks and equipment. It seemed brilliant. All other CCG’s have you sending out troops and doing big things. I wanted the cards to simulate much smaller actions. After 30 years, Martial Arts Brutality is that game.
It’s a CCG where physical attacks and counters are handled through the usual card mechanics. But the big difference, which I wasn’t sure I’d like at all, is that to play cards you trace quick patterns with your mouse. The faster and better you trace, the more cards you get to play that round.
When the round runs out, your opponent defends. Closeups of your blows fly across the screen and either damage specific body parts or get blocked if your foe manages to intercept them at the right spot. It’s abstract but does a great job of making you somehow feel like a martial artist using a deadly mouse.
7 Layer Dip of Carnage
What gives that feeling of being a badass kung-fu expert is the variety of strikes and wonderfully detailed damage system. Each card targets a specific body part with a damage and speed rating. There’s no HP pool, you get knocked out by either losing a vital organ, sustaining enough damage to a group of parts (the head is composed of eyes, nose, teeth etc.) or through an accumulation of damage across the body.
It doesn’t take long to feel proficient giving you excellent control and customization of your fighter. When I realized I liked the game I spent $7 to buy the Ninjitsu package. Ninja are awesome and it’s the hardest style to play, with the slowest defense and most complex attack moves – the glass cannon of the bunch. My theory is that learning the hardest style first will make things easy when I move down to more direct techniques.
It’s impressive how quickly I was able to make my ninja fight the way I imagined, despite the layers of abstractions and phone game-like mechanics. I lost my first 7 or 8 online matches but many were close and I know I surprised my opponents with sudden devastating hits. People seem to get carried away by the fun of throwing a flurry of attacks. But it’s also a CCG. You can set traps and do huge pinpoint strikes on vital organs.
It’s all ultimately in your hands. Even perfect cards can be blocked and countered. Hence my lack of strong feelings on the P2W aspects. Most of those first 8 fights were against players many times my level (either matchmaking is broad or there aren’t enough players online). But they were competitive matches and I had a chance to win, not by matching their blows but by focusing on the spine.
There are other layers of meta as well. Chi lets you buff or weaken your foe and rare dim mak attacks do damage over time. One of my best matches was against a dim mak focused opponent. It was a frantic race to knock him out conventionally before his organ liquefying chain reactions took me down. My lungs gave out and I suffocated just before he succumbed to accumulated damage.
There are three different XP progression systems, one for your fighter, one for each style and one for each card. It’s all good stuff and along with deckbuilding gives you something to do while you’re waiting for opponents to finish their turns.
Pay to Win?
The cards you start with suck. Horribly so. They do very little damage and are slow. A decent player will counter every one breaking your bones during your own attacks. That problem largely goes away if you play the single player quests for a few hours. You’ll learn the game and get enough free cards to be competitive.
Having said that, my fighting ability went up considerably after I bought the ninja pack which came with seven boosters. They gave me a few rarer spine attacks so I could put together a strategy instead of just attacking randomly around the body. Since there are no general hit points, just damage systems, you want specific targets to end the fight with and more cards obviously help.
The game is very generous with its in-game currency, giving you plenty of rewards and constant bags of free gold. After that first spike of increased effectiveness the benefits of more paid packs diminished considerably. I could put together a few good decks already and extra cards just let me do tiny upgrades and fine tune. Welcome but not game changing.
I didn’t realize you get the extra fighting styles for free once you advance far enough. I would have bought them anyway because I’m impatient and it’s not unreasonable for the price. Three styles and the Vengeance package cost me around $20. I don’t feel a need to spend more and it feels thoroughly worth it so I don’t have to grind and can play the way I want to.
Currency does give access to another resource which lets you redo rounds. It sounds more powerful than it is. While it can be a life saver when you screw up particularly bad I found that even when repeating a round I tended to make the same mistakes. It also weakens you slightly the following round so even this is doesn’t give wealthy folks automatic wins.
The graphics are definitely indie, of the nice flash mannequin variety. But the round to round replays of the fight and the kinetic feel of the blows, the sounds and descriptive damage system make it great fun, assuming you think shattering kneecaps and sneaking kidney punches is fun.
Other than the visual elements the setting is the same hodge podge of real martial arts and movie nonsense every fan loves and expects. Pei Mei the wise, asshole sensei, dim mak the death touch – I don’t even know if my references are the game’s references because these themes have been recycled so much. Most genres I crave originality. Here I just want my old favorites and awesome kung-fu vs. shotokan karate matchups. Despite being a twitchy card game this does a great job of it.
At first I was annoyed by the asynchronous turns. There are no time limits, each player can take as long as they like. I quickly had half a dozen games stuck in the second round. If you played Frozen Synapse you know the problem – players about to lose just never finish the game instead of taking a hit to their record. This problem seemed endemic until I moved up a few belts and started playing non-rookies.
While I lost my initial matches, a few in spectacularly humiliating fashion, the higher caliber opponents had some professionalism. I was able to play constantly, flitting from match to match doing a round at a time and they finished the matches even when losing.
Because of the reflex layer there’s more going on here than most CCG’s in terms of meta. Not the cards themselves, they’re simplistic compared to traditional CCGs, but in what you’ll choose to master. Physically talented dumb players should conceivably do as well as klutzy geniuses.
There’s a general strategy forming but I’m far from familiar with the patterns and blocks. I expect a linear skill increase for many hours to come. For example I just started paying attention not just to individual attacks but how they flow together, imagining my foe’s mouse movements as they try to block and mixing my strikes so they’re forced to travel greater distances across the screen. I could spend hours optimizing my deck with this new priority and I’m sure there are other layers I haven’t even glimpsed yet.
You can’t always play the matches at the pace you like as it depends on the other player. I’d get a better feel for each foe’s individual weaknesses and styles if I didn’t hop between six different bouts. I’m guessing this decision will enhance the game’s longevity while reducing individual session time. I can see popping it open in the morning and before bed to do a few quick turns, like a drawn out play by email kung fu battle that takes a week to resolve.
The mismatches can also be frustrating and make you feel helpless. They’re not so much a learning experience as a beating but I only really had one or two such fights. The rest have felt much closer even when the other player had been playing for months on a tablet.
Play is cross-platform and it feels like touch would be a better control method than the mouse but I’m not certain. Regardless I don’t feel particularly disadvantaged on the PC. Resolution has an interesting effect. The bigger the screen the easier it is to block and defend but it takes longer to trace your attacks. I have it on max resolution right now but I can see dropping it as I get faster.
And now, for your viewing pleasure, please enjoy the greatest original movie music composition since Eye of the Tiger. It’s cheesiness is only matched by it’s awesomeness.