Merlin’s Rage (iOS) review

Merlin’s Rage is a new iOS game from Renren Games, the social gaming arm of the Chinese social network Renren. It’s available now as a free download from the App Store, with additional in-app purchases of in-game currency available.

Merlin’s Rage is, at its core, a card-battling game of a similar ilk to popular titles such as Rage of Bahamut. Rather than adopting the usual gameplay-light text-based role-playing game format, however, Merlin’s Rage also incorporates puzzle game mechanics to create an experience that actually requires a strong degree of skill, strategy and luck to enjoy success. This, it’s worth noting, immediately puts it head and shoulders above its rivals in terms of gameplay — though better gameplay is not necessarily a guarantee of financial success.

In Merlin’s Rage, players battle against either computer- or human-controlled teams of warrior cards, each of which has an associated elemental color. The aim of each battle is to defeat all of the opposing team by casting spells to activate the various warriors. This is achieved on what initially appears to be a Bejeweled-style “match-3” puzzle grid filled with colored gems — matching three or more of an individual color in a horizontal or vertical line causes warriors of the corresponding color to trigger and attack the enemy. Certain colors are strong and weak against others — red (fire) warriors are particularly effective against blue (ice) warriors, for example.

The twist on the usual “match-3” formula is that the player is not required to simply swap pairs of gems around and create a match immediately. Instead, the main mechanic is to pick up and slide gems around the grid, continually swapping others gems’ locations around until either running out of time to move the gem or releasing it in the desired location. With careful route planning, a skilled player can create a large number of simultaneous matches, which triggers several warriors at the same time for considerably more damage to the enemy.

The game features both a single-player linear quest, in which the player works through a series of increasingly-difficult battles, and a player vs player “arena” mode in which players battle against other teams of monsters. In PvP, a slight change to the formula appears in the form of a wall in front of the opponent’s enemies, which is gradually destroyed as its owner’s hit points are depleted. Enemy warriors cannot be defeated until the wall in front of them has been destroyed.

Social features include the ability to recruit random players as additional warriors in battle, add them as a friend after the battle and then use earned “friend points” to acquire additional warrior cards. Much like in other card battle titles, cards can be enhanced by sacrificing weaker cards, and once a card reaches its maximum level from enhancement, it can be evolved into a more powerful form. Part of the game’s monetization comes from “conjuring” rare cards — the player may conjure cards for free once per day, but these tend to be weaker warriors, while those which cost hard currency have a significantly higher chance of being more powerful, rarer combatants.

The game also monetizes through a standard energy system, which is drained in varying quantities to compete in the single-player quests, and a PvP energy system, which drains by a single point with every PvP battle engaged in. Hard currency may be expended to recover energy and buy additional slots for cards.

On the whole, Merlin’s Rage is a surprisingly good game. The puzzle mechanics are a little hard to grasp for those accustomed to the way Bejeweled and its numerous imitators normally work, but once you get your head around them they allow for gameplay with a considerable amount of strategy rather than relying on luck. By far the best thing about Merlin’s Rage, though, is that these mechanics are even in the game at all — they elevate the game from being an unremarkable card-battle title to something that is genuinely pushing the genre forward, and that’s worth celebrating. It remains to be seen whether users will take to this new, more complex game in significant numbers, but in the meantime the game is well worth a play purely to see how an otherwise tedious and stagnant genre can still play host to a degree of innovation and creative thinking.

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A mobile card battle game that incorporates something more than the bare minimum of gameplay is something very much worth celebrating.