Hex: Shards of Fate is a game trying to combine two genres that really couldn’t be further apart: the MMORPG and a truly digital TCG. This is a tall order, and with them having recently soft-launched the game, removing the beta tag and adding the game’s first true PvE component and the first segment of the story, it’s time to see how the game’s coming along.
From a TCG standpoint, this is the first time I’ve seen a game truly embrace the concept of ‘digital’. Digital TCGs have, in the past, typically just been a paper-based TCG translated to be played on a computer. Not to say there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not exactly the same as what a ‘true’ digital TCG can be. Cryptozoic Entertainment has taken up the challenge and is exploring what this concept can offer to a genre that has been around for a very long time.
From a story standpoint, Hex is trying to make a TCG come to life. Many TCGs in the past have had deep worlds beyond the cards: Magic, World of Warcraft, etc… but none of them have ever succeeded in really making these worlds feel like they were truly connected to the card game. Hex is trying to accomplish this via a story driven campaign that should, eventually, lead into a cooperative end game. This component is not yet here, but the seeds of it are present in the form of what is essentially a starting zone for the campaign.
Note: This review is written assuming at least a passing familiarity with the TCG genre, and as such there may be some terminology that may not make sense without it.
In the interest if accuracy, I’m going to separate the review into sections about each the above two components. Since the two barely intermingle, it makes the most sense to speak about them as different game modes of the same whole.
Trouncing the Competition
As a competitive TCG, Hex has the potential to absolutely blow away even the most well established competitors. Right now, it still needs a bit more polish to hit that point, but it is well on its way. The cards really are doing things never before possible in a TCG. Card modification on a grand scale, insertion of cards in opponents’ decks, generation of new cards, random elements… nothing’s off-limits once you remove the burden of the physical ‘cards’ themselves. And it is in this space that Hex finds its strongest element.
Hex really has taken the standard TCG experience and simply taken it a degree beyond what has been previously possible and it is only getting better. The cards offer enough diversity that nearly every archetype finds a home within, often in new and unique variants. For example, why should you be content with a mill deck, when you can spawn a swarm of spiders as you drain them of their cards? They have really created some amazing and unique game mechanics that really leverage the space. My personal favourite of these mechanics is called ‘Prophecy’, which causes the next card of a certain type in your deck to receive a buff when you play a card. Easy to cheat in a real card game, interesting mechanic in a digital one.
The game currently only supports a few types of tournaments, with basic constructed, sealed deck, and draft formats forming the primary core of it. Among these few styles, they also offer a very well-made asynchronous tournament experience called a ‘gauntlet’ which allows you to participate in a sealed tournament without being committed to completing the entire thing at once.
Other types of play, such as 2v2 matches and custom tournaments, have been talked about but little concrete information is available. And this is the one downside of the digital format… it’s much harder to just make something up and go do it. The game has to first support it or else it is nearly impossible. A minor flaw, but one worth making yourself aware of – especially if you’re the type of TCG gamer who likes to define your own formats to play with your friends.
The cost structure isn’t even prohibitive for this type of game. At 2 dollars per pack, the cost is noticeably less than most others in this genre. So if this type of pay to play TCG experience focusing on either the constructed or limited experience is what you want… this game will probably be exactly what you’re looking for.
It All Falls Down
I’ve been agonizing over what to say here. I want to like the PVE component of Hex. I mean, they’ve stated they want the game’s PVE component to be fully available to those who wish to play without purchasing any game content. They have put a lot of heart into trying to build a campaign, to establish mechanics, and design a reward structure to make this work. The biggest problem? It feels like the developers of this game don’t really want the game to be free to play, despite contrary claims. It feels like they see ‘free to play’ players, those players who choose to play the game’s free offerings or play with a minimal cash investment, as little more than batteries whose sole purpose is to generate gold, the game’s in-game currency, for use by pay to play players so that the paying players can have more fun. There are major tuning, reward structure, and replayability issues within the current content, if you’re looking at this from the perspective of a relatively mediocre player. A player like me.
On my best deck, I started feeling outclassed about halfway through the first section of the campaign, even ignoring the optional ‘hard encounters’. I have as yet literally been unable to complete the final dungeon boss of the level 1-10 section even once despite weeks spent beating my head against it on and off and several deck rebuilds. On my other decks, I started feeling outclassed by the end of the first dungeon and started getting wrecked by the end of the third. This is an obnoxious difficulty curve and should’ve been far lower for the first section of the game.
What makes the difficulty curve even worse is the fact that the game’s messaging is unacceptably bad. There are extremely difficult missions with no marker saying they are intended to be optional (and no indicator of difficulty). There is an absurdly challenging mission that locks you into a small area unless you abandon it but does not tell you how it can be abandoned or even that it can be abandoned. And they’re not terribly rewarding, at least not currently, when you manage to complete them.
Speaking of rewards… the reward system is probably my most damning complaint. The reward system is dry, bland, and does not motivate one to play at all. There are very few ‘oh wow’ moments, the general rewards are slow and feel unsatisfying, and the devs have made some absolutely mind-bogglingly bad decisions and missed some extremely obvious places to add fun and interest to the system. The strangest missed opportunity to me lies within the game’s treasure chest mechanic. The game features a really interesting treasure chest system that lets you consume gold to, essentially, gamble. Yet these chests cannot be obtained from PvE – even dungeons. Now, if you say ‘treasure chest’ to me, my automatic assumption would be ‘dungeons’… yet, apparently, Hex’s development team disagrees.
Which leads us into the part that annoys me the most: the dungeons. The rewards for the dungeons are almost completely backloaded. You get a tiny reward of experience and gold when you defeat an encounter, nothing else. Only the final boss has any other rewards. There is no sense of gradual progression through dungeons: either you beat it or you get virtually nothing. You may overcome 9 encounters flawlessly, but if you fail on the last boss… say goodbye to all of that effort ’cause it gleaned you essentially nothing except a pittance of gold. Not even the slightest random chance at good loot… which means that one of the biggest sources of satisfaction and motivation for the average player is essentially gone.
Additionally, aside from one disparate dungeon that is faction dependent, they seem to have set up a story with one starting point only, regardless of race, and one path through it. There are some variants based off of faction and race, but the overall path is exactly the same. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never played an MMO with only one start zone and only one path for quest progression. When I started my second character, of the opposing faction, I was expecting the path to be different. Sadly, it’s not. It diverges about an hour in, give or take, but only to take you to a different town so you can get the exact same quests from a different set of npcs with different flavor text.
What is so sad is that their card design, equipment system, and talent system almost make up for all of the above. There are some really unique and incredible PvE only cards, with some hilarious effects. Effects that would be downright disastrous in a competitive environment, but feel really satisfying to use. It’s a great way to differentiate and some of the cards really amp up the distinct mechanics each of the game world’s races specialize in. This allows you to really live the fantasy of what it means to be that race if you want, or just build a more generalized deck based around some powerful mechanic or other.
Probably the most impressive element, though, is the equipment system. You create a champion who has various traits based off of race and class but your champion is also able to equip 6 pieces of equipment – one to each slot. Sounds simple enough, right? The key is that the equipment isn’t just a general powerup… it offers very specific and specialized benefits to the cards you use in the deck. Some of them simply improve a card’s attack or defense, of course, but the majority of them offer unique effects that play up that card’s abilities or theme. There is equipment for the ‘kill’ card, for example, that reduces the cost of cards of the ‘rogue’ class when you use it.
The talent system also plays into this uniqueness, as you can modify a card with both equipment and talents to make interesting combinations but thus far, only the first few talents are available so it is somewhat difficult to really get a grasp for it… hopefully they’ll really develop this and play it up a lot but for now it’s just a footnote more than anything.
The combination of equipment, unique cards, and talents makes for a dynamic character/deck creation experience… it just isn’t quite able to overcome the flaws in the overall experience. Flaws that, to me, point to a lack of concern for their low-paying playerbase. I’ve had some fun with it, but not as much as I was hoping, given how well designed the competitive aspect of this game is.
There are a couple of other quick notes I wanted to mention here. First of all, the game’s art is very good. They have a very distinct art style and it is well utilized to create an incredibly cohesive experience. The game’s audio is relatively good as well, with an interesting soundtrack and some fitting sound effects that do a great job of bringing the experience off the screen. The one thing I won’t comment too much on is the game’s interface since they have spoken to a direct intent to redesign certain parts of it for functionality’s sake, but the game’s auction house and card manager are pretty awful.
So what I’m saying here is simple: If you’re interested in a pretty standard TCG experience that just has more features and content but has the same basic business model, Hex will satisfy your needs and more. If you’re looking for a free to play experience, or an experience built around very limited cash investment, you might be disappointed for the moment at least. Maybe in a year or two they’ll improve some of this stuff, but without a big shift in their approach to the game, I don’t see this component improving much. And that’s the real pity… they’ve done so much to ensure that the competitive TCG experience is fantastic that it feels like such a let down to have the part I was quite excited for turn out like this.