Duelyst combines addictive, turn-based gameplay with a collect-them-all card game mentality to great effect, all wrapped up in solid visuals and free-to-play mechanics.
Perhaps more than any other genre, turn-based strategy is the video game format that has held the most of its luster over the years. One of the forerunners of the format as a whole, strategy titles implementing a turn-based system have seemingly remained a constant in the industry. Indeed, the huge growth in independent development over recent years has strengthened the genre even further, with Roguelike games such as Hieroglyphika and Crypt of the Necromancer even using a stylized spin on the system.
As such, it is no surprise to see both fresh developers and the old guard utilizing these well-trodden mechanics to tell new stories and give new experiences to players. This is certainly the case with Duelyst, a new turn-based strategy game from Counterplay Games. The developer has a strong talent pool to pull from, with a team that has worked on the likes of Diablo III and World of Warcraft.
Turn-based games may be a dime a dozen these days, but thankfully Duelyst has two differences that might pique a player’s interest. To begin with, the title, which is currently available for PC and Mac, uses a rather intuitive card-based system, wherein the player builds their deck and is then given a randomly-generated hand at the beginning of each battle. The other interesting element, meanwhile, is the fact that Duelyst is free-to-play.
Regardless of the business model in place, games are either a success or a failure based primarily on the quality of the product, and thankfully Duelyst delivers. The title definitely has that lighting-in-a-bottle moreish quality that is essential for a strategy game, and this is in part due to the game’s use of a card-based system. Although the player never feels out of control of their situation, the fact that the user’s starting hand and subsequent pick-ups are random certainly adds a solid new dimension to the strategy gameplay.
At the beginning of each match, the player is put in control of a General, and allocated five cards with which to defeat their opposing counterpart. Chief among these cards are Minions, who can be summoned as additional combatants. Meanwhile, the player can also pick up Artefacts, which can be used to add buffs to characters, and Spells, which can give one-off bonuses or grant damage to enemy units.
If the player is unhappy with the hand they are dealt, then they can then swap out two cards for other randomly-chosen cards. During the game, the player will then gain additional pickups, allowing them to summon further Minions, or use different Artefacts and Spells. As such, the gameplay is extremely fluid, with no two matches feeling the same.
The primary cause of this is the sheer variety of cards available, with 330 for the player to pick up. Within that, there are a wealth of different Minions on hand, with plenty of unique abilities of their own. Some can only attack or take damage from specific cards, while others can act as a diversion by attracting attention from nearby enemies.
This allows players to try and build a variety of different strategies based around the hand they have been dealt. Duelyst has relatively small boards, without much wiggle room to try and generate a long-term battle against an opponent, but there is still enough space to take on comers in a variety of ways. While a good hand could allow a player to try a quick smash-and-grab victory, this is far from the only way to win, with other strategies including using slow-burning Minions that gain health and attack for each enemy card summoned, or those with extremely high defensive statistics.
It’s not just the gameplay that offers a nice range of styles to the player, either. Duelyst is a very well-designed game, with colorful and impressive locations and some character designs feeling reminiscent of The Banner Saga. Without a doubt, however, the game’s biggest aesthetic strength is in the design of the Minions themselves, and the Factions that they belong to.
Duelyst gives the player a choice of six Factions, once they have been unlocked. These Factions all have a very distinct style, from the blue and gold figures of the Lyonar Kingdoms through to the darker, more morbid characters of the Vetruvian Imperium. It’s definitely one of the game’s strengths, with the design of the units in fitting with the stylistic cues of their particular Faction and General.
Indeed, each of these Factions has a whole army of cards at their disposal. Meanwhile, there is also a larger portion of cards that are deemed ‘Neutral’, and that can be used with any army. Helping even further with this, the Neutral Minions are also styled in such a way that they can fit aesthetically with any of the Factions available.
Of course, when a game offers up free-to-play mechanics, there is also the question of exactly how much this affects the overall gameplay experience. Although some games, such as Immortal Empire, manage to toe the line relatively well, others do not handle matters quite as successfully. As such, there is a whole library of freemium games that fall short due to an over-reliance on trying to force players into making in-app purchases for further content or gameplay, as seen with Dungeon Keeper for mobile.
Thankfully, Duelyst is once more on the right side of this balance. Additional purchases can be made to buy Spirit Orbs, which effectively function as blister packs, granting the player five new cards for their deck. If purchasing cards was the only way to get these extra cards, then this could certainly be a cause for alarm, but thankfully the player still has the generation of new content in their own hands.
Spirit Orbs themselves can be unlocked in-game by simply playing matches, as well as by completing challenges that reward the player with in-game gold. What’s more, extra cards will also be unlocked aside from by either purchasing or earning Spirit Orbs, as they will sometimes be given to the player for completing different sections of the game. As such, Duelyst does not sway into the world of pay to win, instead offering up a fair freemium system.
In particular, this is helped by the sheer variety of cards. Given the number of different options open to the player, regardless of whether they have spent additional cash to get extra Spirit Orbs, a skillful player should still be able to beat anyone on their day. Indeed, with the random factor thrown into the mix, a perceived superiority of someone with a larger library of cards is very much negated.
In the end, then, Duelyst manages to walk the tightrope of free-to-play incredibly well, and it’s not only in its business model that Counterplay Games performs. The title is a joy to play, with enough variety to stop from getting tiresome and short enough matches to hook players with the ‘just one more game’ mentality. This, combined with some good character design and an overall level of polish, means that Duelyst is certainly worth trying out.
Duelyst is out now for PC and Mac. Game Rant reviewed the game on PC.