Version tested: Mac
If you were ever unfortunate enough to get yourself addicted to online poker, Runespell: Overture might be a pretty clever means of rehabilitation. It could be methadone to poker's heroin, in fact: providing structure for your card games, while dialling down the real money expenditure. Maybe the NHS should publish it.
Runespell takes that structure from the familiar world of fantasy stereotypes. Like Puzzle Quest, it's a simplified slice of RPG with something else where the fighting should be. In this case, that something else is playing cards. You make poker hands to pummel your enemies into submission, clubbing them with clubs, acing them with aces, and then hitting them with a bunch of fives.
Runespell keeps things simple and casual. Your hooded character moves through a compact world map, going from node to node and fighting monsters. In towns, he can pick up quests ("Hey, go and fight some monsters"), buy stuff at shops ("Hey, this will be useful when you fight monsters-), and chat to the locals ("Hey, you look like you might be good at fighting monsters"). It's pretty - Runespell's small world is drawn in rich purples and golds, and the battle screen features particle effects and some surprisingly intricate 3D models at the top - but it isn't very involving.
The story is typical back-stabbing fantasy fun, and while there's the option to wade through multiple responses in the game's many conversations, there's also the option to skip the conversations entirely, which suggests that they have little bearing on how the plot turns out. The ending, when it arrives, is abrupt and anticlimactic, although there's a vague promise of more content to come when the developer's made it. In terms of pacing, the whole thing feels like a template waiting for the proper game to be bolted onto it. Hence the whole 'Overture' thing, perhaps.
That leaves the battle system, and here the game is marginally more involved. Each fight sees you and your foe given a Solitaire-style arrangement of cards, before you take turns - or rather, you take three turns and then your enemy takes three turns - to build very simple poker hands and fling them at each other. The better the hand, the more damage you'll do, so a full house, for example, is better than three-of-a-kind.
There's a little strategy to be had here, as you can entirely ruin your chances in a fight by focusing on building flushes while your nemesis wails away on you with pairs, so it's generally best to multitask and have a couple of low-power hands on the boil as you work towards something a little more damaging. Meanwhile, the ability to steal unused cards from your rival - and vice versa - throws in another sweet tactical note, as you have to pace yourself when it comes to exploring the rest of the deck. Enemy AI is smart enough to pinch a card that it knows you need even if it doesn't actually want it for one of its own hands. It can be brilliantly frustrating to turn over that six of diamonds you've been after - it's always the six of diamonds - right at the end of a round, only to watch helplessly as it's yanked away from you before you have time to use it.
Dealing damage - and, in most cases, taking damage - builds up your Rage meter, and it's here that the game's RPG elements come into play, since Rage can be spent on your load-out of Power Cards, which are a range of spells you slowly collect as you loot enemies and hand-in quests. Alongside perks that permanently boost your basic stats, you'll find several flavours of magic attacks (they're arranged along the lines of lightning, fire, weird creepers and that sort of thing), shield buffs, spells that extend the number of turns you can take, and others that empty out your enemy's Rage meter or lock their cards. You'll need to top up most spells in the shop between battles, unless they come in the form of ally cards, in which case they just come with hefty cooldowns.
Power Cards add another layer of complexity to the game, as you're essentially managing two meters rather than one, but it's still a rather basic system. Special attacks are handy, but feel a little weightless; the debuffs aren't vicious enough to encourage their use, and shield moves are never the kind of thing to get particularly excited by. It's this pared-down approach to systems that makes Runespell so easy to get into, but it also means the game can get dull fairly quickly - even for that mythical casual audience it has presumably been built for.
Worse yet, the bare-bones design permeates to every level of the game. The map is small and lacking in side-quests (it's also cramped and annoying to navigate); the quests you are given only differ in whom they send you to fight; and the poker system has been robbed of most of its depth from the outset.
This is a game where the value of your cards really doesn't matter unless you're building a royal flush. One pair is as good as any other pair, even if it's twos against aces, and that means that there are few deeper strategies to learn as you head further into the game. It's not making things easier to understand, because your brain will automatically seek to prioritise your cards from the outset anyway: that's what you do in poker. Instead, it's just taking away interesting options, and with a puny campaign and no multiplayer - yet, at least; apparently the team is working on it - interesting options were already in short supply.
As is often the case with puzzle RPGs, I still had a fairly pleasant time clicking through Runespell. I just didn't have a particularly involving time. It falls short of both the sheer bulk of Puzzle Quest and the sustained elegance of Gyromancer, and it's neither a tactical game of poker nor an entirely convincing RPG. What's needed, I suspect, are two things: a little more depth for some promising systems, and a little more trust that players can handle it.
5 / 10