I’m late to the game on this, both literally and figuratively. There are countless trading card games out there, from poor implementations of Magic the Gathering, to Hearthstone and Elder Scrolls: Legends. With all these options varying in small ways it’s hard not to ask: do we need another Hearthstone clone? A week or two ago I would have said No pretty emphatically. But after playing Duelyst for a bit now I’d have to change my tune.

Learning about Duelyst

I regularly listen to the PC Gamer podcast and the host Tom Marks talks about it almost every week, and has for the last few months. He’s obsessed with the genre so I always let it pass me by without much consideration, and I can’t honestly say why I decided to give it a try last week but here we are. I’m glad I gave it a look though because it’s a unique game worth your time.

For the longest time, in my mind I thought Duelyst was the same game as Darkest Dungeon:

Darkest Dungeon (Not Duelyst)

Of course I now know that is not true. They are separate games. Duelyst is a pixel art game that looks like this:

Somewhat different color pallet and visual style, wouldn’t you say?

What Duelyst Is

Now, once I figured out that things are very different I decided to look into Darkest Dungeon … but I digress. Duelyst takes the Hearthstone formula and combines it with a board game essentially. Your cards live in your “hand”, or the little circles at the bottom. When you play a card you get to pick where and how that creature comes onto the board, or who the target of your spell is. Gameplay, and skill, involves far more than just picking the best card for the situation. Knowing where to play cards, how to position and move them around on the board, and all the complexities involved are what set this game apart from its peers.

There are familiar mechanics like Provoke, which essentially prevents enemies from moving or attacking anything but that piece, or Flying, which allows that piece to move anywhere on the board at any time (unless affected by Provoke), and so on. If you’ve played any of these games in the past you’ll quickly recognize most of what you come across. Grasping the mechanic though, and understanding how it plays out on a board like this are two very different things, and that’s at the heart of its innovation.

You play a familiar game, in a new and thought-provoking way. Unsurprisingly, if you’re familiar with the genre, it is free to play which means you build currency in game and unlock access to cards you don’t start with. You of course have daily quests and goals that keep you engaged … card packs to buy with either in-game currency or real money … and ranked play which pits you against other people.

Unlike Hearthstone it doesn’t feel like you’ve been defeated by RNGesus every time you lose. Skill is very clearly involved in every win or loss, and it’s hard to feel too bad about a defeat when you can easily identify you were out maneuvered. There is of course the aspect where not having all of the cards available to you that other, more seasoned, players will bring to the game … but so far that hasn’t impacted me. I expect that it will, as it always does in games like this, but hopefully the unavailable cards aren’t game-breaking as they sometimes can be.

Summary

All in all Duelyst is an interesting evolution of an established game. The game is beautiful, and there is a lot of thought and lore behind everything in it. That beauty, and that potential, is what leads me to be disappointed in its art-style. Pixel art by itself is fine and good, and in many games it fits perfectly with the game. For Duelyst though I find myself wanting the sprites and character models to match the beauty, the detail, and the smooth lines elsewhere in the game. The pixel art both fits, and is jarring in its contrast to everything else in the game.

The gameplay is exciting and matches don’t last too long. The mechanics behind building out your decks and unlocking new cards is familiar. How intrusive it will be still remains to be seen but I haven’t been repulsed after a week which is more than could be said for Hearthstone. I understand that these games need to make money and cosmetic items alone aren’t enough to support a card game like this. And to put it all into context I own thousands of Magic cards … so I’m not new to the idea, I just struggle when they’re digital cards I’m investing in.

Long story short, Duelyst is worth a look. If you’re into strategic board games, or trading card games, this is definitely worth picking up at the low low price of $0. At times I look at games like this and want to experience them just to see the evolution, to expose myself to the growth within our industry. And it’s games like Duelyst that help drive us all along.