Next up in the carousel of card game cutouts we’re going to look at here in MOP’s Fight or Kite column is a tiny, small, relatively unknown game called Shadowverse. Despite the X-verse nature of the name, it has nothing to do with the metaverse, multiverse, or even the rarely-heard-but-often-spoken-of-in-whispers verse of a song that can be heard only when you are sitting in the shadow of a cloud on a moonlit night beside a weeping willow tree next to a pond reading Trapped by Adelaide Crapsey.
Of course I’m being right cheeky here as this game is actually far from small or unknown. It has over a million downloads on the Google Play Store, and according to Steam Charts it even averages about 3,000 players a day on PC. I’d certainly call it a mobile-first title, so that’s nothing to sneeze at. According to its store page, it boasts “four million battles every day.” So a slouch it is certainly not. And if you recall an anime by a similar name, know that yes, the show was based on the game, not the other way around.
Instead, Shadowverse is a collectible card game that pits player versus player in a card-slinging duel. If you read my last piece about GWENT, I know you’re thinking this is gonna be another repeat of last time when I got all worked up because I couldn’t handle the lopsided fights. Well, maybe it’ll be different this time!
It’ll be different this time, right?
The dueling gameplay is a familiar format
Like GWENT and Magic The Gathering, Shadowverse is all about the duels. However, it leans even further towards the MTG-style of gameplay than GWENT did. While players collect and build their decks, the battles focus on 1v1 gameplay where players are attempting to reduce each others’ HP to zero, rather than earn certain victory points.
Every round of a match in Shadowverse sees players gain one more “play point” (which is the cost to play a card) than they had in the previous round, up to a max of 10 points. Cards come in three varieties: heroes, spells, and various artifact cards. Heroes are played and remain on the board until defeated or removed through another means. They have an attack and HP that persists between rounds and can go up and down as you play. Spells are, as most games play them, single-use effects. What I’m calling artifacts are basically all the other cards that can be played and remain on the board for a period of time until their ability triggers.
Most cards have some abilities on them as well. Some attack when played, others draw additional cards, and some need to rack up various counts to be empowered. It’s the kind of game where your first few turns are somewhat boring as you start to build up card effects, but then when you are ready, you can slam away and deal a ton of damage all at once. It’s supremely satisfying when pulled off successfully.
In addition to the cards themselves, players also have a leader, which is basically your decks’ avatar. It plays like the factions from GWENT. While there may be some general cards that can appear in any deck, your leader determines the overall set of cards that may be included in your deck. The leaders don’t have a specific OP skill that you can use though. It’s more like the cards’ abilities are dependent on them.
There are so many leaders that I couldn’t even begin to discuss them at a high level individually. I do like how each of them has sort of a theme, such as the little girl with ghost parents. Her deck has all kinds of ghost summoning and use, so that theme can play into the sort of decks that can be built, but it isn’t too rigid. The initial hero you play with, Arisa, gives you four different decks to play through the story with: One deck is an aggressive deck that encourages you to attack with your heroes frequently, while another one is a control deck, so even though these are cards based on this one leader, they can play entirely differently.
You can have at most five cards in play at any time, and your hand size fills up at nine cards. Deck sizes varied a little, but they were about 30 cards. Your initial hand begins with only four cards on the first turn, but you draw an additional card each turn.
Now, the main twist that Shadowverse uses is the evolve ability. Every hero card also has an evolution. Typically it triggers a good effect and also boosts the hero’s attack and HP. You are able to trigger the evolution only after turn four or five. You’ll get either three or two evolves depending on whether you go first or second, but of course there are abilities that can adjust it. Using your evolution at the right time with your deck prepped definitely will make or break your match.
The various game modes are the best part of the game
While the gameplay itself is interesting and adds some strategy to how you build your deck and when you play and trigger various moves, what I love most are the multiple game modes.
First up is the story mode. It’s actually really good! The tutorial smoothly slides you right into it from the moment the game loads up. In fact, the beginning of the story is a solid couple of minutes of a fully animated video. It’s even fully dubbed audio too. I was pretty impressed. It doesn’t appear to have any direct relation to the anime’s story, though.
Now, the story wasn’t groundbreaking by any means; it even turns into a similar situation as Naruto and gang got into with the Infinite Tsukuyomi. Writing aside, it works really well. It’s just a match against AI rather than another person, but I liked it. Play a match, read or listen to some story bits, and repeat. I mentioned it above, but Shadowverse gives you solid decks to choose from and play with, so you don’t have to worry about whether you’ve unlocked certain cards or not; just pick a deck with a style you like and play. This is the right way to do it.
On the downside, though, the game requires a mobile connection, so even though you could/should be able to play the story mode totally offline, Shadowverse doesn’t let you load it. A serious misstep there.
There were a few other modes to play as well. Take Two is an instant deckbuilder where you choose from a set of cards that appear and then battle with the deck you just built. There’s one called Open 6, where you get to open a bunch of card packs and immediately play with a deck built from whatever fell out. I know this is fairly common in meat space tournaments for MTG as well, so it’s cool to see it in Shadowverse. Of course, there are also straight matches with your own built decks and even rotating tournaments.
Take Two and Open 6 were acceptable modes of play. In the others, I just got totally rekt and embarrassed. This is clearly a big CCG, where you really need to gather up and collect cards to build a deck and be competitive on any level… or as I’ll discuss in a moment, buy in to play.
The final mode I really want to mention was extremely cool, and I’m very impressed with it. Shadowverse called these games Puzzles, and while that is exactly what they are, I just didn’t know what to expect from the name alone. Are they like silly jigsaw images? Did they create some sort of totally different gameplay loop? Well, yes and no. On its face, this mode is set up like a standard duel, but each one is actually preset with yours and the AI’s HP setup, the cards currently in play and in your hand, and how many play points you have available. It’s a puzzle in that you have pretty much one perfect turn to make to win the match.
In the base “easy” puzzle, I think the enemy had about 6 HP with some cards in play that don’t let you do damage to the leader until all the heroes are dead. You then have to puzzle out exactly which cards to play, in which order that will trigger the correct abilities, to ultimately allow you to win the match in one turn. As someone who loves escape rooms, the Exit card games, and just all types of puzzles, I think this is an amazing game mode. It’s just too bad you can’t play it offline.
Finally, this isn’t really a game mode, but I’d be remiss to fail to mention that Shadowverse lets you join a guild. There’s a few different ways to sort and search for a guild, although I didn’t have any luck joining one personally. I’m not entirely sure what it offers other than a way for you to communicate and maybe set up quick matches with friends. Almost all of the guilds were named in Japanese, so I suspect there may be something to that studio claim of being “Japan’s #1 strategic card game.”
Monetization is where this game hits the floor for me
Last up is the game’s monetization. I had read more than a few reviews that said this game was pay-to-win, and that’s really not a lie. I kind of expected it, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK. I understand a free-to-play game needs to make money, but I just can’t get into it that way.
Consider the tutorial, or more precisely, what happens right after you complete the initial steps of the tutorial. The game moves you to the lobby screen, and then you get to see a bunch of little popups telling you to click here to understand this, click there to learn more about that, and so on. That’s all normal and what I’ve come to expect. But the very first thing the game’s pop up tutorial directed me to was… the cash shop. Of course. Not a very good sign.
When the very first thing a game wants me to see after the introduction isn’t how to continue the story, where to queue up for matches, or where to join a guild but rather the cash shop for buying cards, well, at least I know the devs aren’t hiding their priorities.
Moreover, the amount of stuff to buy from the shop is extensive. There are cosmetics for the backs of your cards, leaders, borders, probably special effects – just a ton of stuff. I didn’t see a way to buy specific cards, but of course you could buy card packs, which are just the original lockboxes, though here you’re able to see your draw rates before throwing away your money.
The game does give beginners a decent number of tickets and some other currencies to get started, though I couldn’t immediately tell whether it was a generous amount or not. I was able to buy a pre-built deck with a ticket I got from just starting, so that’s something. At least when I played with that deck, I was competitive, even if I still got my butt handed to me.
And that’s what I think the game comes down to. If you really want to play this as it was intended, as a real PvP game, then you need to pony up some money to get started. It appears there’s a way to unlock some cards with a potion currency, but I think you get that only from winning matches, and you aren’t going to win many until you’ve bought in – essentially a “rich get richer” scenario. In other words, all signs point to paying up.
Of course, you could just happily play along through the puzzles and story mode and just forget all about the actual PvP game. Shadowverse is free-to-play, and it’s available on mobile and Steam. My top tip if you are interested in playing is to open the game after you download so that it can continue to download. I think there were like three different screens that stopped me from playing right at the start. I don’t remember what it said the initial game size was, but it blew up to about 5 GB by the time I was done with it.