The Free Agent: Episode 9 - Astral Battles

Caergan talks mobile games and tries out Astral Battles in this week's episode

Hello from the sunny sandy beaches of beautiful British Columbia and welcome to a fresh episode of ZAM's bi-weekly column, The Free Agent. Our mission, as always, is to answer the question "Can gaming REALLY be free?" The only difference this time is that I'm still on vacation and haven't been able to fully tackle a new free-to-play game for you.

Be not dismayed my fair readers, the Free Agent wouldn't dare leave you hanging for another two weeks. I've discovered a diabolically brilliant scheme to keep on mission even while on vacation. While my sleek and sexy Asus Republic of Gamers laptop has sadly been sitting idle with my current internet situation, my phone on the other hand has not.

So go fetch yourself a cup of coffee or a delicious energy drink, kick back and relax, and have a read through the first ever mobile edition of the Free Agent.

The world of free-to-play mobile games can be a daunting and overwhelming place. The sheer volume of titles (many of which are absolute trash) make it about as easy to find a good free-to-play title as it is to fill a thimble with a fire hose. Luckily I stumbled upon one that's not half bad.

Astral Battles Online is a free-to-play online mobile fantasy card game based (heavily) on a 2008 PC game called Spectromancer. While it does follow the typical fantasy TCG gameplay of placing down minions/creatures to fight for you, using spells and/or other special abilities, consuming resources and attempting to reduce your opponents hit points to zero; it's not actually a TCG. There is no collecting or trading of cards, no deck building, no drawing or discarding of cards and not even what most card games would consider a 'hand'.

So how does it work then?

Instead of traditional TCG play, each player is randomly dealt 6 cards into each of the four basic elements of fire, water, air and earth. Each player is also dealt another set of 6 random cards in a 5th element. Each player can pre-select their 5th element from a list of 15 different 'elements' prior to a queuing for a match. This is about as close to deck building as you get if you play the online mode.

If you do that math, that's 30 randomly dealt cards. These cards can be either playable creatures or spells. Each card has a mana cost that is specific to that element. At the start of each player’s turn they generate 1 mana in each element (modifiers aside of course). When you play a card it consumes the associated mana cost and is either placed in one of six minion slots or instantly takes effect. However, the card is not discarded and could even be used again the next turn if the player has the mana for it.

It's simple gameplay for the most part, so it's very easy to pick up. But there are a total of 128 different creatures that could be put into play, most of which have their special rules, and 59 different spell cards with a wide variety of effects. Due to the random nature of each player’s deck, there is a fair amount of nuance involved to know the right counters to specific cards and trying to predict which cards the opponent has available and the order in which he'll play them.

Veterans of both table top and online TCGs will likely find the game play a little rudimentary, and will master certain strategies fairly early on. But it's difficult to stick to a single strategy if you never have the same deck of cards to play with, which is the case until hitting level 5 and then level 15.

These two benchmarks allow you to select one 'favorite' card, meaning it will always appear in your deck. But even at level 15, that means if you plan to use the same strategy every game, it can only be a guaranteed two card strategy. Certainly there are plenty of those to go around, but it's always best to remain flexible and modify strategies on the fly to adapt to not only your random deck, but also the opponent’s.

If you're looking to learn some new strategies or just hone your skills, you can play mock tournaments against computer AI, or even kick it old school with the hotseat game mode. Both options actually allow you to customize your deck and experiment with different combos. But the real challenge is always in playing human opponents from all over the world (though mostly from Russia it seems) in the online game mode, where the decks are always random.

All in all, it's not a bad game for those looking for a TCG lite. Matches seldom last more than 10 minutes, so it's great for playing when you're on the move, or just killing some time while you wait for your friends to come online to play whatever MMO you're currently into.

Okay I'm interested, but how free is it?

Here's the good news. It's VERY free. Free to download, free to play, no microtransactions, no hidden fees. The only way this game makes any money is through banner ads. That's it, free, period.

The ads aren't even very invasive. I usually forget they are even there unless I accidentally click one (pills that do WHAT?!? oh my...). If you take a look at the previous screenshot, you can see the ads are pretty easy to miss, and certainly don't interfere with gameplay.

Maybe I've been looking in the wrong place for the holy grail of free-to-play games. Maybe all this time it's been sitting right here on my phone. But my PC gaming habits die hard, and I must confess that mobile gaming just isn't my thing. I mean it's one thing to crack off a game here and there when you trying to kill some time, but you're not going to find me spending hours at a time staring at a tiny little screen no matter how free it is.

It's fun, it's free and it's replayable, but in the humble opinion of the Free Agent, it lacks the content to be a true free-to-play champion, as does basically every other mobile game. But if you're a big fan of mobile gaming, you might just find it hits the sweet spot.

You're a grumpy old man Free Agent; mobile gaming is the future and Astral Battles is its herald

Yeah, could be, but don't get too excited, because here's the bad news. Astral Battles appears to be available only on the Windows Phone, and apparently Bill Gates and I are the only two people on the planet that actually have one. Bwahahahahaha!!!!

I'm sorry, that was really rude. But unfortunately it's true, I'm one of only a handful of people I know who uses a Windows 8 phone and, as it turns out, Astral Battles is a Windows phone exclusive. Had I known that from the get go, I suppose I would have selected a more relevant game for this episode. But it was just too much fun to turn back.

But hey, maybe there are a few readers out there that are crazy and/or awesome enough to have bought a windows phone. If that's you, check this Astral Battles out, and post a comment below. Heck maybe we can even duel sometime. You, Bill Gates and I gotta stick together right?

As for the rest of you, I promise I'll come back from my vacation soon and play some real games again. But in the meantime, stay tuned to because in two week’s time we'll publish a special edition to celebrate the tenth episode of the Free Agent.
In just 5 short months we've played a bunch of free-to-play games and our tenth episode will take a look at what we've learned along the way. If you want to catch up on any episodes you missed before then be sure to check out our episode guide.

Also, keep an eye on Twitter because, once the dust from PAX Prime settles, I'll announce the next game to be featured on the Free Agent. There are plenty of great games on the horizon for the fall; why not post a comment below or send me a tweet to let me know which ones you think we should feature.

See you next time on the Free Agent.

Robert "Caergan" Gray

Follow me on Twitter @Caergan



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