Indie Early Access Land: Prismata

A fun upside about regularly writing games columns is that I’ve become ‘eligible’ (in a ‘have a backlog to show for it’ sense) to request review keys from developers, as well as being tuned into the sorts of middleman operations that match needy developers and needy reviewers. Makes it a lot easier to get tapped into games you might otherwise overlook, let me tell you. A fun downside about being me is that I’m terrible absent-minded, which I genuinely can’t tell if I’ve made this joke on here before. This combination of factors can lead to some unexpectedly awkward situations, sometimes, where (say) a key distributor might email me after several weeks asking about a link to my coverage, and all I have to reply is “oh yeah, that key… that’s probably somewhere in my three dozen unread ‘I should check these later’ emails.”

In news that as far as you know may or may not be unrelated, I’m doing a review of Lunarch Studios‘s Prismata, which is currently in Steam Early Access. Being that it is, expect a shorter and more to-the-point review, like some other Early Access reviews I’ve done. I generally try to steer away from Early Access reviews, as it’s always tricky to determine what game aspect are and aren’t fair criticism game, but… let’s just say in that in the case of Prismata, I felled compelled to write something. For reasons you may or may not understand.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, Essentially none. Mechanical, high-ish, but not really impacting the experience.)

(Game source: Distributor Steam key.)

(Time of writing: 2018-03-26)

Prismata, Or: Strategy’s In The Cards

Prismata is a turn-based head-to-head semi-collectible card game that fancies itself an RTS, except it’s also a multiplayer online battle lobby with a single-player story, puzzle challenges, and unlockable unit skins. The whole thing takes place in the future, as of course it would.

How else would you explain the power cores?

Yeah, okay. Let me give that a second shot.

Prismata has the ambitious design goal of blending turn-based card game and RTS gameplay. Of the two, the card gameplay is probably easier to spot: I feel that if you’d ever randomly turn into a friend or streamer playing this, or something like that, you’d think in the first five minutes that Prismata is a weird-looking variation on an otherwise very Magic The Gathering formula.

Stacks of cards, weird-looking resources, attack points and life points, AI commentators that don’t know when to disappear.

Tell me if any of this sounds familiar: Resources that you can gain every turn, from a collection of dedicated cards that slowly grows over time. Summoning new units onto the field, that generally have to wait one turn before becoming effective. Units that can attack or defend, but not both, and so you’re often weighing whether or not to do any of it. Limited numbers of more powerful units, which take time and setup to bring out. Different colours of approach leading to different strategic considerations. If while reading this you started imagining the sound of booster packs being torn open, let me assure you: You’re not the only one.

But Prismata isn’t shy about the fact that its card game action flow and strategy considerations are inspired by, and/or derived from, real-time strategy games. Here are some things you’ll deal with in Prismata that you won’t find as quickly in a game of Magic: Resource production units count as actual units, meaning they have potential combat value as well. Resource production units cost resources to make, meaning you can choose to make more than one in a turn — or none at all, if you need that income for something else. Building more advanced units requires the construction of elaborate supply chains, sometimes including different units that play off each other in unexpected ways. And all the while, everything your opponent is doing is immediately visible, with everything they build on the same one-turn delay as yours — meaning you generally don’t have any opportunity to immediately react, but you do have the opportunity to plan around it.

Ah, I see. Let me just… *use* this information, somehow.

Generally, a game of Prismata flows like this: You’ll start with two Engineers, which passively generate Energy, and six or seven Drones, which you can activate — let’s just say ‘tap’ — to generate Gold. You can use Gold to buy more Engineers, or Energy and Gold to buy more Drones. You can also use Gold to buy one of three special resource-constructing buildings, like a Behemium Forge or an Animus. All units more advanced than Drones and Engineers require at least one colour of special resource to build. So build a Forge, next turn you have access to one blue Behemium, which you can combine with six Gold to make a Steelsplitter.

Get more resources, build cooler stuff.

RTS veterans will immediately recognize the first layer of strategic choices here. Do you use your initial resources to build more resource-generating units, primarily Drones, so you have more in later turns? Or do you quickly invest in special resources and combat units, so you can catch the enemy with their pants down? And if so, which ones? Since building combat units happens on at least a two-turn delay — one turn to build a resource building and let it activate, one turn to build the actual unit — there’s almost always the opportunity for counter-play, but that still depends on you accurately reading what your opponent is actually planning on doing. And to make matters even more complicated, some resources fade at the end of a turn, but others don’t: It’s totally viable (and encouraged) to stockpile Gold and Gauss Crystals to suddenly drop a giant monster.

Well, I mean. I say ‘suddenly’, but as far as I can tell, both players play with the same unit selection. It’s a little confusing, because Prismata has a ton of different unit ‘blueprints’, which so far I’ve unlocked over time by reaching higher and higher ‘account levels’. But while you’d expect there to be a layer of deck-building involved, everything I’ve seen suggests that — in ‘normal’ play, the intended Prismata experience — both players are assigned the same semi-random set of units. Again, this ties into its RTS roots: You’ll always know exactly what your opponent could be doing. It’s just a matter of figuring out what they’re actually going to be doing.

If you play against the AI, you can more directly select units you want to play with. I think when playing against other players, this is either a suggestion, or a system where you can mandate/ban certain units. Either way, this is only a *fraction* of the total number of available units.

So you build resource units and buildings, and then you build combat units and buildings. And then eventually, there’s some fighting. Now, in card games, combat tends to be a fairly straightforward exchange of numbers modulated by some unit traits (This one flies, that one provokes, and so on), but in RTS games, combat is generally much more of a spatial puzzle, including things like unit collision and access routes to building and resource units. I’ve seen other ‘RTS card games’ try to incorporate this spatiality in direct metaphors, but Prismata uses a more abstract representation that I found I really like. It goes like this: Pretty much every ‘mobile’ unit is designated a ‘potential defender’, as shown by the purple shields on their cards — you’ll see that includes Drones and Engineers. A player attacks at the end of their turn if their units have generated at least one ‘attack point’. If an attack takes place, Prismata then counts the life totals of all actually eligible defenders: All units that haven’t been tapped, to attack or generate resource, can defend.

Here’s the part that I like: If the defenses of the defending player are stronger than the attacking player’s power, the defender gets to assign damage. They have to assign that damage among the eligible defenders, but can otherwise pick and choose which units take a beating — those are the units they held back and used for defense. The system won’t be unfamiliar to most: You basically pick one unit at a time to get beaten on, and they’ll take damage from the attacker’s pool until either their health runs out and they’re destroyed (at which point you pick again), or the attacker runs out of steam. Since almost all units fully regenerate at the end of each turn, this can allow for some fun tactical planning: If you have a five-health wall, any damage amount of four or below is deflected harmlessly. If you do have, say, six damage incoming, you can choose to inflict two of it onto two Drones, then soak the remaining four with your wall — or you can take five damage on the wall and lose it, but only lose one extra Drone.

It’s like an endless variety of math puzzles, except if you get it wrong, you die in the future.

But if the attacker brings the higher number to the table, the system flips: Instead of the defender meticulously assigning points, there’s a big shiny ‘overrun defenders’ button that instantly and very empoweringly does all the requisite math. From there on, the attacker gets to decide what happens with the leftover points, which they can assign at their leisure: Blockers that weren’t engaged in this combat, Drones, buildings, everything’s fair game — except units that weren’t done building yet.

This button is fun to click.

Who’s the ‘Simple Bot’ NOW?

In practice, there’s a sense of back-and-forth as players whittle down each other’s defenses while keeping enough of their own intact to weather the storm — up until the point where one player overpowers the other, after which… things don’t have to snowball: There are comeback techniques, including units that can immediately block on being summoned. But I’ve yet to see a game that didn’t eventually go to the first player to breach defenses, which then gives them free reign to poke at the opponent’s weak spots. Oh, you like building red units, do you? Such a shame if someone were to destroy both of your Animuses. It could happen.

And… by and large, that’s Prismata. Build an engine, build units, and fight your opponent by using the available units more cleverly and efficiently than they do. There’s more to it on a deeper level, obviously. Prismata is good at what it does, mechanically speaking: I really appreciate how all necessary information regarding how much attack and defense you and your opponent can muster is always available right on-screen, instead of forcing you to hunt for it. It’s permissive about player experimentation and mistakes in a way that a lot of other games are not: You can always rewind your turns and take back your moves, ranked match time limit notwithstanding. And the three resource colours each play differently, with blue’s defense focus and red’s long build times and green’s fragility, and that’s before getting into the hybrid-resource units. But at that point we’re getting into the tactical nitty-gritty. And if Prismata itself enjoys reminding me in loading screen tips that it’s still a work in progress, I feel maybe I shouldn’t feel bad treating it as such.

Victory screen tip, technically, but otherwise…

And using that as a segue: Prismata is currently in Early Access, but nevertheless costs $25. What do you get for that kind of money, time of writing? As far as I can tell, the multiplayer component is pretty much entirely done: Sure, it’ll be tweaked and whatnot, but if you want to play Prismata against other people, you’re good. It’s got casual play, ranked play, people streaming on Twitch, the works. There’s also a Versus AI mode with a robust-seeming range of difficulty options — to the point where people in the game’s public chat at one point brought up that sometimes casual matches will pit you against AI players, but that that can actually be hard to tell. If you’re more of the single-player persuasion, there’s currently one chapter of an eventual five-chapter single-player campaign, which puts you in the shoes of White Dude Fighting The Robot Apocalypse Or Some Shit. I wouldn’t expect stellar genre-breaking writing here, but it works as an introduction to the game, and the first chapter scenarios were interesting enough to keep me playing. There’s also a set of single-player combat challenges, which fall halfway between puzzles and restricted Versus-AI matches — can you win this battle in these conditions with these units?

The main character is called ‘Swade’, and yes, he *is* a cocky robot fighting pilot with a mysterious war past who came to this desert planet to avoid facing his inner demons.

Oh, and there is microtransaction currency. As far as I can tell, this won’t help you get the actual unit blueprints faster, but it’ll let you get cosmetic stuff — avatars, emotes, and a surprising amount of alternate unit skins.

On the one hand, I’m a big fan of customization. On the other hand, yes, these skins *do* basically amount to you paying to put a different JPG in a little square.

I mean, there might be more to the stuff. I couldn’t actually be bothered to decipher the four increasingly arcane levels of membership bundle for an Early Access game.

If you want to give it a shot, be my guest.

As it stands, I would call Prismata a careful recommendation-of-interest if you’re into card games, strategy games, or weird hybrid games. I’m a big fan of weird hybrid games, which is what initially drew me here, and most of Prismata‘s strengths lie in the ways it mixes its genres. That said, I’m going to be honest: I actually forgot this game wasn’t free-to-play until I checked the Steam page for this review. I had fun with it, and I’ll probably keep an eye out, but also so far it’s been free for me. Would I have felt the same if I paid twenty-five bucks for the access privilege? …I don’t know. The game that Prismata promises to be, at the end of the development cycle, seems like it’ll easily be good value for that money. Whether or not it’s something you want to jump on right now is, as always, up to you.

Jarenth plays one Drone and a Forge and ends his turn. It’s your move, on Twitter or on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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