Activision’s Skylanders series managed to become one of the most surprisingly huge hits in gaming over the last several years, so it’s no surprise Activision has branched the series out to everything they can think of. Skylanders has been hit and miss on mobile platforms, but with their latest, Battlecast, they’ve entered the ever-crowded world of collectable card gaming and, after a fashion, augmented reality.
The various Skylanders games have always been kind of like the polar opposite of augmented reality. Where normal AR games add something unreal to a real environment, Skylanders adds real, physical toys to a virtual environment. With Battlecast, they’ve switched things up a bit.
You can still buy physical packs of cards that can be scanned in, using a bit of an AR gimmick, but it’s not actually necessary. The game, like most free-to-play titles, incentivizes repeated plays, so there are daily timers that unlock new cards and a spin of the reward wheel (usually resulting in more free cards). You’ll also earn gold coins, which (of course) can be used to buy more cards. As expected, there’s a hefty micro-transaction focus too, allowing you to buy more gold with actual money. Gold can also be used to upgrade cards, which is an interesting nod to the RPG-lite nature of the console game.
In addition to character cards, featuring all the familiar characters from the series, there are gear and relic cards. These cards can augment the characters (usually up to three) you bring into a match—giving them more health, greater damage ability, etc.—or hurt the competition’s characters.
Relic cards apply effects to characters (for ill or benefit) that can last the entire match. Each character also has specific gear cards that can only be used by them, so there’s a lot of tactical strategy involved in how you build your deck and what characters you use.
Battlecast certainly looks like a Skylanders game, with sharp colorful graphics and plenty of special effects to accompany each move. The entire soundtrack—from the score to the voices—are all ripped from the console games as well, so everything has that distinct Skylanders feel.
It’s important to note, however, that this is a totally new card game, completely unrelated to the rune stones mini-game in the console versions.
Each card costs a certain amount of crystals to use. You start with only one or two crystals, but, between each turn, are randomly given more. The crystals recharge between turns and deciding the most effective mix of cards during a turn to use that crystal power is an important part of the game.
As a straight-up virtual card battling game, Skylanders Battlecast is surprisingly solid and a great introduction to the genre—especially for kids who still love Skylanders but want something a bit different. As an exercise in augmented reality, however, the game is pretty barebones. Indeed, if you never actually buy a physical card pack, you’d probably never even know this aspect of Battlecast existed.
Battlecast uses AR as part of its physical card scanning functionality. Buy a card pack (presumably wherever Skylander figures are sold), set a card on a flat very well-lit surface, hold your camera over it, and the game analyzes the card. Once the game figures what card you have, the character or object pops up from the card on your screen and does a little animated sequence.
It’s fun in a gimmicky kind of way, but thus far the app is incredibly picky about when and if it will scan. During testing, we had a full deck of cards and scanned them in with incredibly varying results.
Sometimes, the game would instantly recognize the card and add it to our digital collection, while other attempts were exercises in frustration. At times, Battlecast simply refused to see the card right in front of it. Whether it was a lighting and shadow issue or something buggy in the software was unclear, but there didn’t seem to be any pattern to when it did (or didn’t) work.
While we’re assuming your mileage may vary, it does lead us to think that going all-virtual cards is the most effective and easiest thing to do. Still, even this limited use of AR certainly speaks to the fact that Skylanders could work great with AR technology. The charming and distinctive characters and effects interacting with the real world would be a huge draw for the series’ legion of fans.
Skylanders Battlecast definitely isn’t using AR to maximum effect. On the other hand, it’s a surprisingly good collectible card game nonetheless. Just be warned that introducing your kids (or, let’s be fair here, even yourself) to Battlecast could result in a lot of extra purchases—both virtual and otherwise. But at least it’s something to tide you over while you continue waiting on more news about Dragon Front.
Article contributed by Jason D’Aprile. Jason is a freelance writer with work appearing in prominent publications such as Gamespot, Playboy, and many others.