Game review: Gems of War for Android

Long time no see, right? The move from Milan to Pavia took a lot out of me, and my method of recovery was mostly lounging on the couch playing Bloodborne because it was free with PS Plus, and I figured why not give it another try? And by the way, the new internet connection is so slow that downloading Bloodborne took FOUR DAYS. Obviously, streaming games is going to be out of the question, and that means no PS4 games at all unless I can sort out how to record and upload them. As it is, recording and uploading PC games will have to be limited to around half hour sessions because that tiny ass file will take all day to upload to YouTube and Twitch. *Le Sigh*

(A side note: I apologize to anyone waiting on the remaining episodes of me playing Dark Souls II. I go to upload one, walk away to do other stuff, and come back a few hours later to see Twitch has once again fucked up the upload, so I have to start over…and have it fuck up again. My internet woes are truly terrible right now, let me tell ya.)

My opinion of Bloodborne hasn’t changed with additional runs, by the way. It’s got good bosses and the chalice dungeons are fun, but the vast majority of the game is boring to the point that I can fall asleep while playing it. Of all the FromSoftware games I’ve played, it’s the one I like the least. But hey, I played through all the chalice dungeons with a bloodtinge build, and while it took forever to build up a gun to the point of being actually useful, the end result was a dungeon run that was a literal blast to play. So it’s the same as my review, yeah? A decent time, if you can stomach the grind.

But so…where was I? Right, the review. Before we moved, I got a Kindle Fire tablet to use as a second screen while streaming…and another side note: the Twitch App for android is bjorked and won’t show viewer’s comments or the current stream, so I had to download Firefox for Android to get to the Twitch site. That in itself required a whole other series of workarounds because Amazon tried to lock me out of the Google Play store, and despite Firefox being the defacto browser for most folks on PC, they don’t have it in their store. Can you say oy vey? Because I sure can.

So, Gems of War. I’d heard good stuff about this spiritual successor to Puzzle Quest, and I of course had many good times with Puzzle Quest and Puzzle Quest 2. This would seem like a perfect fit for me, and in small, short doses, it’s not all that bad. But…I don’t like it. I mean, I don’t hate it, either, but the free to play mechanics make any session over an hour into a kind of slow torture, like getting teeth cleaned. At first, it doesn’t seem so bad, but the longer it drags on, the more irritating it becomes.

Let’s start with the basics. Gems of War is a match-three puzzle game with the twist that matched tiles will initiate physical attacks for skulls or powering up spells and weapons for matching gems of the same color. Matching four gems of the same color or four skulls will let you take another turn, matching five gems will add bonus mana for a “mana surge,” and matching five skulls results in extra damage with a critical hit. Where Puzzle Quest pitted your player character against one monster at a time, Gems of War features teams of four versus four, which makes it somewhat easier to create a balanced roster. In this way, you will be able to use almost all the gems on the board instead of just picking whatever matches you can until your chosen color comes up. (This was one of the few aggravating problems I had with Puzzle Quest, by the way. I need red gems for my good spells? Well fuck me, it’s all green and blue with a random skull tossed in to ensure I can’t match anything.)

Another improvement is the removal of the “mana burn” mechanic, which occurred any time the tiles reshuffled in Puzzle Quest. Imagine the pain of eeking out just barely enough mana to power up your attack spell, and RIGHT as you get it, the tiles reshuffle, and fuck you, start again because you lose all mana. Well that’s gone, so reshuffles aren’t the pain in the ass they used to be.

BUT, there are major balance issues with many, MANY monsters and characters. I have quite often whittled down a team to its last member slowly, and right as I’m about to celebrate a victory that last bastard launches a spell that kills all four of my team with ONE hit. Full health and full armor don’t matter. This can happen in PVE or PVP, and it’s never not aggravating precisely because even fully leveled up, none of my team can launch an attack that devastating. You may think the answer is just to recruit those monsters, but monsters are doled out in loot boxes, so you have no control over what you get. I haven’t got any of those monsters despite playing for months, but I have got enough duplicates of shit monsters that I can “ascend” them to legendary levels of shithood. (Totally a real word, by the by.)

Hyperbole aside, the team I have is not bad when those one-shot fuckers aren’t in play, and I can win at PVE or PVP all the time, provided the tiles are on my side. This presents another frustration, where I manage to get one three-tile match, and the falling tiles at the top of the screen offer the enemy four tiles, so that’s a free turn. Then the dropping tiles offer them another free turn, and then another, and then another. In this way, every single member of the enemy team can power up in a single turn while I’m just sitting there wondering why I so rarely see this kind of luck on my turn. Yes, it can happen eventually, but it happens for me rarely, and for the AI, it happens every other game.

It’s not like the enemy AI is all that intelligent. I’ve seen matches that would have resulted in instant defeat for me, and the AI ignores those in favor of something else that does jack and shit for them. Every time this happens, it’s pretty much a win for me, but instead of being happy, I’m left scratching my head and asking, “But why are you so stupid?”

This applies to PVP too because you aren’t fighting another player online. You’re fighting their team as controlled by the AI. This means it is quite possible to wreck a much higher level player’s team because of the AI making stupid choices. By the same token, that “top line luck” can hand victory to a shit team, leaving you stewing because you aren’t allowed to move more than once compared to their four and five moves per turn. And god help you if a team is stacked with monsters who get a free turn after casting their spells. You can end up getting wrecked just waiting for one turn.

But now we get to my biggest frustration with the game: Ascensions and Traits. Every monster can be ascended by grinding duplicate cards, and the only way to level up past the caps is through this grind. The first ascensions aren’t so bad, only needing six cards to do so, but that quickly jumps up to twenty-one and higher, and again, you’re waiting on a loot box drop that may or may not work in your favor for a long time. For instance, I have a monster who only needs two more cards to reach a legendary rank, thus allowing me to raise it from level 17 to level 18. I have been waiting over a month, and STILL haven’t been able to get another card of that type to drop. It turns every round of loot box opening into another form of torture. I just need one. Fucking. Card! And no, I’m denied again. Better luck next time, fucker.

Trait stones are even worse because you need such a ridiculous number of them to add one extra trait to any monster. I have a vampire with a trait of gaining 4 life every time an enemy dies. It took eight weeks of grinding in a kingdom’s “explore” area to get that trait, and once I finally got it, I had to turn around and start the process over for another monster. I’ve been playing “explore” in one kingdom for three days now and still haven’t seen the one trait stone I need. Realistically, I might not see it even if I play all day, every day, for a week.

Is there a way to buy the trait stones? Yes, and it’s one of the most disgusting features of the game. There are daily and weekly “specials” promoting a high-level monster card and several trait stones, usually for around fifty to sixty DOLLARS. And by the way, I’ve been offered other specials going for one hundred and fifty to two hundred dollars. This is the most slimy kind of exploitation of players, and if you don’t like it, well fuck you, you’re stuck in for a couple of months of grinding. I wouldn’t be so mad if I could buy trait stones in a bundle by themselves for, say, five bucks. But there isn’t an option to buy trait stones except as part of those monster bundles, and I am not paying the full price of a triple A game for one monster I don’t even want just to upgrade a monster on my team.

Seriously, this is the part that makes me want to rate this game 1 star even knowing that’s the score I reserve for broken unplayable garbage. I very much prefer buying a game outright over using free-to-play models most of the time, but I’m okay with it if the prices on in-game items are reasonable. This, however, is so far beyond reasonable that it veers into sheer insanity, and it’s the kind of exploitation that I honestly hope will eventually result in governments stepping in and regulating this business model to death.

I haven’t even touched on the story yet, and I really should because it’s fucking atrocious. Oh, it’s starts off well enough. You travel to a monster island with a guy named Luther. Years before, he attempted an invasion and lost all of his troops, so now he’s back for revenge. Okay, fine so far, but way too many other kingdoms have you meet up with someone introduced like “Help, I’m being chased by monsters!” So your character goes “Derp, okie dokie, lets kill stuff!” As the quests play out, it becomes clear you’ve sided with a criminal, and all these fights you’re winning are the equivalent of the local sheriffs trying to bring a criminal to justice. Even when it becomes clear you’ve backed the wrong pony, you’re still stuck helping them kill the good guys. That’s some story, huh? You’re the asshole too wrapped up in killing shit to stop and do the right thing. This plot repeats in so many of the kingdoms you unlock that it’s a genuine surprise to find a new companion who isn’t an asshole.

“Oh, Zoe, we don’t play puzzle games for the plot,” you say. Fair enough, but the plots of the Puzzle Quest games were at least serviceable, if a bit predictable. This shit is just drivel pandered out to pad the game to an infinitely playable length. You complete all th story quests for one kingdom, play with the challenge mode or the explore mode, and when that eventually gets old, you pay some gold to unlock another. I’ve had the game almost three months and have unlocked 28% of the map. That sounds good, right? Like, this is a game that you can be playing for a year and still have new areas to explore.

BUT, almost all of that is spent doing the same shit over and over not because you want to, but because your only other choice is forking over sixty dollars to speed up your progress. In short doses, like a trip to the bathroom or a ride on a train, it’s something to do that’s not too mind numbing. But if you sit down and actively try to level up anyone on your team, the grind quickly becomes painful and yes, even aggravating.

In the end, I have to give Gems of War 3 stars. It’s not so horrible to earn a two, but it’s also just so fucking slimy with “micro”-transactions, and the slowness of the forced grinding sucks all the potential fun out of every facet of the game. If you only go in to play for a few minutes at a time and never spend any money, okay, this might be a way to waste some time. But mostly, I just want to advise you to stay away from this game. Please, you can find better ways to use your game time than to suffer through this exploitative shovelware.