I have to admit that on the back of Chronicle: Runescape Legends, I was well and truly looking forwards to playing Hex: Shards of Fate. I have to confess that I’d never played it before and had only briefly heard about it. As someone who thoroughly enjoys the likes of Hearthstone, but always found Magic the Gathering too daunting to delve too deeply into, Hex is potentially straddling both games and comes armed with a hefty Kickstarter war chest. Having raised $2,278,255 thanks to 17,765 backers, there’s a lot riding on the success of Hex and from a studio withsomepedigree, they know a fair bit about card games.
Hex follows the genre staple of two players dueling one another across a board, with each having to summon creatures in order to destroy the other. The ability to play cards is determined by five resources (blood, wild, diamond, ruby and sapphire) and up to this point, it’s pretty standard fare. If you’ve played one of many digital card games, including the likes of Hearthstone and Magic the Gathering, you’ll instantly feel right at home. Assuming that’s all Hex is however would be a little shortsighted.
Part of what differentiates Hex from other trading card games is the fact it has a full PvE component. When Cryptozoic Entertainment marketed Hex on Kickstarter, it was under the premise that the game was bound by trading cards, but with massively multiplayer features. Not only can you create a character and level them up by participating in combat, but you can explore the game world and its content. Completing dungeons, battling against AI opponents and undertaking side-quests provide the opportunity to obtain card packs or equipment that can then improve your character through different effects. It’s a blend that works surprisingly well and strangely, I was only recently searching for a game that filled such brief.
Although I usually skip tutorials, I’m grateful Hex comes armed with a rigorous walkthrough. While teaching the basics it goes over many of the systems that the game uses in a simple but accessible way. I’m certainly no trading card novice but I more than welcomed being guided through my first encounters, if for nothing more than to fully understand the resource system and “phases”. Although exposure to the “real” game outside of such a controlled environment is markedly different (I struggled repeatedly to defeat my first dungeon when I was let loose) the kid gloves were certainly necessary. At the very least I felt equipped with enough knowledge to stumble through PvE, even if the thought of taking on a real player felt far out of reach.
Going back to its PvE, you follow a linear path of progression across a wonderfully drawn map armed with a relatively standard deck. I ended up choosing a Vennen Cleric simply because they look incredible and while there’s a host of races to choose from - all with different playstyles and appearances - I have to admit I’m pretty pleased with my choice.
Like any other trading card game, your first encounters are easy and continue to scale in difficulty as you progress. Similarly to Hearthstone where you have to adapt your deck against a specific opponent, Hex is no different. Some will directly counter what you have, others will be weak but fundamentally, you’ll often need to tweak and adjust your cards in order to maximize your potential of winning. I suspect many unaccustomed to this type of game may find this frustrating. Constantly micromanaging your deck to ensure it’s optimal against who you’re facing - sometimes only after losing - is key to progression but also further understanding the game and its mechanics. Part of the charm for any trading card game is not only attempting to develop a strong deck, but seeing if others can punch holes in it and when they do, plugging them. These lessons in deck construction are incredibly important as not only do they apply to PvE but PvP.
At this point you’re probably wondering not only about how Hex is to play, but how its PvP functions. Where the former is concerned, the game is unquestionably overwhelming. Hearthstone feels like a game for children in comparison and although Hearthstone unquestionably has depth, it pales in comparison to Hex. There simply aren’t enough words available to me in this review to cover the nuances and intricacies of card interaction. To simply dive into PvP in the hopes of learning the game, if all you’ve played is the tutorial, would likely see you come crashing down to earth. The cards afforded by participating in PvE or purchased through using the in-game currency provide an unquestionable improvement over any starting deck. At the very least they give you a much greater building block to work with.
Where PvP is concerned, you can choose to fight others one on one - as is customary - or participate in a variety of tournaments with different rulesets. These provide the best cards and even though tournaments have entry costs, it’s worthwhile. On the subject of cards, I have to say that Hex has a huge selection and even now I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface: I often don’t even know where to begin. Fortunately for anyone in the same boat as me, there’s a very helpful community on hand to provide advice and direction on how to go about building out your deck and there’s also a handful of deck builders.
If there are a few things that bother me about Hex: Shards of Fate, they mainly revolve small aesthetic issues. While most of the card art is exceptional, some are poor and supporting animations for resources or casting spells could certainly do with a little more finesse and a lot more oomph. Perhaps the biggest issue however and I appreciate this is both personal and also likely irrelevant to many, is that the perspective of the game board itself looks somewhat off. By having it angled so that your cards are placed away from you - as if looking up the table - rather than overhead, much of the artwork is skewed when a card is laid down. Maybe it’s the years of playing Hearthstone, but I’d much rather see the board from above, with clearly legible cards, rather than constantly having to select each to learn what it is and what it does. Perhaps this grievance will fade in time.
Outside of those minor niggles (and they absolutely are minor), Hex: Shards of Fate is unquestionably a brilliant card game that’s complex, rewarding and addictive. I often feel confused, out of my depth and in desperate need of help and yet I wouldn’t want it any other way. Cryptozoic Entertainment have masterfully blended two genres with finesse and polish, to the point where PvE and PvP offer serious longevity. There’s a learning curve here that I feel I’ve barely climbed and were I to invest significant time into Hex, there would undoubtedly be a great sense of achievement in doing so. For a free to play game it’s quite exceptional and without doubt worth your time: arguably much more so than Hearthstone.
Gameplay: 9 - Strategic, complicated and filled with depth, Hex offers brilliant tactical gameplay with a steep learning curve.
Visuals: 8 - Some wonderful card art is let down but some unsatisfying spells and lacklustre card effects.
Longevity: 9 - Trading card games are competitive and notoriously addictive. The PvE elements combined with its PvP make Hex a game for the long term.
Value: 9 - With the exception of needing to buy Platinum from the in-game store (more than modestly priced), the game offers incredible value for money. What’s better than free?
Polish: 7 - Hex has to convey a lot of information and does it very well. The UI is clean, artwork good and card animations are polished (if uninspired).