Brought to us by the US division of publisher Changyou, Swordgirls Online is a browser-based Trading Card Game (TCG) featuring lots of cute anime girls. The game itself is free-to-play but contains micro-transaction options where players can use tokens (obtained by cash) to purchase 'booster' cards, among other options.
According to its website, Swordgirls bills itself as being able to 'work on any web browser and Flash-enabled mobile device'. For the sake of completeness, I went ahead and tested the game on a variety of browsers and mobile devices. While playing it on a PC, I used Firefox 11, Chrome 17 and Internet Explorer 9. For mobile gaming, I stuck with the default Android browser in my Samsung Galaxy Note cell phone and Motorola Xoom tablet.
Aesthetics – 7.0 / 10
Featuring hundreds of anime girls, erm... I mean cards to collect; the gorgeous artwork in the game will definitely grab the attention of people attracted to anime-style artwork. Cards are beautifully illustrated, sometimes featuring recurring characters that appear to be part of a larger storyline. The cards’ special ability (if any) is helpfully written in bold font to differentiate it from the flavor text, making it easier to notice. Most of them belong to one of four factions within the game and this is identified very clearly by a very prominent emblem at upper left corner.
Hovering your cursor over any card's image on the right side of the GUI will make a larger version of the illustration appear in the center of the game window. All the more better to appreciate the artwork in the game. Sadly, the illustrations on the cards are not credited, so fans will probably have a difficult time identifying who were the artists involved. It's very obvious the development team didn't skimp on the effort when it came to producing the artwork. Unfortunately, I can't really say the same about the GUI.
My first complaint with the game appeared almost immediately after starting it up. Swordgirls' 780 pixel x 580 pixel GUI is designed to fit inside a tiny browser pop-up window and unfortunately does not scale up to fill the screen when the window is maximized. Considering that many other Flash browser games out there allow players to (at the very least) zoom-in or go full-screen, I found the lack of similar options in Swordgirls to be disappointing. The size of the font used, while not so tiny that it's unreadable, is small enough that it may give some people a hard time.
Thankfully, I was able to go full-screen on my mobile devices while playing the game. Press down on a character card's image in the GUI for a few seconds and a 'full-screen' option should appear at the top of your Android browser window. The game looked beautiful on my Galaxy Note but didn't look as good on my Xoom. The Flash GUI and card imagery didn't scale well to my tablet's screen resolution of 1280 x 800 and ended up aliased and blocky. If you decide to play Swordgirls on a mobile device, bear in mind that it may not look its best.
Gameplay – 6.5 / 10
The rules in Swordgirls are less complicated than those of many other card games out there (notably Magic: The Gathering) and are very easy to pick up. Newcomers may find themselves overwhelmed by a lot of the game's features at the very beginning, but things get less confusing fairly quickly because of the abundance of help messages. I picked up most of the rules after messing around for 30 minutes and I'm pretty sure some of you folks out there will figure things out a lot faster than me. The in-game help section does an excellent job of explaining everything about the game if you're ever confused, and it's easily accessible via a button at the bottom left of the UI. There are even Youtube videos embedded in the help section for those of you requiring 'live demonstrations'.
In Swordgirls, a game deck is comprised of 3 types of cards: Characters, Followers, Spells. Characters are something like your avatar, a representation of you in the game. Followers are your troops, and they are the ones who'll be doing most of the fighting during a match. Spells are cards that last one turn, disappearing immediately after their ability is used. I'm not going to go too deep into the combat rules because the game will definitely do a better job of explaining them than I ever will.
Swordgirls is not just some mindless TCG wannabe with an anime-coated exterior, there's an actual game with strategy and planning involved here. Certain Character cards have special abilities that benefit Followers of the same faction, thus making it beneficial (though not mandatory) to stick to one faction most of the time. I've seen strategies by the AI and other players where cards were pumped so heavily with Attack and Stamina boosts every turn that they became virtually unstoppable. Other strategies I encountered involved using Follower cards with small Sizes (to minimize the damage your Character takes when they are defeated) or one Follower card supported by lots of spells. That said, I do have complaints about some things in the game, or more rather the lack of some things.
You have completely no control over the combat decisions of your Follower cards. Yes that's right. During combat, your Follower's targets are all determined by the game's AI. This was, to put it lightly, something I found hard to accept. While beginners may find it convenient that they don't need to be so involved in the decision making process during combat, I grew increasingly frustrated by this 'feature' the more I played the game.
My opponent would have 3 Follower cards in play, with one of them on the verge of death with 1 remaining Stamina point. Instead of attacking the nearly-dead card and finishing her off, my cards would (in their infinite wisdom) choose to waste their efforts on the other healthier Follower cards, squandering my chance for a quick and decisive victory.
The above situation was not something I made up just to illustrate my point. It happened to me more than once, and in one very special case ended up with the opponent turning the tables on me and winning the match. It always felt like I was more an observer than an actual participant in the card battles. My Follower cards would sometimes end up being used by the AI mindlessly with no clear sense of direction or strategy. It was frustrating and heartbreaking at times to have to sit through battles of attrition that sometimes lasted 15 minutes, where victory was in plain sight, only to lose because the AI chose to attack the wrong cards. The best analogy I can think of to describe this is like having your prize-winning pure-breed stallion being ridden in the opposite direction on the racetrack by a 5-year old kid.
Everything during combat is controlled by the AI and combat rounds would play out with a repetitive set of animations to signify attacks, spell-casting and card destruction. Sometimes, the opponent would whip out a new card that I'd never seen before. There wasn't much time to admire this new card's artwork or understand its abilities as the AI didn't pause for anything and would just chug along. After encountering this situation many times, and losing to cards with strange abilities I didn't have time to properly digest, the game's next significant flaw became all the more apparent: the lack of a play-by-play log.
Many dedicated TCG players keep a log of all the moves used during matches, so that they can analyze their opponents' strategies and what moves should have been used when. The omission of a similar feature in Swordgirls is something I found completely incomprehensible. The game would keep on going during each combat round, playing flashy (pun intended) combat animations, expecting you to understand everything it did as different spells and card effects kept whizzing about and altering the statistics of the cards in play.
In addition to the missing log, there's also no way to pause the action (even when your opponent is an AI). As there are over 500 cards in the game, I'm pretty sure many players are going to have difficulty keeping track of what's going on especially when new cards with unfamiliar abilities are played. In many matches, I simply gave up trying to figure out what was happening and just left the AI to do whatever it wanted while hoping that my Followers would outlast the strangeness that was flung in their direction.
Innovation – 5.0 / 10
The variety of cards in the game is astounding, and newcomers will surely have a hard time deciding on which faction(s) to focus on. 'Common' and 'Uncommon' cards can be crafted from materials, but 'Rare' cards will have crafting requirements of several 'Uncommon' or 'Common' cards. If you're intending to build a top-tier deck, you'll definitely be spending a lot of time gathering materials from dungeons/fights or buying boosters from the in-game shop using tokens. You can even trade crafting materials with other players or use an in-game option to exchange excess ones for the kind you need.
For players who like to stick with certain Character or Follower cards in their deck, they'll be happy to know that card abilities/statistics can be boosted through an upgrading process. While it does offer players the opportunity to customize and personalize their deck, I feel that there are simply too many hoops to jump through to make card upgrading a meaningful experience.
For starters, the simple act of 'leveling up' a Character card requires repeated donations of extra cards or (if you're rich) the use of token-bought items. It's a really costly process, literally and figuratively, with somewhat unpredictable results as there's no indication what kind of variant forms your Character card might evolve into when she 'levels up'.
Training and upgrading your Follower cards is a similarly time consuming process. Followers need to first 'train up' and earn a minimum amount of training points before they are eligible for upgrading. When the card is sent for training, you can't use her in your deck. Also, training points take time to accumulate (e.g. 24 hours for 500 training points). You can speed up the training process through the use of tokens, but it's rather costly.
After you're done with training, you can finally send the card for upgrading. And this is where a lot of people will start pulling their hair out. To upgrade a card, you'll need that card to have at least 100 training points and you'll also need an extra copy of the same card. An unsuccessful upgrading attempt will result in the loss of both the extra card as well as the required training points.
There was this one particular Darklore faction card that I wanted to upgrade and I spent quite a bit of time accumulating the materials required to craft 5 extra copies of it (for five upgrade attempts). After sending that card for 24 hours worth of training, I had 500 training points to spend and... I subsequently failed each and every one of my upgrade attempts. I performed 2 more attempts for another card and failed those as well. 7 hard earned cards... poof... gone just like that. Very brutal treatment from a browser game if I don't say so myself.
Sure, the developers are under no obligation to increase drop rates or upgrade success rates, but I was somewhat shocked at how quickly all the time and effort I had invested just vanished into thin air. Would I be complaining as much if this were something that happened in World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy XI? Maybe not. But that's only because I expect this kind of heavy handedness from a subscription-based online game and not from a F2P browser game. In the end, the entire experience left a very bad taste in my mouth.
Polish – 5.0 /10
Before I talk about the polish, let's re-examine the marketing blurb the game uses on their official website: 'work on any web browser and Flash-enabled mobile device'. It says there that the game makes use of Flash, and even if they didn't specifically mention it, right-clicking on the GUI in a browser would reveal that.
I've tested the game in the latest versions of Firefox, Chrome & Internet Explorer and am pleased to say that it plays well in all of them. The majority of desktop gamers out there shouldn't have any issues running the game. It's only when you try playing it on a mobile device, that another set of problems start making themselves known.
As mentioned previously, I tested the game on my Samsung Galaxy Note cell phone and Motorola Xoom tablet. I've already mentioned the problem with the improper resizing of graphical elements (most likely due to the fixed size of the Flash GUI) so I'm not going to repeat that here. Instead, the other significant problem I'm going to talk about happens to be the game's over-usage of flashy animations during combat.
Sword slashes, disintegrating cards, spell auras are just a few of the many animations that play during a card battle to keep things interesting. On a web browser, there wouldn't be anything to complain about. Everything works nice and smooth, with animations to spice things up as the AI goes through its paces in combat. On a mobile device however, these same animations struggle to play properly, skipping frames and jerking along on a mobile browser that isn't as powerful as its distant desktop-based cousin.
The developers were clearly aiming for the game to run on netbooks or mobile devices. Why else would they restrict the resolution of the game window to a tiny 788 x 641 pixels? And if they had expectations for the game to run on cell phones/tablets, why didn't they go the extra mile and optimize the game for mobile devices? They could have added options to disable animations, speed up combat, use low resolution images, etc. All because mobile browsers are able to run Flash, this doesn't necessarily mean that all Flash objects/animations are going to work great on them. Mobile devices also have a finite amount of juice in their batteries, and all these extra animations are just going to use the processor like crazy and eat up a lot of battery power. My cell phone got so hot at one point I had to stop playing because I was so scared that the heat would fry the device.
If you're going to stick to playing Swordgirls on a desktop browser, you can ignore many of my complaints above as they won't be very relevant to your overall gaming experience. But if you ever intend on sneaking in a quick game using your 3G connection while taking a train ride, be prepared for a less than optimal session with your girls.
Longevity – 6.0 / 10
The first thing any TCG would do to extend its lifespan would surely begin with the periodic release of new cards. At the moment, there are more than enough cards (around 500) available for players to collect. The in-game shop also features 3 'seasons' worth of boosters for each of the factions, sometimes containing exclusive 'Rare' cards that can't be crafted. Collectors and players working towards that ultimate deck configuration of theirs will definitely be spending a long time (or quite a few tokens) in this game.
Aside from collecting cards, the player community's support of the game will definitely play a part in sustaining it. There are options to set up private matches as well as participate in tournament matches. Players can even send their cards off to fight late at night after they log off, letting the game's AI earn rewards for them while they sleep. The tools are definitely here to sustain a community; it's ultimately up to the players to make use of them.
Social – 6.5 / 10
Everyone shares a global chat channel and the chat window is available at all times, even during matches (though it’s minimized to the left side). The Friend List in the game is pretty simple, allowing you to add friends that you can send private messages to. You can help to 'bestow' a few more training points to any of your friends' Follower cards undergoing training. Facebook integration is also present, allowing you to post about your match victories on your news feed.
At the moment, most of the community is comprised of anime fans or players from other games with an anime visual style (e.g. Mabinogi, Maple Story, etc.). Many of the people I encountered were friendly and helpful, with some of them being more knowledgeable on Swordgirls deck construction than I ever will be. Naughty words are forbidden and the usage of any expletives will return a system warning informing you of your poor choice of words. It's an environment that some parents may feel safe in letting their children wander around in but it still pays to be cautious as some people can get very creative with certain combinations of letters and symbols while chatting.
Value – 6.0 / 10
Despite some of the flaws I mentioned earlier, Swordgirls is still very playable and is loads of fun (more so when you're winning, of course). There's plenty to discover as the variety of cards and abilities are numerous. Extended play and discussions with other players will surely give rise to strategies with cards you would never have thought of before and the best part is that you're looking at pictures of pretty girls most of the time.
With regards to collecting, there are so many hoops to jump through (slow combat matches, meager match rewards, increasingly difficult crafting prerequisites) that sometimes I felt that the amount of time and effort invested could be better spent elsewhere. Materials are always in short supply and it's an especially laborious process to amass enough just to craft the cards you need if you decide to go the free-to-play route. It doesn't help that here's always the feeling the developers made things so inconvenient on purpose just so they could earn your tokens. Some of the methods that are employed to influence players into spending tokens are distasteful too.
After winning a match, players are always given a choice to purchase Bronze, Silver and/or Gold reward(s) using tokens. In one such incident, I picked the Gold reward and a system message promptly informed me that I needed to purchase the Silver reward first. This was something I found very baffling and I'm sure many others will feel the same way I did. Similarly baffling (and hilarious) was the message literally asking me to 'Please insert coin' when I opted for a rematch with a dungeon boss I had just lost a match to.
Swordgirls is the kind of game where I'd need to think twice before recommending it to anyone. While cute anime girls combined with decent gameplay are definite plus points, there are still many other things in need of improvement and fine-tuning. Beginners will appreciate the simplicity in the game's combat system and anime fans will most likely be attracted to the visuals enough to give the game a go. However, the game's shortcomings are very apparent and get increasingly irritating the more time you spend with it.
Of course, there's strategy involved when assembling a deck and I myself cannot deny that even with these shortcomings there are many ways to build an awesome deck that will dominate. Long story short, TCG beginners or those who are drawn to the attractive artwork may be willing to overlook these shortcomings (and even learn to thrive within them) but experienced TCG players looking for an anime-enhanced gaming experience may not be so tolerant.