Until recently, casual gaming giant Zynga was famous for their crop-based, microtransaction-financed Facebook clickfests. Their action RPG Battlestone is one of a number of recent mobile releases that seek to engage a new gaming audience while maintaining the same in-app purchase strategy. Is Battlestone the habit-forming game Zynga wants it to be, or is it as fun as shoveling a load of old cow dung?
Battlestone has much in common with Activision’s Skylanders franchise. Like Skylanders, Battlestone’s selling point is the ability to collect and level up dozens of characters with unique abilities to use in the action-oriented RPG-lite gameplay. Battlestone’s controls are simple and well-tailored for mobile play: tap to run and dodge through fantasy environments, swipe enemies to aim attacks, and press the sole onscreen button to use your special attack.
Battlestone’s missions consist of five different types– you will, among other tasks, defend treasure chests, hunt certain kinds of minions, and duel computer controlled player avatars. If you like the missions on offer, you’re in luck, as you have to repeat each task three times with increasing levels of difficulty before the final boss battle for each area is unlocked. You’ll get about 10 minutes of gameplay from a full energy meter before you’re forced to stop and wait for a refill– or pony up cash for extra energy.
Along the way you’ll find stat-boosting hats and coins you can use to upgrade weapons. Finishing certain objectives nets you the eponymous battlestones, which can be used to summon new heroes of Standard type. If you you like your heroes stronger and more studly you must use gems, which can be purchased with your hard-earned real-world cash: $19.99 snags enough gems for a “Super” and an “Ultimate” hero summon, though we never felt the need to make a purchase.
The visuals are lush and look like a downsized version of World of Warcraft, while the accompanying sounds are joyous “cha-chings” and happy level-up chimes that pleasure the gamer segment of your brain. The production values are of such high quality that it’s a shame the underlying gameplay isn’t as worthwhile. While investing in the Skylanders franchise leaves you with an impressive game to fall back on once the novelty of plastic toys has worn off, Battlestone’s core isn’t very much fun at all. The mission types become gratingly familiar after the first few runthroughs, and they never manage to feel like more than busywork. Character progression is too regimented to be a draw in and of itself, and the lack of context and backstory makes the whole thing seem sort of pointless.
Remove the fun of play and exploration from the action-RPG genre and you’re left with a joyless treadmill. Make no mistake: There is enjoyment to be had in collecting and powering up new heroes, and some will appreciate the colorful visuals and quick hits of action that Battlestone provides. But overall, it’s hard to take more away from this experience than a sense of lost opportunity. Competent but soulless, Battlestone is a prime example of what results when monetization potential triumphs over fun.