Wot I Think: Sentinels Of The Multiverse

I suspect I’m going to spend a lot of time with singleplayer digital card games this year. I want that tactical, long-tail learning play, but too much of my life is currently spent having a midget shout “MILK” or “BANANA” at me to permit joining a local Netrunner group or similar. Also, I think the PC CCG might just be this year’s roguelike, in terms of it being a starting point for all kinds of great ideas, particularly ones which add structure and purpose to a non-competitive singleplayer mode. Sentinels of the Multiverse came out in the dregs of 2014, but I’ve just had a chance to look at this superhero-themed card-battler. Based on an existing dead tree-based card game, it goes full bore for its concept of capes in pitched battle against a super-villain.

I should mention at this point that I’ve never played the original card game, so I’m afraid you’ll need to go shout at someone else if you want to know how this adaptation compares to it. Fellow newbies, fly this way. Oh, and also I’m focusing on the singleplayer mode here, in which I’ve found the AI to offer a staunch enough challenge for my tastes.

Sentinels sees you control a team of heroes, very broad strokes and frankly non-ingenious super-folk based on clear archetypes both from comics and MMOs, facing off against a lone villain. Every fight is a boss fight, in other words, and in my experience so far takes around an hour, sometimes more. Every match is replete with touchstone Final Battle To Save The World tropes – tide-turning equipment, dramatic comebacks, one…last…chance, even down to an apparently defeated villain instead adopting an even more powerful form for a final throwdown.

It can be played co-operatively, with each player controlling one hero (in teams of three to five), and I suspect that makes for brilliantly rambunctious meatspace play, but I’ve only played the PC version solo. That means that, in each round, I get three to five turns, depending how many heroes I’ve put in my team, the villain gets one, and the environment gets one. The latter’s no less trope-tastic than the rest of it – stuff like oxygen leaks if you’re on a space base, crashing monorails if you’re in a city, dinosaur attacks if you’re in the prehistoric setting. These can mess things up for the villain as much as they can the heroes, but let’s face it, it’s rarely good news to leave lava flowing or deadly space dust blowing into the room.

The thing about Sentinels of the Multiverse is that it’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen each turn. There’s so much going on, a table that’s full of cards one minute can suddenly be emptied the next, or an apparent winning streak can suddenly transform into your squad being brutalised by a half-dozen different sources of damage-over-time. It’s a profoundly asymmetrical game, with the villain able to play ultra-cards which seem frankly unfair without warning. But it’s not unfair: I’m still learning the ropes, but it’s clear that this is a game which has worked hard to bring balance to what outwardly appears to be lopsided mayhem.

The villains might get the biggest toys, but with the right thinking my guys can win a war of attrition. Some heroes are damaged-focused, some provided defence and healing to the rest of the team, some are designed to manipulate the villain’s deck, but all of them work best in tandem with their beefy colleagues. Careful chains of combinations can lead to huge pay-offs come the next turn, just so long as either villain or environment doesn’t do something that causes everything you have in play to disappear. They usually do, though. The life of hero is never easy.

There’s a hell of a lot to learn, and it can’t be learned fast. As in early bouts of Hearthstone, you’ll gradually stockpile memories of what happens when X meets Y then bring them to bear in another battle, later on. The simple act of dealing damage is just a tiny part of things: what you really need to do is build up and up across several turns and several characters, while micro-managing what stays on and goes from the playing field as a whole. This is not some throwaway ‘it’s a card game with superheroes lol’ nonsense, but a deep and thoughtful strategic battler.

So I very much admire what Sentinels does, but I’m not quite so keen on how it does it. For one thing, it looks kind of horrible. It’s a lowest common denominator homage to comic heroes, short on invention or wit, stuck straddling an uninspiring fence between straightforward remixing of DC and Marvel characters and lampooning them. The art style I found to be bland and seemingly kid-orientated, given the rules imply a game very much aimed at patient grown-ups, but then in theme it’s not at all playing with post-modern, filmic or grimdark superheroes. This is the lightest of Silver Age touches, but without the fidelity or personality of City of Heroes.

Sentinel’s a bit of a mess in terms of presentation too, trying to ape panel and page structures but winding up with too much information scattered all over the place and a deficit of neatness or flow. Maybe I’ve just spent too much time listening to Kieron talk about grids, but one thing Sentinels doesn’t manage to do despite borrowing so many elements is ‘read’ anything like a comic. It doesn’t take too long to get a handle on things, but the visual setup of the game never quite right to me. On the other hand, all credit to Sentinels for fully embracing its theme, rather than simply going for the pretend cards on a pretend table style. This is all full-bleed backdrops, a faux-battle rather than a faux-tabletop.

It’s also infuriatingly slow-paced at times. A regular event in the game is having to discard cards, and when you’re one player in charge of five heroes that takes an age, partly due to the necessary deck-browsing, partly because of the pace of on-screen prompts and the quantity of clicking required. I’m sure it’s less frustrating when you’re one player amongst several, so you only need to worry about one hero’s deck, but Sentinels really could do with a few more ‘OK, just do it all for me’ buttons.

Sometimes, when an effect is doing bad stuff to multiple characters, that option is there; other times you have to, for instance, manually discard equipment cards one by one even though the effect dictates that all equipment cards must be discarded. Again, partly the slowness is down to the inherent and intended nature of the game – battles are meant to be a long haul – but partly it’s just the UI getting in the way. I should restate one more for the record, m’lud, that I am only talking about this from a singleplayer point of view. With a bunch of mates on voicechat, screaming ‘oh God no, what do I do what do I do?’ it may well feel less protracted.

Presentation issues aside, Sentinels of the Multiverse is an ingenious, tactically deep take on card games that does a good job of recreating those preposterous, issues-long mega-scraps of superhero comics at their best/worst. I don’t love how it looks or feels, but I do want more of what it does.

Sentinels of the Multiverse is out now.

27 Comments

  1. draglikepull says:

    On the topic of the single-player CCG, did anyone play Baten Kaitos on the Gamecube? It was a typical JRPG in structure, but the combat played out as a card game. Each character in your party (and each of your opponents) had their own deck which was constructed of the various attacks, spells, and items at their disposal. There was a combo system that allowed you to chain attacks together, so even though the draws were random, there was motivation to try and plan your turns ahead to some degree.

    As you went through the game, you built your card collection by buying more cards from the stores in the game, as well as from random enemy drops, so there was a solid deck-building element that evolved over the course of the game.

    Man, now I kind of want to hook up my Gamecube and play it again.

    • RuySan says:

      I played it many years ago but left it unfinished. Don’t remember exactly why, probably to do with the inane plots that are prevalent in jRPG’s

    • SpinalJack says:

      I had that game but never finished it because the fighting was so boring and tedious, same as the plot. The graphics were nice though.

    • Koozer says:

      Ever play Lost Kingdoms? You similarly ran around JRPG land with a deck collecting cards and battling, but each card would come to life and beat up dragons and sentient toasters in real time while the player ran away. Combos were possible too, my favourite being a barnacle monster orbiting a spinning whip monster orbiting a steamroller thing orbiting the player, because it looked silly.

      I wish there were more games that replicated the collectathon and deck building elements of card games.

    • Arathain says:

      I loved Baten Kaitos in concept, but I found the execution dull. The cards were mostly just attacks to do damage, armour to mitigate it and food to heal. The combo system was just playing stuff in order of some arbitrary number on each card.

      The joy of using cards is that any given card can have its own twist on the rules, and the way those different concepts play off each other. None of that was present in Baten Kaitos. The game also suffered from unlikable characters. Pretty, though.

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      Heh. Yes I played that and I enjoyed it a lot. I remember that it felt enormously satisfying to build a good deck and then pull off a long, chained attack against a powerful enemy. This also helped a bit with one problem many JRPGs have: it’s cool to see your heroes perform their ludicrous Sword of Ultimate Cosmic Power attack for the first time, but to watch the animation the twentieth time tends to be pretty boring. In Baten Kaitos this problem was not so severe, because that kind of attack was only possible at the end of a long chain attack, and those didn’t happen that often.

      I also enjoyed the plot and the characters, and that inventory based puzzle system was at least interesting (though a bit tedious, I think). I still didn’t finish it (I maybe got through half-way), but not because I didn’t want to, but because the borrowed Gamecube I was playing it on died. I always wanted to finish it, but the owner of the broken Gamecube (and the game) didn’t buy a new one and then moved away.

  2. Melody says:

    Alec, even though your experience concerns the SIngle Player, it may be useful to point out that there is no online multiplayer at the moment, only local Co-op. So, “no mates screaming in voicechat” scenario.
    Which really killed most of the interest I may have had.

  3. JB says:

    They’ve recently said that online multiplayer will only be done once the first expansions are out (as per the physical card game, there will be large expansions (Infernal Relics, Rook City, etc) and mini-expansions (Unity, Ambuscade, and so on)) as it’s much more of a task than cranking out more decks. I’ve played the digital version a good few times recently, both solo and with other players, and I think I might actually prefer it to the card version, in the most part because there’s no messing around with tokens.

    As for the animation speeds, there are sliders in the options, though I have mine set to a fairly slow speed usually so I can’t vouch for how speedy it is if you crank up the slider.

    Also, it’s improving with every update, already they’ve adjusted it so that if all heroes are due to regain HP, they will just regain it automatically by default. So we’re getting there.

  4. Hex says:

    Why are all the heroes’ eyeballs stuck to the right corner of their eyes? Are they literally facing the player during the entire battle, and sort of sidelong-glancing at the villain on the left side of the screen?

    Also, CCGs are dumb and people that like them obviously make terrible decisions.

    • JB says:

      Re: Eyeballs – It’s the villain’s turn during those screenshots. When it’s a hero’s turn, they’ll be the big picture on the left side of the screen

    • LionsPhil says:

      It’s shallow but, man, is that art iffy webcomic-grade. Samefaces galore, and where’s the top of her head?

    • Hallgrim says:

      >Also, CCGs are dumb and people that like them obviously make terrible decisions.

      This isn’t a CCG. There are some limited promo’s that are variants of the hero charaters, but aside from that there is no collectible element to the game.

      I actually didn’t like the digital version of this when I played a few rounds of it on my tablet, but it is one of my favorite “lets hang out and work together” board games.

  5. Morph says:

    I’m a big fan of the board game, of which this is a pretty faithful reproduction, but maybe mostly because it’s co-operative so you can have fun with your friends while being super heroes.

    Having played the ios version I agree with Alec, it’s a little off being great, as a number of things that take no time at all in the physical game slow down the computer version. But still it’s decent fun.

  6. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I played the physical version of this a bit (two games). It sounds like this is pretty much the same game, with the same mechanics and artwork, just on PC.

    The physical version is good fun, and I’d play it again if I had the opportunity. It did seem to be kind of easy, though. We fought Citizen Dawn in the first game and the mad scientist guy (Baron something) after that and we struggled only a little bit against Dawn (which is the second hardest villain the base game has, I think) and pretty much mopped the floor with the Baron.

    I did like the art and the character design a lot more than Mr Meer. It’s a bit generic, yes, but I think the characters and villains have a certain charm. It might have helped that I found my favorite hero immediately, and that she had quotes on each of her cards that were very enjoyable to shout. FANATIC, the angelic paladin. “I swear on all that is holy, YOU SHALL FALL!”

    • puffinmcpuffs says:

      The villains have different difficulties. Baron and Dawn are amongst the easiest. The villain difficulty also greatly varies with the hero composition. Playing against Baron and playing against (e.g.) the Chairman or Iron Legacy feels like two completely different games. The Baron is good to get to know the game and learn the characters, but trying to win against the Chairman will require players who know which characters to play and also a good portion of luck, as always in SotMV.

      Sentinels is sometimes inherently unbalanced/unfair. But that’s part of the design. Sometimes you have bad luck and get wiped in a few turns, sometimes you manage a big comeback, sometimes you wipe the floor with the villain. There is so much that can happen, and that’s one of the great things about it. The fear I currently have is that the digital adaptation might not be able to carry over this “real world coop experience” and fall short because of this.

      • Premium User Badge

        Bluerps says:

        That’s good to know! Like I said, I played only two games (and the person who owned the game only had the base game), so my experience is limited.

        • Ergonomic Cat says:

          Additionally, each villain has an advanced version which powers up their abilities. Typically it just makes them better at what they do, or raises your thresholds, but it can make a huge difference. Citizen Dawn is reasonably easy on regular but amazingly difficult for me on advanced.

          That being said, eventually you can pretty routinely beat any of the villians with your preferred set of heroes, but I think that too is consistent with the original game.

      • Caelyn Ellis says:

        Sentinels is one of the go-to games in my house at the moment. I think we have everything published now. I do love how completely one-sided it can be at times. My favourite was a combination of a volcano environment card doing ridiculous amounts of fire damage every turn and Ra’s ability to make the entire team immune to fire damage. I can’t remember which villain it was, but it was one that relied on lots of minions, which just got taken out by the volcano.

  7. malkav11 says:

    Sentinels of the Multiverse is one of my favorite tabletop games, hands down, and once this has online multiplayer I very much look forward to introducing some of my internet friends to it.

    Please note: a couple of people have talked about it like it is a CCG. It is not. It is 100% not collectible, and there is no deckbuilding. That’s one of my favorite parts, frankly. What I enjoy about CCGs is playing tuned, thematic, combo-ridden decks. I don’t like constructing decks that may or may not wind up fitting that description (much less the amount of prepwork that that entails), and I like buying sets of random cards even less. With Sentinels, you get a box with a certain number of hero characters, a certain number of villains, and a certain number of environments, each of which is represented by an individualized, highly thematic and purpose-built deck. So you just pick which decks are in play and go. Much, much nicer.

  8. Ergonomic Cat says:

    Also, for people struggling – the best quote I’ve heard about Sentinels team selection is “Legacy is the MSG of the Sentinels. He makes everything better.”

    Unless you’re actively trying a different team, I’d say start by picking Legacy, and then go from there. I also like to put him first, just so you can get the benefit of his +1 damage for the initial “clear out all the horrible things the villain did to start” phase.

    My preferred team is usually Legacy, a damage dealer (Ra, Tachyon, Ice/Fire guy (never play him)), Fanatic (because I adore Fanatic), an AoE/tricksy hero (Wraith, Tempest, Haka, Bunker) and then a control type hero (Visionary, Wraith).

    • likefunbutnot says:

      I own all the sets and I play the game pretty regularly, but I had no idea there were even plans for a PC version.
      The game in general DOES have statistical outcomes that can be modeled easily and that experienced players can often intuit; after enough rounds with everyone’s favorite heroes the interactions will be sufficiently well defined that actual play will lose some luster. For this reason, it’s not a bad idea to involve a randomizer for selection of the hero, villain and environment once everyone is comfortable with basic concepts and mechanics.

      It really should be stressed that this is not a CCG. Buying SotM means getting complete sets of cards. There are more card sets, but there’s no random element associated with opening a box or card set.

      @Ergonomic Cat:
      Legacy + Omnidroid-X (who probably isn’t in the PC game yet) + Wraith + Tempest is pretty much god mode for SotM. You’ll win about 85% of the time with that team composition unless you get DEEPLY hosed by villain mechanics. That’s the most typical line up for a new villain in-game among the tabletop group I play with.

      Legacy, Haka, Ra and Wraith are all good introductory characters because they have simple mechanics. Absolute Zero is easily the hardest hero in the basic set to play because of all the cards needed to make his abilities work. Everyone I play with hates Bunker because his turns so often turn into “I draw three cards. Can somebody heal me?”

      • Caelyn Ellis says:

        Huh, I enjoy Bunker. I like the way he builds up until you eventually drop into turret mode and laugh maniacally as you blow everything up. It’s highly satisfying.

        • JB says:

          Yeah, I’ve always found Bunker to be fun, whether I’m playing him or someone else is. Flak Cannon, Grenade Launcher, and Turret Mode is a barrel of laughs for the hero team. Less so for the villains.

  9. Monggerel says:

    Uh… “Time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we burn.” ?
    Wait.
    That’s Multiversity.

  10. HauntedQuiche says:

    “The art style I found to be bland and seemingly kid-orientated, given the rules imply a game very much aimed at patient grown-ups, but then in theme it’s not at all playing with post-modern, filmic or grimdark superheroes.”

    ….Yeah, I don’t agree with this at all. No, the art-style isn’t the horrific grim-dark dullness that comics have tended towards in recent decades, but I would hardly consider this a bad thing. I certainly wouldn’t consider it ‘kid-orientated’. (Unless of course you are the sort of person that thinks ‘it isn’t brown’ means it’s aimed at the under-12s.)

    Is the art style cheesy and ridiculous? Yes, of course it is. That’s the point. However, that doesn’t mean the art is bland and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s aimed at children.

  11. Lyrion says:

    What I wonder is if you buy the game, do you get all the heroes? Or do you need to win a few games to unlock some?

    • malkav11 says:

      You get all the decks that come in the base set, far as I know. The expansions haven’t been implemented yet but will probably be DLC. I’ve heard that the promo versions of heroes are implemented but there’s some mysterious process for unlocking them that no one quite knew how to do, though I can’t confirm this. When I say “promo version”, the only difference from a gameplay perspective is the starting character card, which might have slightly different HP, will have different art, and a different base power (and different incapacitated powers on the back). It actually changes how the deck plays quite a bit, though.