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Wot I Think: Sentinels Of The Multiverse

A Superhero CCG for one or more players

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.

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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.

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