updated 02:25 pm EDT, Sat July 5, 2014
Non-collectible card-game arcade fighting game spans genres, fan bases
Apple's iOS and other mobile platforms have occasionally been criticized for offering relatively few "deep" gaming experiences, with simplified versions of complex titles being big movers. The iPad came into its own about six months after its release with titles such as Ticket to Ride and other board game adaptations, with a bevy of other releases following. Card games, mostly of the collectible variety, are popular -- with the recently-released Hearthstone by Blizzard taking top honors. But what about deep card games without a collectible mechanic? Game designer David Sirlin has released Yomi, a genre-spanning card-based game, drawing on arcade fighting games like Street Fighter II and the like for inspiration. Does Yomi live up to its promises of a deep, strategic experience, without "pay to win" being a factor?
Discussion of Yomi really needs to start with a look at the game designer. Sirlin's got some game design chops -- he was the lead designer responsible for Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, a remake of the near-legendary Super Street Fighter II Turbo. He designed the online card game Kongai for Kongregate. More recently, Sirlin has been involved in the design and production of his own line of card games, of which Yomi is one of three. So, this is not the effort of a new developer trying to reinvent the wheel or stretch too far with lofty gameplay ideas and goals.
Yomi itself has been available in dead-tree format for a few years now. The game features asymmetric (but highly balanced) gameplay, and makes use of cards with multiple options. The rules for the game are here, and we found it very helpful to have this handy during the tutorial, as we are getting beyond the card-game demographic age and not quite as mentally agile for understanding rules as we used to be.
The iPad app takes up about 291MB of space. In comparison, Catan HD occupies 668MB, and Angry Birds fills 455MB. It requires an iPad 2, or iPad Mini or greater, and we've found that ideally, a Retina display iPad is best for reading small card text pre-play -- but the text does expand when the card is selected, so a Retina display is just helpful rather than mandatory.
Play begins with players picking the character they wish to use -- this is far more than cosmetics, as each character's 54-card deck is different. All the fighting game archetypes are here, from nimble players with lightly damaging attacks, to slow "tanks" with greatly punishing blows.
Each player is dealt a hand, which is shown to the player at the bottom of the screen. Players then choose a card whose effects vary based on the orientation of the card, and the effects of the both players' cards are compared to see who "wins" the turn, and how the rest of the turn will proceed.
Play follows a rock-paper-scissors dynamic, with attacks beating blocks, grapples and throws beating blocks, and attacks beating throws. Moves have a speed as well, so with all other factors being equal, such as attack-on-attack, the faster move wins the day. A successful attacker (or grappler) then has the opportunity to generate combos -- this depends on the hands that the player holds.
At first, our play-testing panel believed the game to be totally random. As in console-fighting games, you can "button mash" (in Yomi's case, play random cards) and hope for a victory. However, after a few hours in battle, we found that the initial impression of victory being left to chance not actually the case.
The key to Yomi is knowing what the characters locked in battle are capable of, and predicting what your opponent will do, based on the strengths of the players involved. Furthermore, planning a hand as you go through the game, thinking of a combo that can be delivered to the enemy helps as well. This is what seperates the beginning players from the experts -- a desire to learn and figure out what works in what case, just like an arcade fighting game.
We really, really recommend going through the tutorial at least once. Twice is better. The game is very deep, and a few of our testers were lulled into a false sense of iPad simplicity, assuming that since the title was on the device, it wasn't that deep or strategically complex. Consequently, these people got severely trounced by our players that had a better feel for the game.
If you're not feeling like battling against human opponents, the game does allow matches against the AI. We found the game's matchmaking service to be excellent, and iPad users can also battle against web-based players. As a nice feature, the game allows single-player practice matches against the iPad while you while you wait for a match.
Technically, we have no issues with the game. The touch interface is responsive and clearly designed with the iPad in mind. Tapping a card zooms into the card text, making the ridiculous wealth of data on the card fully legible even for older eyes. Changing the orientation of a card, and as such, the effect it will have on the combat is a simple swipe.
We tried Yomi on both an iPad Air and first-generation iPad Mini, and had no issues with crashing or slow performance, unlike issues we continue to have on the Mini with Hearthstone. Graphics are crisp and mostly representational, and done in a consistent anime-esque style, appropriate for the flavor of the game.
In a previous article, we assessed the value of an iPad's board game version to the "real life" counterpart, and we'll do that here as well. A $100 bill gets you the traditional Yomi with decks for 10 characters in the material world, with a print-to-play version available for $4 per deck, or $12 per physical deck, with one deck required per player. The rules are available for free, as we previously mentioned. The iPad version, on the other hand, is mercifully (and wisely, in our opinion) bereft of nickel-and dime in-app purchases, and runs $10, with a single $10 purchase unlocking the 10 additional characters for total possible outlay $20.
Yomi is complex. Its not a $1 impulse buy to give you a few minutes of distraction flying a bird through Mario-esque tubes. At the time of this writing, Sirlin Games is running a well-supported Kickstarter campaign for a new production run of Yomi, and the Unity-based web browser version of the game allows a few more characters to be played for free. If you're on the fence about the game, hitting the web demo for a while is the best way to get a feel for gameplay specifics that are hard to address in an iPad app review.
More finicky gamers might be upset a lack of a "story mode" or campaign. The lack of either isn't a problem, however. The game focuses on strategy and the thoughtful execution of moves in a balanced environment, something often overlooked for cosmetics or other concerns. The game isn't for "button mashers." If you play randomly, you will lose. The key to enjoying the game is taking a little time out of a busy day to figure out the mathematics and execution of the (non-collectible) deck mechanic.
Who is Yomi for: thoughtful fans of console, strategy, or arcade-fighting games.
Who is Yomi not for: gamers looking to kill five minutes, or those unwilling to give the game some brain power.