MMObility: Elemental Kingdoms is almost a unique game

Elemental Kingdoms screenshot
We've all had our share of trading card games. It's a popular genre, and there are always new titles popping up. Frankly, it's hard to tell many of them apart. That's sort of the point, I guess. The fact is that the basic design is so successful because it can be so fun to play with. Tweak the formula a little bit and you might have a very fun game that is easy to get into yet hard to master.

It's also possible that you'll have yet another boring trading card game. I tried Perfect World's Elemental Kingdoms this week and found a very familiar title that sits a bit apart from the rest of the pack but still has plenty of issues. It attempts to be too many games at once and still does not go far enough as it's asking you to gather cards, craft decks, enhance cards, and fight enemies.

Elemental Kingdoms screenshot
The first thing that might throw you off a bit is how small your deck of cards is. Instead of toting around massive stacks of cards that seem to never end, you might go into battle with five or so cards. What this means is that each card has much more significance in the battle. Choose the right card or deck combination and you can win the fight easily. Pick the wrong ones and you'll be in for a drawn-out defeat. There are several maps that you will fight through in a linear series of battles. It's mostly easy stuff, at least at first, but it does become challenging relatively quickly.

Using cards is basic stuff. You'll pull one out of your deck, and it has to rest there until a counter is up. Once that counter ticks down, the card can be placed on the field. If you're used to "casting sickness" or something similar, the mechanic will be no surprise. It's a bit more urgent in a game with so few cards on the field at once, though. The object is, of course, to exhaust all of your enemy's cards or to take his life down to zero. I won battles using both methods, so I can't really say which is easier. I like the fact that the smaller number of cards makes everything more urgent from the beginning.

There's not much else to combat other than laying down a card. You pick one out, lay it down, and watch it go to work. Even the healer card I used would heal and attack automatically. You can also use an auto-fight option that will literally fight your battles for you. I've seen a lot of different mechanics and payment (or non-payment, I should say) models come over the last few years, and the "auto-fight" mechanic seems to have slipped by mostly unnoticed. It doesn't bother me; in a good MMORTS, for example, it's essentially an auto-fight mechanic. You build your army and smash it against another one. You are essentially fighting stats versus stats.

Elemental Kingdoms screenshot
The only problem I have with an auto fight mechanic is when it creates an excuse to grind. I have played MMOs that have a literal botting mechanic built into them, to allow players to get away from the game while their character does the work. Again, it doesn't insult me or make me angry as it seems to other players, and in fact I like the option for those players who cannot physically play the game the way I can.

Elemental Kingdoms' auto-fight mechanic feels at first as if it is going to play the entire game for you. For the first dozen fights, I literally pushed "auto" while I played another game. I would look down, see that I won, and click on the next one while ignoring all of the quest text. Sure, I could have read it all and fought all of the battles, but I didn't feel compelled to. Not at first, at least.

In hindsight, I think the auto-fighting period feels more like a training session. Things became more difficult over time, and I had to start paying attention to what I was doing. Thankfully the turns were not timed (I hate timers on turn-based games), so I could decide which cards to level up and which ones to bring into battle with me.

There are some neat city-building elements to contend with as well, but you cannot touch them until you have played a lot, the last one unlocking at around level 21. There's a strange energy mechanic that makes everything slow enough, but when you add in the tease of an empty building slot on your map, things start to drag pretty quick.

Elemental Kingdoms screenshot
I like the smaller decks in this game. I also appreciate the emphasis on individual cards and leveling up. I paid more attention to the deck in this game than in most. I also liked the fact that the enemy AI isn't just plain stupid and the fact that the turns are not timed. I did not like the grind, the early auto-fight, the forgettable story, the completely sexist artwork, and the normally harmless energy mechanic that is just not tweaked right.

If Perfect World could fix a few keys mechanics, like the emphasis on repeating certain fights, and would allow a bit of city interaction from the beginning, Elemental Kingdoms would feel like a much better TCG. As it is right now, I cannot really tell it from the rest of the pack. You can play it on iOS now.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

This article was originally published on Massively.