Mobile gaming is having a renaissance, however, it’s not the one I anticipated.
In the past, I shared the belief that mobile gaming would eventually become so inherently convenient that it would change the modern gaming landscape in one fell swoop. Speaking in 2018, one look around my bedroom would prove otherwise. On my coffee table lays a Nintendo Switch console recently used to play Dead Cells, on the top of my desk is a gaming PC mostly used for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, in my media cabinet is an Xbox One frequently used for watching television, and in my pocket is an iPhone primarily used for, well, going on Twitter.
Despite the advancements in mobile gaming achieved through smartphones, the Nintendo Switch, and PlayStation Vita, the reality of the current gaming landscape disproves the notion that there will ever be an overarching, “correct” way to experience games. Conversely, the opposite has become true. Earlier this month Mat Piscatella of The NPD Group concluded that approximately 70% of people that own a Nintendo Switch also own a PlayStation 4 or an Xbox One. It’s become more evident than ever that the ubiquitous electronic devices that fill up our lives all have their own distinct uses, offering experiences that are tailor-made for them.
In the midst of this landscape comes Legend of Solgard, a new free-to-play mobile game from Candy Crush publisher King. Developed as Snowprint Studio’s inaugural title, Legends of Solgard serves as a puzzle turn-based strategy game with plenty of RPG elements. Inspired by Nordic folklore, the game puts the player in control of Embla, a descendant of ancient warriors, in her quest to stop Máni, the evil moon god, from triggering Ragnarok, otherwise known as the Norse apocalypse.
Legend of Solgard‘s core gameplay loop starts off pretty simply. Each level begins with enemies coming out of a portal to attack Embla and her squadron of creatures. To win each altercation, players must attack their opponents’ portal and reduce the portal’s hit point count to zero. To launch these attacks, players must manipulate their own different factions by matching three creatures of similar color together vertically on their side of the battlefield. If no enemy or object obstructs the creature’s attack, the player can directly attack the opponent’s portal, reducing the opponent’s hit points. Conversely, if an enemy is in the way of a creature’s attack, that enemy will be weakened or destroyed rather than the opponent’s portal.
Similarly, Embla has her own hit points and is subsequently susceptible to enemy attacks. To avoid losing Embla’s hit points, players must either take out enemy forces or place their own creatures in the path of enemies to absorb incoming attacks. However, you only have a set number of moves per each turn, so you must consider each placement pragmatically.
Building off this simple framework is where Legend of Solgard begins to subvert the expectations of a mobile game. Underneath its cheery veneer of an easy-going match-three puzzle game lies a rigidly tough turn-based strategy game; a game where players continuously have to be aware of their surroundings and consider their next move. Throughout the beginning of the game’s campaign, Legend of Solgard consistently introduces new enemies, each with their own different special abilities. For example, as you progress through the beginning of the game’s campaign, you start to encounter enemies that buff those around them and others that will replicate themselves if not killed in a certain time period.
These special abilities aren’t just reserved for enemies either, the creatures controlled by the player each have their own skills as well. This makes the game less about matching any three factions of a similar color, rather, setting up combinations to attack with the most appropriate faction. Because each creature under your control has different strengths and attack patterns, Legend of Solgard never really asks players to mindlessly rearrange factions, rather, create a stringent attack plan and stick with it.
This is where the game’s RPG elements come in handy–throughout gameplay players will level-up Embla, making her more powerful. Leveling up Embla will increase her hit points, the strength of her spells, the amount of mana (used to cast spells) she earns, as well as her energy (more on this later). Additionally, leveling up Embla also unlocks new abilities, such as the ability to create a protective fence by lining up three creatures horizontally and the ability to withdraw a creature, allowing the creatures behind them to move up.
Similarly, players are also able to level up each of the game’s factions. By cashing in gold and Sun Gems earned through battle, players can make each faction they control more powerful and emphasize their respective special abilities. By acquiring Sun Gems for factions that they don’t have, players can unlock different types of creatures all with their own distinct abilities. Launching with thirty different creatures, Legend of Solgard gives players a massive amount of opportunities to min-max their characters and choose the creatures they see fit for each fight.
While Legend of Solgard‘s genre-fusing gameplay will feel refreshing to capital G gamers, I can’t help but think that the more casual Candy Crush crowd will inevitably fall off the wagon. Despite Snowprint’s commendable effort to hold players’ hands during the first few stages of the campaign, the game inevitably introduces deeper mechanics and more complex strategic elements that may be off-putting to less-seasoned gamers. Throughout my time with Legend of Solgard, I often used my father’s fascination with Candy Crush and other similar mobile games as an impromptu litmus test. Every time the game introduced one of its new mechanics, whether it be a character’s unique ability, mana, or Sun Gems, I kept asking myself, “would my dad continue to play this?”
While I never gave myself a decisive “no” to this rhetorical question, the concern still stands. While Legend of Solgard offers a comprehensive, joyful gaming experience, it also finds itself in the same identity crisis that other mid-core titles find themselves in. Despite being fun and easy to start, Legend of Solgard feels at times like it casts too wide a net. Casual players with less gaming experience will likely find the game’s RPG elements and eventually tough turn-based skirmishes uninviting, while veteran gamers will likely find the game’s mobile nature, complete with different currencies, aesthetically unsavory. While Legend of Solgard certainly has something to offer for everyone, the reverse is also true.
This isn’t as much a critique of Legend of Solgard as it is the mid-core genre. Living in a time where smartphones outnumber the people who grew up playing video games, mid-core titles look to tighten the gap between those who play games and those who consider themselves gamers. And while that effort is valiant on its own merits, it seems odd that the entire mid-core brand is designed around making simple games more complicated, or rather, complicated games more simple. In a world filled with different consoles and gaming devices all offering their own distinct experiences, mid-core titles, on average, tend to blur the lines between mobile and console gaming in a way that often seems ham-fisted, or at the very least, not well thought out.
That being said, in its own unique way, Legend of Solgard’s mid-core style of game design is considerably more palatable than other mobile games. The gameplay loop is repeatedly made satisfying by its own rich complexity; the kind of casual challenge that could only come from a mobile title. The more I play Legend of Solgard and ponder the strengths and weakness of my characters, the different varieties of enemies, and different combinations I have at my disposal, the more I get sucked into it. Despite appearing to an outsider as a simple match-three puzzle game, Legend of Solgard contains the ripe intricacy of a four-dimensional game of chess. Not only do players have to strategically maneuver their factions to attack and defend against their enemy counterparts, they constantly have to focus on the metagame. As each character has its own distinct special ability, the game forces you to contemplate which characters you should utilize during each turn and (later on) which characters you should bring into each fight in general.
Ironically, in this vein, the things I like most about Legend of Solgard are the things that would dissuade more casual players from continuing throughout the game. The game’s RPG-inspired progression system in-tandem with its role-playing turn-based strategy elements breath longevity into each facet of the game. In this regard, tried and true mid-core gamers will feel right at home. For every middle-aged Bubble Witch Saga player that Legend of Solgard may lose due its various mechanics, it will gain just as many die-hard Clash of Clans fans. For every possible critique that one could lobby against the different systems and mechanics working in Legend of Solgard, the game would almost certainly be less fun–or at the very least–less addicting without them.
And if an addicting game is your thing, well, you’re in luck as Legend of Solgard has a staggering amount of content. The game’s campaign launches with four different worlds each containing forty levels, one boss, and one mini-boss. That’s just the game’s campaign mode; the game also includes modes called Treasure Caves, Bounties, Guild Bosses, and Hero Arena. While the Treasure Caves and Bounties just serve as places where you can farm Sun Gems (gems that you use with coins to level up each of your factions), chests, and coins, the Hero Arena introduces PvP to the game. The more players you square-off against and come out victorious, the higher your ranking on the Hero Arena‘s leaderboards will go and the more in-game goodies will be gifted to you. Similarly, the game’s Guild Bosses mode allows you to team up with other players to cooperatively face some of the game’s most challenging bosses in exchange for, you guessed, more in-game goodies.
While Legend of Solgard is filled to the brim with in-game goodies, there’s something to be said about the organic way in which the game handles all of its in-game chests, currencies, and gems. Even though Legend of Solgard contains its fair-share of microtransactions, none of them feel particularly predatory, or for that matter, mandatory. During the time I spent with the game (which was notably pre-launch and possibly tested before the final pricing model has been established), I never once felt compelled to insert my credit card number nor did I ever feel like the game was designed explicitly to elicit money from its gameplay loop. The initial dread of looming microtransactions that loomed over me while I was enjoying Pokemon Quest was noticeably absent during my tenure with Legend of Solgard, and that comfort made the game all the more enjoyable.
Like many free-to-play mobile games, Legend of Solgard uses an energy system to inhibit players’ access to the game. Jumping into each level costs a bit of energy, with the amount of energy needed to spend increases as players progress through the game. Likewise, this remains balanced as Embla is given a higher max energy threshold the more she’s leveled up through play. Simply put, while later levels require more energy, players will have more energy banked due to Embla’s higher level.
Despite having the hallmarks and aesthetic flourishes of a mobile game, Legend of Solgard feels strikingly more comprehensive than other titles that can fit into your pocket. After fighting the game’s first mini-boss, an ice creature that changes locations making him harder to hit, I was kind of amazed at the level of nuance present in the game’s design. At times Legend of Solgard feels more Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle than Bejeweled; it feels like a mobile game that was designed with the dedication of a full-fledged console game. Regardless of the wide net the game casts, it’s clear that anyone who genuinely enjoys playing turn-based strategy games will enjoy something about Legend of Solgard.
For a moment I would like to return back to the image of my bedroom. There’s still my Nintendo Switch, my gaming PC, my Xbox One, and my iPhone. And yes, all of these devices still provide all of their own distinct, unique experiences. Each of these devices still has games that are best suited for it. And yet, after playing Legend of Solgard, I’m forced to re-contextualize my iPhone not as a phone that can play games, but rather, a type of gaming platform in its own right.
Legend of Solgard broadened my definition of what a mobile game could be; it took my expectations of free-to-play games and provided something much grander. While imperfect and likely inaccessible to the most casual of players, Legend of Solgard is an exciting step forward for not only mid-core titles but mobile titles as a whole.
Mobile gaming is having a renaissance, however, it’s not the one I anticipated–it’s much more exciting.
Editor’s Note: To get our hands-on experience of Legend of Solgard, DualShockers’ staff was flown out to Sweden and put up at a hotel by King, the game’s publisher. You’ll read more about that trip in an upcoming article.