App Reviewed on: iPhone XR
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Cards! - MonkeyBox 2 is the second installment in the experimental game series by TheCodingMonkeys. Where their first entry, Polarized, was an adventure game that asked you to take photos with your phone's camera to solve puzzles, Cards! doesn't do any sort of mixed reality gimmicks. Instead, it's a minimalistic, card-based adventure about experimentation and discovery, and it's pretty delightful for what it is.
Cards! is like a choose-your-own adventure game, but managed through a deck of cards. The way this works is that there's always a card face-up representing something that is currently happening, with a few cards right underneath that you can play to choose how to respond to the situation. An early example of this is a depiction of an arrow from a booby trap flying at your character and you can choose between three cards to jump, duck, or try to catch the arrow with your hand.
As you string together these decisions, a story starts to unfold, though it's both straightforward and confusing, as it's told entirely through illustrations and focuses mostly on journeying between different kinds of environments. It seems the core of the story revolves around uncovering the mystery at the top of a mountain, but you're also invested in finding your lost cat.
Shuffle things up
As you learn quickly in Cards!, there is a specific set of cards the game wants you to play to gain access to new areas. The most obvious indication of misplays is your character dying by anything from falling off cliffs to having a monkey pelt you to death with coconuts. There are other times though--particularly in the midsection of Cards!--where you can get caught in strange loops where you arrive at the right place with the wrong cards in-hand to keep moving forward, which might force you back to an earlier point to try again.
Luckily, Cards! isn't so by-the-numbers in its puzzle-solving or storytelling that you need to simply memorize what cards to play when. In some areas, you only have to solve some puzzles once, so that if you die or loop back across them, you just skip ahead past them. Upon death, you are also granted the ability to choose item cards to bring along with you, which can do things like unlock doors you didn't have access to previously or otherwise let you circumvent the default progression laid out by the game.
Skip to the end
In the end, Cards! is mostly a guessing game. Even though it gives some visual indication on cards as to what you should do, you can't entirely predict what any of them will actually do in a particular situation until you try them out. Luckily, TheCodingMonkeys planned smartly around trial-and-error, making it quick and easy to get back on the right track if you meet your demise. There are also some secret offshoot paths you can find if you play bonus cards in the right areas, which adds somewhat to the game's replayability.
Cards! is split into eight chapters, and none of them take more than a couple of minutes to get through if you know what you are doing. With the cards doing all the storytelling, you don't have to wait for any dialog or animations (beyond snappy card flips) before being able to make your next step forward. This small scope might put folks off, but I definitely found myself perusing certain chapters for up to hour, trying to find hidden secrets or learn exactly how its particular puzzle progression was supposed to work. In this sense, Cards! feels almost like a puzzle box or something, where learning its tricks suddenly lets you assemble and disassemble it with ease, while leaving those unfamiliar scratching their heads.
The bottom line
I didn't have much confidence heading into Cards! after feeling disappointed with Polarized!, but this second experiment from TheCodingMonkeys is a surprising success. It takes a lot of the headaches that come from trial-and-error gameplay and turns them into fun surprises, all while keeping things focused, fast, and easy.