App Reviewed on: iPad Pro
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Thronebreaker offers up my preferred way of playing Gwent: alone. For those who don't know, Gwent is a collectible card game that was originally designed as a mini-game for CD Projekt Red's The Witcher series, and it has since spun off into a standalone multiplayer title. Thronebreaker takes this unique mini-game and builds an entire single-player adventure around it where you wander through locations found in The Witcher universe and solve puzzles or fight battles via matches of Gwent. Although it's impressive in scope compared to most other mobile games, this port and the game itself have some nagging problems.
The idea of building a single-player campaign around a card game isn't entirely new, as games like MicroProse's classic PC version of Magic: The Gathering has been kicking around since 1997. While it's true there are a few modern takes on this concept (most notably Spellsword Cards: Demontide on mobile), it still feels like an underexplored niche in games. In this way, Thronebreaker is a welcome surprise. It uses the gameplay of Gwent to tell the story of Meve, queen of Lyria, over a campaign that is full of Game of Thrones-style fantasy intrigue and bloodshed.
Typical of this kind of game, Thronebreaker looks and feels like an isometric role-playing game where you wander an overworld and tap on points of interest. Most of the time, your interactions from this view trigger a match of Gwent, but there are also items you can loot, NPCs you can chat with, and traversal points that trigger narrative sequences that playout via a cutscene to advance the overarching narrative.
House of cards
Thronebreaker is not just a series of typical Gwent matches against AI opponents. In fact, surprisingly few encounters follow its standard three-round structure and instead are bespoke puzzles or combat scenarios that reflect what's happening on Meve's adventure. Some of these allow you to bring your own, custom deck that you build and modify as you unlock or new craft cards, while others give you a pre-set deck and ask you to use those tools to complete a specific objective.
While the variety of these challenges is appreciated, there's no getting around the elephant in the room. Gwent--interesting as it can be--is hard to get too excited about. As much as the game may have grown and evolved since its release, struggles to distance itself from its mini-game roots. Its entire ruleset feels oddly weightless and arbitrary, like someone was trying to reverse engineer depth into something that was never meant to have much. Does that make it a bad game? Not necessarily, but I'm often dreaming of other, better card games that I'd prefer to play in Thronebreaker's format as I load into each match of Gwent.
Folding under pressure
Even if you have different feelings about Gwent, though, this mobile version of Thronebreaker has other technical and design issues that hold it back. Most notably, there were several occasions where menu buttons would be completely unresponsive, forcing me to re-launch the game and load my last checkpoint to continue forward. The game's touch interface while playing Gwent isn't all that great either, as tooltips fail to disappear once you're finished tapping on them, obscuring significant portions of your playfield.
If you aren't plagued by similar bugs (or find it easy to look past them), Thronebreaker still seemingly goes out of its way to waste your time. Meve lumbers across the land at a slow pace and with poor pathfinding, you have to tap and hold on various points of interest to interact with them for no good reason, and restarting matches of Gwent is onerous in that you have to re-load your last save if you feel like you need to modify your deck to win. This last point is particularly irritating since Thronebreaker never gives you a good sense of what you're up against until you're in a match, so a lot of my time with the game had me diving into fights only to realize I should forfeit immediately, re-load my game, modify my deck, and then walk (slowly) back to the encounter just to have my first honest crack at it.
The bottom line
There's always a temptation to reward and praise games that look and feel expensive, and I get it. Thronebreaker boasts production values that outclass most other titles on iOS. I would love to see more games of this scope and aspiration hit the App Store. Unfortunately though, Thronebreaker is a lackluster mobile port with some core design flaws that make it a hard sell. I found myself enjoying Thronebreaker well enough for the spectacle of it, but I wish it was a more technically competent port that used a more robust card game for its action.