This review is based on the iPhone version of Clash Royale.
Games focused on fast experiences with a persistent item collection are dominating mobile gaming, a format led by a wave of mobile exclusive developers that includes Finnish studio Supercell. Clash Royale is a real time arena combat game set in the universe of Clash of Clans, one of the most financially successful games ever released and a genuine cultural phenomenon that has included a Super Bowl commercial and its own convention for hardcore fans.
Each match lasts for 3 minutes and tacks on an additional 60 seconds of overtime if needed, keeping it deliberately short to reward attacking and discourage defensive turtle tactics. Combatants fight along a pair of paths that each lead to an arena tower backed by a stronger king’s tower, with the winner determined by either destroying the opponent’s king tower or a lead in crowns when time runs out. Units, buildings and spells can be played for varying elixir costs which then automatically determine where to move and what to attack; the player input is limited to selection and placement of cards in each match. The unit AI generally snaps to a left or right lane but ambitious gamers can aggressively target the central king tower with cards like the Goblin Barrel which contains 3 stab happy goblins inside, a punishing Rocket or other airborne attack options without placement restrictions. Clash Royale really shines when the combatants have enough game knowledge and tactical options in their battle deck to push and pull the game in ways that the game may not have intended.
All of this is bundled together in a bright and attractive visual presentation with the art style and audio aesthetic of the Clash of Clans source material. Card selection and placement is very responsive, recognizing quick taps of cards or in-game messages immediately and providing a ghosted card placement/attack range overlay that is useful for planning out armada formations and drawing enemy aggression as the match unfolds.
Unfortunately, the game has a couple of significant flaws that keep it from being universally fun. First and foremost is a matchmaking system that skews heavily in favour of one side for almost every game; the difference in king level, card level and current trophies results in imbalanced blowout matches that are dissatisfying to win and frustrating to lose. The discrepancy has gotten worse since the game launched worldwide a few weeks ago as it buckles under the influx of new free to play and heavy spending players alike, exacerbating the logical flaws in their algorithm; this is an addressable problem for a studio with significant multiplayer experience, but they need to fix this quickly.
The game has also shown an early trend of rewarding gamers who spend significant amounts of real money to get the latest and greatest cards as they are added to Clash Royale. Newly introduced legendary cards such as the Ice Wizard and Princess have dominant splash/range impact on matches and an accompanying high rarity in finding them among free chests, providing a significant advantage to the colloquially nicknamed “gemmers” who spend a lot of real world currency to purchase paid chests en masse to add these weapons to their collection. It isn’t a surprise for a free to play game to reward gamers willing to spend lots of real dollars for immediate results, but the economics would benefit from a readjustment to keep common and rare units viable.
Clash Royale is going to be an ever evolving experience as the studio periodically adds new cards, revises existing cards and makes other changes that keeps the game enticing as an arena combat platform for players around the world. Supercell has set up a unit creation model across games that resembles the workflow created by Blizzard Entertainment, adding units to their Clash games either simultaneously or sequentially to keep players invested in their larger fictional universe.
There is a real art in learning when to poke at towers with low elixir units such as Spear Goblins, drawing out splash damage spells to set up counter attacks, unit drop positioning and much more in the quest to accumulate ranking trophies and earn glory for your clan. I can live with the occasional matchmaking and paid to play imbalances to get my regular fix of fast, aggressive combat in a game that I still find as compelling as the day it debuted.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars