Charming pixel art, cute fantasy pirate character designs and a toe-tapping soundtrack (courtesy of prolific synth maestros Fat Bard) can’t entirely carry a game, but they sure help make new Early Access debut Cross Blitz stand out from the rest of the card-battler crowd. A good thing, as without its (deeply) likable aesthetics, it doesn’t do much to stand out conceptually, despite being a well-engineered game so far.
Mechanically, Cross Blitz is about 70% Hearthstone, 30% Inscryption. You’ve got the familiar small-deck card combat of Hearthstone with interesting character powers, a mana cap that raises by one for both players each turn and quite fast-paced, swingy combat where matches can easily end before bigger cards come into play.
On the Inscryption side of things, you’ve got simplified, automated combat that takes place on a four-by-four grid. When you end your turn, any creature cards you have placed on your side of the board will take a swing at what’s directly in front of them, whether it’s a good idea to or not. Also similar to the spooky deckbuilder, there’s also a challenging roguelike mode with meta-progression and a variety of environments to plunder, peppered with interesting multi-choice events to add a little spice between battles as you expand your meager handful of starting cards and discard unwanted ones in traditional deckbuilding format.
That roguelike mode—Tusk Tales—is only half of the game, though. The other half is a series of story-driven campaigns with much more RPG-like progression. Starting with a full basic deck, you travel around a series of (beautifully animated) hex-grid vignettes, meeting weird new people to beat up and reappropriate their funds, plus junk to purchase build-defining artifacts and exotic cards to swap into your deck as needed. The mainstay cards that most define each of a character’s play-styles (four per hero) are your reward for gaining experience levels, although you can pick which order to unlock skill lines in, and respec at will.
These stories encourage rebuilding your deck to counter each opponent and their unique perks. One early encounter against a fairy assassin has her deal one automatic damage to each creature you summon, and if your deck is full of expendable pirate grunts with only one health, it can turn into a frustrating slog as they die immediately when played. Bench those liabilities for the duration of the battle and you can steamroll her in just a few turns. Each battle is also replayable and has several bonus objectives for extra money, giving the story mode a bit of a puzzle-esque spin, and make it stand out from Tusk Tales.
While familiar, the basic card battling is easy to jump into if you’ve played any of its inspirations. The current campaigns are a good few hours long each, both providing some basic dialogue choices and twists along the way, and I’m a sucker for magical pirates so that’s another few points in its favor. The roguelike mode seems to be where the real long-term enjoyment lies, though, shifting the strategy away from endurance and into quick kills, as you might need to make your health pool last across several battles between healing.
While you can easily get a solid 15+ hours of enjoyment out of the current Early Access version of Cross Blitz, what’s available now is only around a third of the planned final game. What you get currently are two of six planned story campaigns (one for each of the five main characters, plus a final scenario tying them together), and five of twenty planned characters (split across five broad class archetypes ala Hearthstone) for the Tusk Tales roguelike mode, with a limited slice of locations and quests to tackle there.
Most surprisingly, Cross Blitz currently has no multiplayer functionality at all. This is a single-player only experience at present, although that may change in time. The developers reckon that it’ll be over a year until it graduates out of Early Access, so there’s still a lot of time for things to change and expand.
The aspect I’d like to see improved first is the pacing of the game. The sprite-work and UI animation are fantastic and juiced up to the nines, with everything bouncing, wiggling, or sliding around to emphasize actions. Unfortunately, every animation has to play out in its entirety every single turn, making it feel a little slower and clunkier to play than it should. A button to fast-forward or skip animations would go a long way to improving the overall feel, and would get me jumping back into another round of Tusk Tales without hesitation.
There’s a lot to like about Cross Blitz as it stands. Two beefy single-player modes, good variety in the characters (there’s a world of difference between stacking the board with a broadside of pirate cannons versus a magical pop-star overwhelming the enemy with endlessly respawning groupies), some genuinely great music and beautiful art. It’s a crowded genre, though, so whether it’s worth the money at present hinges on how much the aesthetics speak to you. There’s a long nautical voyage out of early access ahead of this one, and I hope they’ve packed enough limes.