I don’t know why Pocket Paragons exists. The two player dueling card game is an exceptionally crowded space, even if you exclude the CCG behemoths. I remember going to BostonFIG a couple of years ago and every other game was some variation on this dynamic. I wanted to ask each of them if they thought their game stood a chance against Magic: the Gathering because they were so obviously trying to directly compete with it.
Okay, but Pocket Paragons is trying to bank on portability; it’s right there in the title. I’ve got 6 different characters in my review kit, which is the minimum number needed to play what I’d consider the “real” game. It’s about the size of a regular deck of cards. That’s small enough to fit my conception of portable, but nearly every Button Shy game I’ve ever played has more depth than Pocket Paragons and they fill up a third of the volume.
Even if I narrow the space down to portable 2-player combat games based on existing properties, Level 99’s Exceed system does everything Pocket Paragons is trying to do but better. In fact, the system feels like a homage to Talton Jr’s fighting game, like an Exceed pocket edition.
However, Exceed has enough breathing room to actually evoke the fighting video games that inspired it. It breaks up the rapid-fire decisions of a fighting game into a series of discrete simultaneously-played actions. Each action played into the next as you tried to get in position to make the most effective attack and try to predict what your opponent was going to do.
Ostensibly Pocket Paragons tries to tap into that same gameplay experience, but it’s limited at every turn. In an attempt to be portable each fighter is represented by a mere 7 cards, one of which doesn’t even start in your hand. But a single fighter game is anticlimactic at best. To get the true experience you want to have three fighters on each side in a sort of tag-team system. At that point wouldn’t it be better if those 21 cards were dedicated to creating a richer experience rather than a string of 3 poor experiences?
Like Exceed this is a yomi game where you’re trying to tap into the mind of your opponent and guess their next play while they simultaneously do the same, creating a web of possible play and counterplay. Every card in each fighter’s deck counters another card in some way. If you manage to successfully counter you receive energy for your ultimate ability. I’ve managed to see an ultimate ability power up exactly once, and the fighter died before it was at all useful.
Here I have to mention the most inexplicable bit of game design I’ve seen in years. Each fighter has a rest card that allows them to pick up their discard pile. If you play that card and your opponent counters it, you flat out lose. That isn’t a joke. My first game of Pocket Paragons lasted about 90 seconds because I lost the game on the third turn. You see how having multiple fighters to go through makes the game palatable.
Even then this one play is so powerful that it sucks the rest of the game into its crushing maw. Nothing else matters much when you’re constantly pushing your luck on how many cards you can afford to drain from your hand before you rest and risk losing all progress you’ve made. I’ve not yet seen a fighter defeated through HP drain (once I got down to 1 HP; the highlight of my Pocket Paragons experience.)
It’s a shame because the game is attractive and serves as a sort of cross-brand mismash of different characters from other games. My kit has characters from Solis Game Studio’s Temporal Odyssey and the criminally under-hyped A.E.G.I.S., one of the smarter mini(-less) tactical fighting games I’ve played. Given the 7 card restraint each character has enough uniqueness to be interesting. The strongest is a sommelier lady who can stack multiple cards for powerful effects at the risk of getting rid of too many cards and opening themselves up to getting counter-killed. One of the A.E.G.I.S. characters can do more damage at the expense of her own health. Even at their most creative, the characters don’t feel that distinct. Each have the same general cards with minor variations, made necessary by the 6-fold rock-paper-scissors concept.
I evoke the name of that most simple of yomi games purposefully. Rock-paper-scissors is the simplest manifestation of the concept but can’t sustain itself as an actual game. Pocket Paragons doesn’t venture far enough away from it. The attempt to integrate thematic flair is admirable but unfortunately shallow. It sits in this awkward middle space between a more fleshed out system like Exceed and a simple randomizing device. Except in this case it’s annoying to keep track of 6 different symbols and remember what counters what.
Pocket Paragons faces a significant challenge trying to stand out among so many other similar games. Sadly, in trying to simplify and minimize it strips away any life it might have had, instead centering itself around an aggressively punitive counter-spell mechanism. Losing a game is often infuriating; winning only mildly enjoyable.