16 May 2017
Can this hybrid card-battler bring Magic to life?
HoloGrid: Monster Battle is billed as the spiritual successor to the fictional game of HoloChess that set young minds alight when it appeared in Star Wars’ 1977 debut. (“Let the Wookiee win.”)
While HoloGrid’s monster designs do indeed spring from the mind of Phil Tippett, the special effect wizard responsible for that iconic scene (as well as his work on blockbusters such as Jurassic Park and RoboCop), he wasn’t directly involved in the gameplay’s creation. Nevertheless, the hybrid of physical trading cards and a digital mobile app ends up playing like a combination of chess and Magic: The Gathering, as players manoeuvre their champion around a virtual grid-based field, summoning monsters and spells in an attempt to defeat the opposing player’s avatar.
Tippett’s creations are easily the big draw of the game, ranging from armoured quadrupeds and saddled bipeds that wouldn’t look out of place in the sands of Tatooine to freakier oozing red claws and humanoid monstrosities that Lovecraft would be proud of. Unfortunately, the art is let down by the flimsy cards and otherwise bland design, including plain and low-resolution images for the spells.
The cards feel like an afterthought, existing solely to be scanned into the app to summon their 3D virtual counterparts (and mark out the terrain, which is projected onto the real-life background) and otherwise remain unused during the game. What’s worse is that they include ability details but no information on the monsters’ health, move or attack power – which is also omitted from the app before summoning them – making it guesswork to know which creature is best to use in a particular situation without memorising the stats over time or simply randomly guessing.
The mechanics are simple, yet the overly long and dull in-app tutorial still fails to fully explain some aspects, leaving you to guess at the nature of some icons before sacrificing an action to test them. The app itself is barebones, and forces you to create an online account – even when only playing local multiplayer.
In terms of the gameplay itself, the duelling lacks the speed or excitement of Magic; creatures plod across squares and attack with minimal animations, calling to question whether it’s deliberately meant to recall the 1970s-era effects of its HoloChess inspiration or simply looks naff.
The champion and monster abilities are varied enough, but there are so few creatures in your squad each match that battling quickly becomes repetitive and tedious, and there’s little room for much variation between matches.
The augmented reality elements are clever, but are far less impressive once the physical cards are scanned and forgotten about – the grid only detracts from the gameplay otherwise, forcing players to huddle over a phone or tablet (or two, if you’re lucky) and adding little strategic depth as creatures are summoned, charge, cluster, die and repeat before a champion is eventually crowned.
It’s a real shame, as the concept is an appealing one: Magic brought to life in a blend of real-life cards and the visual pizzazz of computer graphics, backed up by the imaginative work of one of cinema’s greatest minds. In reality, though, HoloGrid is an exhausting slog through uninspiring gameplay with lacklustre components that are all but forgotten once you’ve entered the digital world. Soon enough, you’ll forget the entire game, too.
HoloGrid has some inspired creature designs courtesy of Phil Tippett’s visual imagination, but it’s otherwise a huge disappointment both in terms of its woeful physical components and the frustrating app – to say nothing of the boring gameplay. It’s the worst of both worlds.
Genre: Hybrid card-battling
Time: 5-15 minutes
This review originally appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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