If you lot have been following anything I’ve written for any period of time you’ll know all too well by now that I’m a giant strategy geek. I love using my grey matter and there’s something really rather rewarding about outfoxing another player. You’ll also know that I’m absolutely sick of seeing a genre that I love so much dragged through the mobile swamp. Dev companies aren’t even trying to make something palatable anymore. You can tell by the titles. Pick several vaguely gamey-sounding words, stick “of” in-between them, borrow some assets from something else, and bobs your uncle; you have a brand new money sink. I find it really annoying because the games that are good get tarred with the same brush as all the rubbish knock-offs. I’ve been playing Phobies, a game that is available on both PC and Mobile and one that deserves mentioning for being more than just another cash cow.
I just want to point out before I start this review that I’ve been playing as a non-paying player. This was deliberate because I wanted to experience the game in much the same way as the rest of you. I also wanted to make the decision as to whether this would be a game that I wanted to put money into later down the line. I don’t actually have an issue with paying for content because it helps the devs out. This is under the proviso that the game I’m playing can stand out on its own and be played perfectly well without pumping money in. With card games, (or any strategy game where you collect and build your character pool,) buying packs should really just speed up the process of collecting stuff; it shouldn’t unbalance the game.
In games like this, you want cards that fit your playstyle, and buying them just rounds this off and helps you play your way more quickly. It’s not a case of having a bunch of powerful stuff. If what you have doesn’t work together, you can spend all the money you like and still lose. This is what keeps titles out of the pay-to-win category. As long as paying doesn’t give you an unfair advantage it’s all good. The minute you start getting beaten by whales with bottomless pockets is when things become unfair. This is especially important in strategy games because if you’re paying to win you’re also not using strategy, you’re buying the ability to come out on top, which defeats the object entirely.
So let’s start by telling you exactly what a Phobie is then shall we? Phobies are fears made flesh. There are a lot of them and they all operate slightly differently. Your Phobies come as a deck of collectible cards. These then morph into their characters when summoned to the field. I’ll explain how this works in a moment but as far as your collection is concerned, your cards are upgradable and you’ll spend resources to make your army of fears more powerful. The higher the level of the Phobie the more resources you’re using, so it makes sense to spread your upgrades evenly. The good thing about this is that you can’t just overpower one card. Actually, you could but as this is a game where you’ll be going toe to toe with multiple enemies it probably won’t do you a lot of good.
I mentioned the battlefield and in Phobies this is where most of the action takes place. Each player has a heart and if this is destroyed by the opposing team it’s game over. Your heart has a lot of life so it’s not a simple task to take it out. To make this easier each map has control points. If you can capture these zones and can keep them, damage will be dealt directly to the heart at the end of each round. It’s really important to capture these because you can guarantee that if you don’t your opponent definitely will. After this, the map is broken into hexes and these are taken into account for the purposes of movement, combat, and depending on the Phobie range for abilities. I really like the way this game is played because it gives everything more of a board game feel and moves away from the MOBA gaming mechanics that a lot of titles seem to be going for now.
Another interesting mechanic in Phobies comes in the form of keys. Each player gets a certain number of keys each game and so many of these are granted per round. You’ll need these keys to summon your Phobies to the field. The more powerful the fear is the more keys it will cost to summon. This means that you might have to save keys to really get those big powerful units out there. You only get so many per turn so you’ll need to work out how best to do this. There’s no point in waiting and just punching out your biggest cards because by that point you might be facing down an army and sheer strength of numbers will prevail.
As I mentioned earlier, cards are upgradable. The important thing to note about this is that even though the card becomes more powerful it doesn’t become more expensive. With this in mind, you might have a 2 or 3 cost Phobie that can outstrip a 5 or 6 key cost one simply because it’s been leveled. This is another interesting way of adding balance to the game and stopping players from just getting steamrolled by expensive cards.
Phobies plays out over two distinctive modes. The first of these is turn-based and isn’t in real-time. You take your turn then wait for your opponent to answer and so on. It makes sense to have multiple games running at once because not all of your opponents are going to be present for the entirety of a match, simply because they don’t need to be. This includes you too obviously so this mode has a very pick up and put down feel to it which is great. If this was just the case on its own it would be very much a play-by-mail game but you also have the arena. The arena follows the same rules but everything is played in real-time. This means if you want to sit down and just play a match from start to finish in one go you can absolutely do that.
Phobies is a very giving game. You’ll get a certain number of jacks that you can open each day and these grant rewards. You’ll earn cranks by playing and these will return resources that you can save and spend later. You can also buy card packs in the game shop. There are two premium currencies in Phobies that come in the form of coffee beans and tears. You can only earn so much of each of these per day but on account of the game’s nature you won’t feel like you’ve only played for five minutes and suddenly there isn’t any point in playing further. The fact that you’ll likely be playing in smaller stints but over a longer period of time makes everything feel a lot more balanced than games that will only let you do so much but all in one go; unless of course, you pay.
So, this brings us to the big question. Is Phobies a pay-to-win game? In my book, the answer is a simple no. Paying will allow you to gain card packs more quickly but the nature of the game means that you won’t just be able to get everything you want all in one go. You won’t be able to just win all the time because you’ve paid either. This is very much a game of genuine strategy. You could have every card available but if you don’t know how to best employ what you have you’re likely still going to lose.
Phobies, in my opinion, isn’t an unbalanced game. I haven’t found any cards thus far that completely outclass everything else and the way cards are summoned means that you can’t just throw all your most powerful stuff out and guarantee yourself a win. I’m not going to go out on a limb and say the balance is perfect either. There is an awful lot to collect and I obviously haven’t picked up enough cards in the time I’ve been playing to form a complete opinion. What I’m seeing up to now though, I’m very much liking.
So, let’s talk nuts and bolts. I’m obviously speaking from the perspective of the PC version but the first thing to point out here is that it doesn’t feel like a poorly optimized mobile rip. This game looks lovely and you aren’t having to play on a screen the size of a postage stamp. The aesthetic in Phobies is gorgeous. The whole game is like something out of a Tim Burton fever dream. The slightly simplified cartoonishness of it all does a lot to make this title feel more creepy, which is obviously a win. The music is equally sinister, and the whole game has a bit of a funhouse feel to it; if the funhouse is in an insane asylum and is manned by patients. Look and feel wise everything is great. The controls are simple and intuitive so equally no complaints there.
The next question is as to whether I see any failings with the game. Well, to be honest, (and I know I’ve said this before,) it will depend on the player. You’re never going to get a free-to-play game like this that’s going to give you everything in one go. Whichever way you swing it you’ll only be able to collect and pick so much up each day. The difference between Phobies and other games of this type is that it doesn’t feel like your fun is being strangled and all the good stuff is going to paying players. Putting money into the game will grant you things faster but not to the point of unbalancing the whole experience. This isn’t a game you’ll probably play for hours but you aren’t being given an energy bar that lets you have two games a day unless you buy refills, what you get is enough. Rewards cap after a bit, but like I say, you can’t expect everything.
In addition to the points, I’ve just made I can’t see a lot of problems here. The games I’ve played, (and am still playing,) have felt fair and fun. I want to keep playing to see what goodies I can grab next but am enjoying doing it all at my own pace. I think you’ll probably play in longer bouts on PC too, so you might actually get more out of this as a mobile entity if we’re speaking of feeling rewarded, simply because you don’t put your PC in your pocket and go off and do something else. By the time you’ve capped yourself out for the day on mobile, you’ll probably be feeling like you’ve done plenty for the fact that you’ve paid nothing. This is actually the top and bottom of it. You’re getting a fun, well-thought-out, well-rounded game for nothing at all. I honestly don’t see how anyone can really complain about that. Really good stuff all around.
Phobies is a brilliantly balanced bag of scary fun. This really is what mobile games should aspire to be; fair and rewarding. Nothing about Phobies feels unbalanced or pitched to ensure paying players keep parting with cash. If you put the time in I really think you’ll get a lot of enjoyment in return. If you want everything immediately you’ll have to put your hand in your pocket. Just remember that this game is, (genuinely,) free so for what the vast majority of us will pay for the experience we’re getting a hell of a lot in return.