Chaos Reborn

Chaos Reborn is a game I want to like -and in some ways, I actually do.

It's got a nice, distinct art style.

It's got decent music.

It's got some brilliant UI stuff I'd love to see more widespread in turn-based strategy games; being able to click a target and have the game show all possible positions for your selected unit to attack it from is fantastic, and being able to then click on whichever position you like to plot out your unit's move is even better.

It avoids the usual fantasy strategy game thing of having a million units/spells/whatever whose real variety is much lower than those numbers would suggest -I can draw parallels between some options, but the only ones I'd actually argue are 'X is basically Y, except for Z minor qualifier' are cases where they're deliberately nearly identical. (eg Law and Chaos both have a basic attack spell and a more advanced one that hits three targets; except for one being Law and the other being Chaos, they're identical) Usually such a comparison finds unique value in each option, such as how Law and Chaos both provide a flying mount, but Chaos' has a ranged attack while Order's will sacrifice itself to protect adjacent allies from attacks.

It's got a really intriguing setting, a magical post-apocalypse where the world has been shattered into myriad floating islands, magic has warped the natural order of things, and wizards are the core unit of the world's feudal system.

It has some just plain fun unit concepts; my personal favorite is the Air Elemental, which can't harm units directly, instead shoving them with its 'attack'... but if it shoves a target off the edge of the map, they're dead and gone, even if they were a wizard riding a mount. (You can't attack a wizard directly if they're mounted; you have to kill the mount first)


The game's foundation undermines it at every turn.

The game uses a card framework to represent spells, with a hand of cards you can cast right now and a deck you'll draw from as you burn through cards. You might expect this to lead into a collectible trading card sort of thing where you collect spells and then assemble a deck of 20 or whatever cards to define your strategy, and I'd probably love the game if this were true.

It's not, though.

Instead, your deck is randomly decided by the game's RNG at the start of each battle. You have some ability to influence this, but it's pretty limited; your equipped staff makes some spells more likely to show up in your deck, and you can commit Talisman slots (Of which you have six to work with) to ensure a single specific spell will be in your deck. (If you want these in your hand, that's another Talisman slot burned) Your staff also comes with a 'mega spell', which is a more powerful version of a regular spell (eg summoning two Vampires at once instead of one) that you can put into your hand anytime you have the mana to afford it an unlimited number of times per battle, but mega spells are expensive to add to your hand, you still have to pay for playing the spell, and each time you add a mega spell to your hand it gets more expensive to do so.

This sucks out a lot of depth right away. You can't build a variety of interesting strategies, exploring what works well with that, because your deck is almost completely out of your control. Even if your staff is a Chaos-focused staff, sometimes your deck ends up Order-heavy anyway.

Let's talk about a specific example of how this is an actual problem.

The Undead

Undead are operating right at the very edge of acceptable design for Chaos Reborn's system. Their core feature is that most units can't touch them; only Undead, direct attacking spells, and a handful of units with the Undead Slayer special can target an Undead unit at all. In exchange, Undead tend to be kind of bad -the Skeleton is painfully fragile and a bit pricey given a Goblin is tougher and almost as hard-hitting for less than half the base cost. (And it gets worse when you consider a mechanic I'm not getting into yet...)

In a game with player-controlled decks, this would be a bit centralizing, forcing every deck to ensure it has adequate anti-Undead tools, but the meta would stabilize around something functional and interesting.

In Chaos Reborn, you can't screw yourself over by building a deck with no anti-Undead capability, but you also can't actually ensure you have any. (Unless you use Talismans to ensure you do, but these aren't meant to patch holes in the game design, and it doesn't help as much as you might hope) Every once in a while, you'll find that you've already won or lost before anyone has done anything because one player has an Undead-heavy deck and the other player has few or no options for fighting Undead.

I actually really like Chaos Reborn's approach to the undead. It's thematically appropriate to make it simply futile to try to put down the undying without specific tools, and it makes them interesting on a gameplay level, particularly Zombies, which convert units they kill into Undead versions of themselves.

Except it's a completely terrible idea in Chaos Reborn's own system.


The Undead are particularly problematic, but they're a good representation of how the game's foundation undermines its own potential. The insistence on randomness on elements that would, in most any other game design, be under player control is a core problem with the game that overshadows the quality of basically everything it does.

Randomized decks could have been good. They could have been used to ensure players didn't centralize around a handful of cookie-cutter builds, thus avoiding a boring meta. Or the game could've been more like a party game, where the chaos and unpredictability is to a certain extent the point.

Instead, it still comports itself as essentially a thinking person's game, a strategy game where careful thought and planning is the core of the experience, and then randomness gets shoved in where it doesn't belong and damages that to no real benefit.

It's not like the game really delivers on the narrative end, either. The single player campaign starts out intriguing, but it never really follows up on a lot of the interesting questions posed by the first realm. Instead, you just go on a series of disconnected adventures -so disconnected I'm honestly not sure whether they're actually meant to be you playing one character conquering five realms or you functionally playing five different characters and pay no mind to how your equipment is inherited from one realm to the next. There's pretty much no worldbuilding at all.

There's barely anything.

Speaking of the single player campaign, the process of traveling through a realm is evocative of eg the Heroes of Might and Magic games; you wander around, hire mercenaries to make your army larger, bring towns, villages, Mana Fluxes, and Citadels under your sway to benefit you, and your strategic motion leads you into combat with your enemies on the tactical level.

But instead of adding layers of strategy, it actually subtracts from the core experience. Having a few good mercenaries, facing an opponent with no mercenaries or only a couple of weak ones? The conclusion is not in doubt. The only question is if you're going to lose any of your mercenaries in the process, and the answer is 'probably not'. On the flipside, going into battle against an enemy who has some strong mercenaries when you've got few or no is not simply an uphill battle, but more or less impossible; while Chaos Reborn has a lot of nifty mechanics to it, numbers tend to drown out tactics in practice quite quickly.

On a different note, one of the game's core interesting mechanics is yet another example of 'this should be cool, but the implementation needs work'; I've mentioned Law vs Chaos before. Every spell in the game (Where 'spell' includes 'summoning a creature') is classified as Law, Chaos, or Neutral. Casting a Law or Chaos spell shifts the 'cosmic balance' by a certain amount dependent on the individual spell; Law spells make the cosmic balance more Law, Chaos spells make it more Chaos. The more the cosmic balance shifts in a direction, the easier it is to cast spells of the type; 30% Chaos means a 30 mana Chaos spell costs nothing!

This is really cool, and is a great example of how the game taking away deck-building undermines itself. Law, Neutral, and Chaos each have capabilities unique to them; Undead are Chaos-exclusive, for example, and on the flipside all the spells that bolster your wizard's personal combat ability are under Law. If proper deck-building was a thing, it would be a tricky question whether you should all-in on Law or Chaos or go heavy on one while splashing in a few key spells from the other or what. As-is... it's this mechanic that exists, but isn't very interesting.

Worse, Neutral spells have no place in the scheme. When the tutorial explained the cosmic balance mechanic, I figured the idea was that the advantage of Neutral is that the cosmic balance can't hurt it -but the thing is, it can't hurt anything. The cosmic balance being Chaos-heavy doesn't punish Law spells. It just rewards Chaos spells. The only point in favor of a Neutral spell is that if you want something outside your realm but don't want to cancel out some of your current savings, Neutral can get the job done.

That would be... limited in a deck-building scheme, but in the outside-your-control model the game employs, it's actually worse than that because there's not really a concept of 'would I rather have this or that'.

There's just working with what you have, and hoping the RNG doesn't screw you over -or at least that it screws over your opponent even more.


There's bits and pieces of Chaos Reborn I genuinely like, but the problems with the foundations don't speak of a clear grasp on essentials in game design.

I'm a bit worried about what Phoenix Point is going to be like, given this experience.


Popular Posts