South Park Phone Destroyer – the mobile game released yesterday in the UK on Android and iOS – is almost good but quickly turns into an empty grind-fest.
The game starts in a similar way to The Fractured But Whole which got my hopes up as that was a fantastic game. You start by creating a custom character and you are then dropped into South Park to battle your way to victory with familiar faces along for the ride. If that would be enough to make a fun game for you – download it now.
Free to grind
Yeah go ahead, have a play – it’s “free”. Yes, those inverted commas seemed oddly placed – the game is free to download and you can continue to play indefinitely, but you will come up against some barriers. Rather than get distracted, let’s break down the two main elements of the game and how you progress:
1. Player vs Enemy (PvE) missions
These are the “story” where you face increasingly difficult enemies with a boss at the end of the stage (usually quite entertaining, but not as hilarious as most of The Fractured But Whole). The battle system asks you to drag cards from your deck onto the battlefield fight your way to the right where the boss will be waiting.
Each stage is played through once (at level one difficulty) and you can then progress to the next stage, or replay the stage at higher difficulties for more unlocks. Stage 5 – the end of each episode of the story – is usually blocked behind a requirement to win an increasing number of PvP battles (see below).
2. Player vs Player (PvP) battles
For the PvP you are pitched against an online player in a small arena for three minutes. Without any environmental differences in these battles, they are fairly samey and often come down simply to which player has better levelled cards.
You will usually have a couple of cards which are different from your opponent but most players seem to get the same starting deck (and levelling them up is grind enough so why bother experimenting?). You can get slightly better rewards for PvP but at the same time, you can fail to connect and then waste even more of your time (this only happened twice in the time I played, admittedly).
Going in circles
The main game – blasting through the story missions – will have you replaying and repeating story missions to get card unlocks and currency. The difficulty is indicated once you open up the stage, so you can gauge whether to try that stage or to replay another earlier stage to make things easier.
This pretty much means working your way through multiple times until they become too difficult, levelling up cards where you can, then moving onto the next stage and repeating. You can get through a few story missions at once, but generally you will need to upgrade significantly before you can tackle the next few missions. Once you hit a roadblock in the missions where you are forced to play online then it pretty much becomes a grind to get lucky with the matchmaking.
The actual humour in the game is mainly limited to the very infrequent story videos. The videos are actually quite annoying in places because for some reason they turn the perspective from the usual landscape into portrait and that seriously detracts from the enjoyment of getting some jokes from Cartman, Kyle and Butters.
Aside from these annoying intrusions, you might get a chuckle from the end of stage bosses… the first time. However each story stage has 15 difficulty levels, so you will see them a whole bunch if you want enough currency and upgrades to progress to the final story missions or to find any success in PvP mode.
Every mission plays in a very similar way, with minor differences in the enemies you will face and environmental obstacles. When even the stage bosses were being recycled, I realised the game was coming in thin with content.
The cramped UI means that you can’t easily tell which cards have been upgraded and would be best to take into your next battle (not that it matters all that much). Without being able to sort or arrange cards (and with deck themes being another unnecessary concept chucked on top) then the whole deck-building experience feels a little messy. You can also get stuck in the menu causing the game to crash which just added to my frustration.
Battle in your sleep
Sadly the battles themselves reduce down to simply deploying cards and abilities in a continual move to the right. Genuine strategy (and much hope of humour) during battles gets lost in the noisy mess that becomes throwing all your best cards at a tough baddie. Everyone shouts witty remarks over each other and the character’s special abilities often don’t make too much impact (until you get to use rarer or higher-level cards which takes a whole bunch of grinding).
For the most part, I was half-playing battles, just paying attention occasionally when things looked bad and dropping a couple of cards who would do the hard work. The semi-automation (and limited strategy) gave battles little engagement and hardly any reward. They also seem to follow a surprisingly similar pattern, with an almost zen-like ebb and flow that runs like clockwork – baddies swarm in, special abilities power up, then you cast abilities and throw another card in the mix to turn the battle your way. The experience is not quite zen enough to prevent me getting annoyed by the roadblocks and shallow dialogue. When the final boss comes in (or during the last minute when playing online) then you throw everything you have at them and hope it will be enough.
For the most part, it’s pretty hard to fail with the PvE section, as you are continually working at your own level, but you can easily screw matches in PvP by not seeing a particularly brutal set of characters coming your way. It really pays to have the best cards, which is why the game encourages grinding for those post-battle rewards.
That freemium T&P mobile game
On the topic of rewards, the main rewards from battles are opening loot lockers, which offer character cards, upgrade materials and currency. Sadly, the randomised nature means that you can come away from tougher battles with a handful of coins and one measly upgrade item, while a low-level mission could give you a new character.
It adds to the grind when your main aim is to complete more missions for loot (rather than aiming for something specific and feeling meaningful progression towards it). Personally, I felt a little disheartened by the locker loot but hey, it’s free shit so you can’t complain too much.
Then you have card packs – also containing a random assortment of items but usually some better shit. These are given out free – a crappy one every 4 hours (login bonus) and one decent pack per three PvP battles won (again every 4 hours).
You can get packs with a little waiting, but then again, you can spend cashmoney on real rewards beyatch. The in-game shop is pretty brutal with the shiniest single pack costing over 20 of your British pounds. While micro-transactions can often feel slightly cheeky, these come as part of a packaged freemium game that would make the Canadian Devil proud.
What’s going on?
The final major problem is your character, which although you level up in both level and PVP rank, has no bearing on the story or gameplay. You have no meaningful development, other than unlocking some costumes and gaining a couple of HP and attack. You don’t especially join in the battles, other than calling in the other characters, minor zaps and blasting enemies away when you take a lot of damage.
I didn’t really get any enjoyment from putting time into levelling up this character, or having a better “rank” than others. The grind was too great for me to consider putting any more time into this game (around 15 hours so far) so after getting a significant way through the “story” then I was pretty happy to put the game down. It wasn’t a bad 15 hours, but I wouldn’t necessarily want to repeat it, due to amount of repetition already involved.
The story was also not especially present, with the majority of dialogue being “Grrr… here’s my best card, I bet you can’t take it down” (which you obviously can and swiftly do). The enemies change slightly (except for excessive repetition) but never really build to any serious challenge, or any need to think carefully about how to approach them. Just upgrade your cards using cash and loot lockers to get to the story missions with higher numbers.
Both console games had collectables and items which even through short text descriptions were able to carry more depth and humour than anything in Phone Destroyer. In reducing the battles, story and content to fit onto a phone (and work in shorter bursts) much of the joy has been left behind. Even some more abilities (like supers or special summons being unlocked) could have given battles that extra edge and depth (along with giving more to unlock as you progress). The bosses feel half-hearted at times, basically just dressing up the show’s characters in silly outfits which loosely fit the theme (without any real variation or truly funny combinations).
This is very much a “quick level grind” mobile game, closer to Candy Crush than previous South Park titles and – in spite of the character creator and battle system – shares little with its RPG brothers. The experience felt sadly hollow here, with dialogue and characters feeling like shadows of the bigger screen hilarity.
With many annoyances, some thinly-spread humour not doing enough to redeem the experience, and a heavy focus on grinding through samey missions and PvP battles, Phone Destroyer fails to impress on almost every front.