Chaos Reborn can be frustrating, often baffling, and sometimes even noticeably unfair. That isn't to say that it's a bad game. In fact, it's a pretty good one. However, Chaos Reborn is not a game for everyone. It isn't going to break any sales records, and it's likely to disappoint some of those who buy it. On the other hand, there's plenty of people out there who love fighting against frustration, welcome bafflement, and who can get over seemingly unfair mechanics. These people will be delighted to add it to their collections.
Created by Julian Gollop, the designer who brought us the original XCOM, Chaos Reborn takes place in a netherworld where the last remaining wizards repeatedly battle each other in a variety of hexagonally-arranged locations. Combat is turn-based, and initially seems to be familiar point and click fare, typical of turn-based strategy games. Chaos Reborn has one or two tricks up its sleeves though. It has plenty of features that distinguish it from the crowd. Whether you love them or hate them is all a matter of taste.
Reviewing Chaos Reborn has us slightly conflicted. It is well presented, full of interesting mechanics, and we never disliked anything about our time playing. Unfortunately the same can be said of the negatives, the story is non-existent, the arenas all start to feel similar after a time, the interesting mechanics can cause endless frustration, and we never really loved anything about our experience either.
Aesthetically everything is pleasing. The creature and character designs stray away from typical fantasy clichés. Colour is used to represent different affiliations and different laws (the conditions that either weaken or strengthen certain magic). The environments feel suitably alien and suitably magical.
Chaos Reborn has solid foundations, good tutorials and a decent amount of content. However, it can be irritatingly merciless as you attempt to master its system. One match may seem totally unfair only for the next to seem perfectly balanced. It's not a consistent experience.
Although it initially appears to be more like a card game akin to Magic: The Gathering, the gameplay is very different. It makes us think of a mix between chess and poker. Like chess the main objective is to keep your king (or wizard in this case) safe while attempting to destroy your opponent's wizard. Like poker there is a considerable amount of luck that can negate the tactics of even the most skilled player. Also like poker, there's opportunities to bluff.
Two, three or four wizards square off against each other in any game. Randomly distributed magic abilities are given at the start and are represented by cards that a player selects when they want to attempt to use them. Spells vary from attacking summons, buffs, offensive magic spells, and environment altering conjurations.
There's some nice variety in the methods of combat. As well as summoning creatures, such as skeletons, lions, vampires, hydras and manticores, and sending them into battle, you can cast buffs on your own wizard that can raise attack or defence, and have him mount a creature and charge into the fight himself. Of course if your wizard falls, you lose the game, so it may be wiser to keep him out of harm's way. For a more defensive approach you can litter the arena with traps, including paralysing gooey blobs, or death-dealing trees.
During each turn players can move around the arena, cast one spell and issue commands to previously summoned creatures. You can do this in any order, allowing for some tactical thinking and risk evaluation. Some spells will only work if you have a clear line-of-sight toward your target, but the same is true of your enemy, so it might be better not lingering in such dangerous positions. Moving, positioning, anticipating and maximising the effectiveness of your casting can be vital to winning, but then again so can something else. Something we're still unsure we like the significance of: luck.
While all good games have elements of luck in them, in Chaos Reborn luck is an integral part, one that can single-handedly dictate the outcome of the contest. All summons and the wizards themselves can fall with a single hit. While each creature and ability has certain stats, these really only exist to alter the hit percentage chance. Your hellhound may dominate in stats but one lucky random roll of the dice could see your painfully summoned monster downed by an opponent's weakest summon.
We write 'painfully summoned' because each spell has a chance of not working. The percentage is higher for better summons, making summoning them a high-risk strategy because if your summon fails you essentially sacrifice a turn, allowing your opponent a chance to take control of the contest.
It's possible to 'bluff' by using an illusion spell which works 100% of the time, but can be easily negated by the enemy guessing that the creature isn't real. The counter is called 'disillusion', and if used successfully it removes your summon from the battlefield and lets your opponent continue their turn. Cast disillusion wrongly (something we're quite prone to doing) and the result is the same as a failed summon, your turn is over.
The luck variance is enormously high. This is where opinion about Chaos Reborn will be most divided. There is so much uncertainty that players must constantly be prepared to react to new situations, and be prepared to lose any contest. Every turn is a gamble, sometimes it goes wrong and you lose, sometimes you deserve to fail only to come out on top.
Some will love the cruel twist of fate that's integral to the game, others will hate it. Gamblers will celebrate the unpredictability. More cautious souls, will be left frustrated and bewildered when their meticulous game plan falls apart because their opponent succeeds in casting three low-chance summons in a row. We almost wept when our strongest unit had the enemy wizard cornered only to miss an 80% hit and be dispatched the very next turn.
In single-player the importance of luck can be particularly galling as it's easy to feel that the same rules don't apply to the AI and the game is simply rigged to beat you. The best experience is found in the multiplayer. Here each and every player is definitely governed by the same cruel twists of fate.
In multiplayer out-witting and deceiving your opponent seems much more natural than it does against AI. There's a certain joy in watching the wizard across from you squander their turn as they believe your high-level summon to be an illusion. There's twisted satisfaction in a rat taking down an elephant. Of course the same suffering that's so enjoyable to inflict on others will also be inflicted upon you - several times over. It's a bit like everybody taking turns to kick each other in the balls, and taking great delight in doing so.
The most popular online mode is the live match-ups. These allow each player limited time to complete a turn. Match-ups are normally over quickly but can stretch beyond 30 minutes under some circumstances.
More leisurely players can enjoy asynchronous match-ups. Asynchronous games are played over days or even weeks. You can be involved in up to 20 different asynchronous matches at the same time. Players are never forced to rush into a move and it's ideal for busy people without much time to commit to online gaming.
To add variety you can also decide if players are allowed to choose equipment before the match or if everyone competes using a standard load-out. There's also leagues and tournaments run by the community, should you be feeling extra competitive.
There's not much similar out there that compares to Chaos Reborn. It's a peculiar mix of turn-based mechanics sprinkled with a smattering of strategy and a large dollop of luck. There's a constant necessity to consider risk and reward, players must learn which moves are smart and which ones are not. There's also the possibility that sometimes you could be playing the best you ever have only to have the cards suddenly fall the other way, sending you crashing down to the losers table through little fault of your own.
Before spending any money potential purchasers should strongly consider if they will enjoy the blend of tactics and chance offered in Chaos Reborn. Players who thrive on precision may want to steer clear, but those of you out there who don't mind a little unpredictability and who don't feel cheated when luck leaves them hanging will probably find a lot to like.