From the moment I first caught a glimpse of Marble Duel, it brought back instant memories of games like Zuma and Sparkle Unleashed. This seemingly casual match-3 offering from developers HeroCraft has launched on mobiles and PC previously; now though, it’s ready to try and make its mark via the realm of Xbox. The question is, what tricks could Marble Duel hold up its sleeve to distinguish itself from the other, quite successful, marble based matching experiences?
One thing is for sure, Marble Duel really adds its own spin on proceedings by ensuring turn-based action is present in the core of the gameplay. You see, instead of leisurely matching, there are duels to win and enemies to outwit. Herein lies the problem though, because what could be a chilled match-3 game, actually becomes a somewhat frustrating affair reliant on luck as much as strategy.
Before delving into the heart of Marble Duel, there’s a narrative in place in order to provide a purpose. Fantastical, yet slightly nonsensical, is the best way to describe the tale as young Evy, a poor orphan, finds herself whisked away to another world. A despicable witch rules in the lands where she ends up, which is also full of evil beings such as a werewolf, a rabid rabbit, a ghastly ghoul, a destructive robot, and more. For reasons unknown, Evy is going to have to venture through this dangerous kingdom, attempt to put an end to the witch, and defeat anyone who looks to halt her efforts.
While the story won’t captivate your attention, nor will it be a major factor in the enjoyment procured from Marble Duel, credit is due for the efforts. Not only are there multiple still scenes spread throughout to further the narrative, they even have voiceovers in an attempt to instill a bit of personality into the various characters. The acting standard is nothing more than passable, however the silly characterisation born out of it does at least – unintentionally – lighten the mood. It also incorporates a few decent environments that wouldn’t look out of place in a fantasy novel.
There are over 150 levels awaiting you on this journey in Story Mode, with both mandatory encounters to overcome as well as a selection of optional challenges. Most levels unfold as turn-based battles between Evy and the menacing creatures that she bumps into along the way, with the idea being to fire coloured magical spheres and match three or more to make them disappear, with different things triggered as a result. Initially, only the red spheres are of importance, which causes damage to the opponent. Depleting the opposition’s health to zero is the route to victory; it’s an unconventional way to settle a disagreement, but that’s just how these folks roll.
Slowly, but surely, more colours join the attack enabling red and the non-threatening white ones. You can give yourself protection courtesy of matching defensive blue spheres, while the green variety offer healing powers. Eventually, purple types can enhance the next attack as a sort of damage boost and the yellow can reflect a proportion of incoming damage. There are also the black spheres to worry about, which if matched will inflict hit points upon yourself. These additions keep things fresh and force you to ponder how to approach each turn.
Choosing what to match and when becomes a real tactical situation, with the possibility to chain combos together and earn more turns before the enemy gets a look-in. Strategy is tantamount to succeeding; taking into account the two spheres in your chamber ready to fire, the board of spheres presented in front of you, what may be off-screen waiting to replace those cleared, and the potential moves of the enemy. With the latter, you should always expect the A.I. to perform smart maneuvers, although on rare occasions it makes the dumbest decisions – there’s no in-between. As for the board, the layout is set for each particular level but the actual denominations and line-up of spheres is random for every attempt.
It’s that combination of a computer-controlled opponent who rarely puts a step wrong, and the luck of the draw in terms of the magical marbles within the layout, which leads to frustration arising. Early on, the life bars of you and the opponent aren’t too dissimilar, however as you progress, everything feels like it’s getting more and more one-sided – to the point where you’ll have to do something special on the first turn to even come close to winning.
Sure, completing levels earns varying amounts of orbs to spend on upgrades for Evy to improve health, attack power and the effectiveness of matching specific spheres, but it still isn’t fair. The fact you can alter the upgrades in place freely does help a little bit; for example, if a level doesn’t feature any health or defence spheres, you could downgrade those and put the excess orbs into attack. Ultimately though, the difficulty ramps up significantly and starts to spoil the fun a third of the way through. Before that, the concept generally ensures a great deal of fun is experienced and creating combos brings such joy, so it’s a shame to witness the nosedive it takes.
In regards to other types of levels, there are a few, but they’re nothing special. One setup sees you firing the balls at rotating circular patterns that need to be cleared and that’s repeated a few times sporadically. Another is very strange as you navigate a plane for side-scrolling antics involving birds. And then there are the optional encounters, which are few and far between, where you encounter an enemy with almost 10 times as much health as Evy in the hopes of acquiring a stat-boosting reward. It’s pointlessly tough and thankfully avoidable.
Outside of the Story Mode, there is a 1vs1 option to battle your friends and family locally if you desire. It’s a bit barebones however, with a limited choice of layouts and no way to alter the settings of the match. The plus point is that you can choose to be any of the characters you’ve defeated, but the whole idea doesn’t seem like much thought has gone into it. It’s better than nothing though, right?
Speaking of nothing, I’d love to report nothing in terms of technical issues, but alas, I must. Although not too frequently, Marble Duel sometimes hasn’t allowed interactions within the menus post-battle, including selecting a level, restarting a level, or changing the upgrades. The only solution to such an issue is to reload the game, which is an annoyance.
Overall, Marble Duel on Xbox possesses a clever idea by merging the thrill of matching marbles with the tactical elements brought about by turn-based conflicts. With a huge amount of levels to venture through and a variety of colourful spheres providing different benefits, it should be match-3 heaven. Unfortunately, the nature of proceedings means the further you advance, the more everything seems stacked against you; the AI is both lucky and clever, while you’re hardly given a chance. That’s without mentioning the random unresponsiveness of Marble Duel, which causes irritation.
You can still get a few hours of enjoyment out of Marble Duel before things go downhill, and so don’t write it off. Consider it for purchase as long as you take into account the drawbacks outlined above.