With most any free mobile game carrying a grand vision and an RPG style, you inevitably reach the pay-play barrier. It’s a metaphorical face-off, the tense moment when a free-to-play game finally dares you to have fun without pulling out your wallet. This sad moment often happens because the popular free-to-play model removes great content from a game and sticks it into an in-game store, only to be experienced by those who fall at the pay-play standoff. Soul Guardians: Age of Midgard does a good job prolonging the dread of free-to-play gaming with animated fun, despite faults in its overall presentation.
The game gets you rolling with an impressive opening sequence featuring the classic RPG draw-ins: epic war threatening mankind, a king and the notion that he’s up to something, and scantily clad demons. It’s a beautiful opening that, after its close, plunks you into a bland, one room world. All of the drama and immersion built at the start dissolves as you find your new game world is nothing but the doorstep to a dungeon. Save a few NPC salesmen lingering about the dungeon front door, there isn’t much making this area feel like a kingdom, or even a place, rather than a menu. I would have loved to felt like the world introduced in the title sequence exists, but Soul Guardians drops the ball on context and storytelling.
Story is something that could have tied this game together beautifully. Indeed, it does exist in the game, but it just takes way too long to get going. I finally hit some small segment of dialogue as I entered dungeon number eleven, and the moment of narrative bliss left as quickly as it came. The game is missing a sense of chronicle that should have informed my motivations as a player.
Who are these bosses? Are you sure they’re even evil? What are these dungeons in the context of that overarching story you started? Because I’ve indiscriminately fought through 10 of them. I don’t know. I’m just fighting. But at least the fighting is fun.
Soul Guardians: Age of Midgard actually turns out to be a fairly fun hack ‘n’ slash reminiscent of MapleStory, adding a unique attack system based on cards. Bought from the market or looted from dungeons, each card represents a unique combat ability. Equipping multiple cards rewards your character with a battle combo unique in both design and flavor. The fun animations and wide diversity of cards give the game a lividity that salvages story-less dungeon grinds.
As for in-game purchases, you can dole out gold or crystals to buy cards, upgrades, and locked character classes. Both currencies are purchasable, but can also be slowly accumulated through in-game rewards. Players receive bonuses for logging in, succeeding in dungeons, or completing quests. Sometimes, to my shameful delight, the game sends a random token of goodwill in the form of an upgrade card or other virtual yet joy-inducing gift. These features make the game feel generous, rather than Scrooge-like, and I laud the ability to foster that sentiment.
Practically speaking, the game does require a network connection to run. If you don’t have unlimited data, find yourself a nice wifi network before you sit down for a dungeon session, because disconnects are frequent and frustrating if you’re not on a stable network. The upside to this connection requirement is that Soul Guardians takes on a limited MMO quality. A global chat and dozens of players hanging around the hub add a sense of worldliness, and lessen the sense of mobile gaming loneliness. A global scoreboard and PvP arena can keep a player well occupied, or you can avoid PvP and just enjoy match-made group dungeon-crawling.
In the end, I enjoyed playing Soul Guardians: Age of Midgard. I was disappointed in its storytelling, but where it failed in context, the game succeeded in fun. Character classes are diverse and a joy to play, cards are a never-ending source of discovery and adaptation, and dungeons are not too easy, but also not a slog. Soul Guardians: Age of Midgard is all around enjoyable, great for casual dungeon bashing, although struggling to present its world.