Mahokenshi puts a neat twist on the deckbuilding genre by applying a game board element to its card play. It’s not just a simple gimmick either. The two are intertwined in every way, and it gives Mahokenshi a unique identity when compared to its brethren.
You can find a video version of this review on my YouTube Channel.
In Mahokenshi, you play as one of four samurai mages attempting to protect the Celestial Isles from dark corruption. One thing to note is that while Mahokenshi does take plenty of inspiration from deckbuilding rogue-lites, its environments are not random or procedural. Each one is a handcrafted challenge to solve.
You use a combination of energy points and cards to traverse the hexagonal spaces of the board while building up your deck to slay monsters and complete specific objectives within each mission. Most missions place some type of pressure on you, meaning you don’t have the luxury to explore the entire board.
Success in Mahokenshi comes not only from your deck-building skills but your ability to plan out an effective strategy and adapt your build to each individual mission, as well as the character you chose to bring into that mission.
|Gideon’s Bias||Mahokenshi Information|
|Review Copy Used: Yes||Publisher: Iceberg Interactive|
|Hours Played: 16||Type: Full Release|
|Reviewed on: PC||Platforms: PC|
|Fan of Genre: Yes||Genre: Turn-Based Tactics, Deckbuilding|
|Mode Played: N/A||Price: $24.99|
Mahokenshi shares some familiarity with other deck-building games while wrapping itself with intriguing ancient Japanese mythology. You have a limited amount of energy each turn to play cards, then you dump the rest at the end of your turn. The thing that sets Mahokenshi apart is the fact that it feels like a digital board game, and I mean that in a literal sense.
Each mission features a world split into hexagonal spaces, board game style. Moving around the board consumes the same energy you use to play cards, and rougher terrain requires more energy to move across.
Your physical presence in the world is no mere gimmick however, it’s neatly baked into the card play. While you have cards that deal damage or protect you from damage. You also have others that allow you to dash onto difficult terrain with less energy, sprint across multiple spaces at once, or allow you to teleport and fly.
You’re enemies play by the same rules, so positioning in combat matters just as much as your cards. Most enemies only trigger when you move close enough to them, so you can try to take on as few or as many as you want at a time. You could funnel them down a choke point, or simply move out of range and avoid being attacked altogether.
The terrain itself matters. Forests grant extra defense, while hills grant extra damage, for example. Tactical movement and positioning in a deck-building game really breaks open a great new dimension to how you think about them, not just in combat, but in deck-building. You have to figure out how many movement cards to fit into your deck and which ones.
You can adapt your deck to function better when surrounded or use the physical presence of enemies to block each other and take them out one by one. It elevates the game above being simply about generating higher numbers for both damage and defense, and it works really well. Especially when you factor in the final piece of the equation, the missions themselves.
As I mentioned before, each mission and map is handcrafted. Each one has very different objectives you have to complete in order to win. Nearly all of them exert some type of pressure on you that prevents you from exploring the whole board.
For example, you might have a limited number of turns to close some portals, you might have to protect some villages or stop a rampaging Oni from reaching a castle. This whole setup works great for a few reasons.
Firstly is the fact that while you have to move quickly, you can’t usually go straight for the objectives as you will be initially too weak. The board itself contains sites that allow you to pick from random cards, buy or upgrade cards, increase your stats, acquire relics, or complete side missions for various rewards.
You will never have the time to grab everything. You have to pick and choose where to go, and who to fight. Secondly, you have to measure your choices with the character you chose. There are four Mahokenshi to choose from, and each one has a very different playstyle. There is a common pool of cards that they can all access, but they each have a ton of cards dedicated to them.
Ayaka of the house of Ruby can fly and dash around the map while unleashing powerful attacks at the cost of her own health. Kaito of the house of Sapphire is a slow-moving tank that can reflect damage back at enemies. Sota of the house of Jade is a stealthy ninja that can utilize poison, while Misaki of the house of Topaz is a ranged attacker that can also teleport around and summon mystical wards.
In many deck builders, you would find a handful of combos that work for each character, and your path to getting those combos might vary, each run would have a similar feel.
That doesn’t work in Mahokenshi. At the start of each mission, your deck is reset. You have to tailor it not only to the character you are playing as but the mission itself. Each character has to tackle every mission in different ways.
If a mission has a group of Cultists slowly summoning a powerful Oni King. Kaito has to approach it very differently than Ayaka does. Furthermore, Kaito has to approach it differently than he did in another mission where he was guarding a handful of villages against hordes of monsters.
In Mahokenshi, you not only have a bunch of awesome variety from the four characters who play very differently, but the missions themselves. Each mission is a cleverly crafted challenge that exerts just the right amount of pressure to keep you moving while allowing you the freedom to forge your own key to solving it.
As you level up each of the four characters, you unlock new cards, gear, and relics. By completing specific challenges within each mission you also earn points that can be spent on various upgrades that affect all characters. They usually have passive bonuses, such as increased strength or having more cards for sale at the market, but I always felt the power of having them with each one I unlocked, which is great. Every bit of progression felt meaningful.
While Mahokenshi takes inspiration from popular rogue-lite deck builders, it isn’t a rogue-lite, not truly. That fact is both Mahokenshi’s greatest strength and most glaring weakness.
The handcrafted mission design works incredibly well. It adds some great structure to the game since winning means completing specific objectives. It forces you to tailor your deck differently to each mission, even when playing the same character and that kept me engaged. Completing a mission felt great because I felt like I outsmarted the challenge rather than stumbling into a powerful card combo that won me the game.
On the other hand, it greatly limits the replay value of Mahokenshi compared to similar games. You can squeeze more out of it by going back and completing every mission with every character. But taking it at face value, you could probably beat every mission in the game in around 6 hours. A little more if you failed a bunch and have to repeat them. I had around 16 hours in before writing this review.
However, I intentionally played more because, for one. I had a bug that prevented me from unlocking one of the characters, and I wanted to play that character. That bug has since been fixed. Then well, I tried to squeeze more out of the game because I really felt I was only beginning to grasp the true depth of each character…just as the game was ending.
Deck Builders are one of the most replayable genres out there, so it’s a bit of shell shock that Mahokenshi largely isn’t. Not because the mechanics don’t support the concept of being replayed, they certainly do. But as great as the mission structure is, it bottlenecks it. There are no difficulty settings either. Once you have completed a mission, it doesn’t have much left to offer you.
I had a great time with Mahokenshi. The blend of moving around the board, card play, deck building, and specific mission objectives is fantastic. The ancient Japanese mythological setting is lovingly illustrated throughout the entire game, and it was simply a joy to play.
One issue I had is the game didn’t run the best for most of my playtime. However, given the nature of the game, it was hardly noticeable. Performance did seem to improve with an update before I completed my review, however.
Mahokenshi’s biggest flaw is that I want more Mahokenshi. It feels like you’re just scratching the surface of the game’s systems when you run out of things to do. One of the things that makes Mahokenshi such a well-oiled cohesive package is the fact that its missions are hand-crafted. I love procedural generation, but the lack of it in Mahokenshi is truly for the best. Its replay value suffers for it though.
I just wish there were either more missions to play, difficulty settings to increase, or any kind of knobs and levers I could twist and turn to make repeating missions feel better than they do. The gameplay itself still feels fresh when the game runs out of juice, and that’s a bummer.
Mahokenshi adding a movement element to the deck-building genre is a stroke of brilliance that’s only matched by the clever way its mission structure requires you to constantly adapt your playstyle. It’s just a pity that the experience ends so quickly because it’s one that I definitely want to have more of.
More Deck Builder Video Game Reviews
- Moving around the game world adds a great dimension of strategy alongside the deck-building and card play
- Four characters with very different playstyles
- The handcrafted mission structure forces you to adapt your deck to each one
- The ancient Japanese mythology setting is awesome and is illustrated well.
- The upgrades you acquire feel impactful
- The game feels pretty short, especially for a deck-building game.
- There’s sadly not much replay value, which is a bummer because you will want to play more of it