On seeing a freemium game boasting two currencies and 80-quid IAPs, your first instinct would probably be to run a mile. And we admit to initially approaching Clash Royale rather like a piece of roadkill — at arm’s length and afraid of the stench.
Over the course of a week’s play, this app wormed its way into our affections, even resulting in us activating notifications for a game. We feel so dirty — and we love it.
House of cards
The game itself is an accessible two-player real-time strategy. Each team has a King castle flanked by two smaller outposts. Two lanes exist between the opposing territories, and it’s along those that you send battle units to smash up the towers or duff up anything in their path. If the King’s falls, game over; otherwise, whoever destroys the most towers wins.
The units vary wildly in nature and are deployed from a card-like deck, of which you hold a maximum of four at any one time. Deployments are further restricted by each unit having an ‘elixir’ cost, from a bar that slowly refills. In play, the various options on hand all look and perform very differently, from giants that obliterate towers with their massive fists to tiny scampering skeletons that surround and devour anything unlucky enough to get in their way.
While Clash Royale's set-up is quite basic and clearly designed for mobile play, there’s plenty of depth for strategising. Each round is only minutes long, the last of which finds elixir refuelling at a rapid rate, leading to frantic finales.
But mostly, battles are about working out on-the-fly what your opponent’s up to and countering accordingly, distracting units from monstering your towers, while simultaneously flinging out surprises of your own. During downtime, you can fiddle with your deck, devise new strategies, and then slowly go mad as Clash Royale invades your dreams.
The whiff of freemium becomes most stinky with the game’s chest system. Each battle awards you a locked chest, which is essentially a semi-randomised goodie bag of currency, cards and power-ups. But you only get four slots, and chests take hours to unlock — unless you pay to speed things up. When you’ve four chests slowly ticking down and the game warns you can’t hold more if you go into battle again, you know this is when Clash Royale wants you to cough up real-world cash.
Freemium drip feed
Initially, we found this irksome, but we soon cooled. If anything, this system stopped us falling headlong into playing Clash Royale 24/7, and instead resulted in us dipping in and out of the game every few hours, along with tapping on the longest unlocks just before going to bed. This kind of drip-feed became surprisingly compelling, and yet still afforded a real sense of progress.
For the impatient, this might still feel too restrictive. But along with Clash Royale’s automated battle match-ups broadly successfully pitting you against people with similar skills, optional training matches for experimenting with new cards, and the hugely fun nature of the game as a whole, this is one freemium title we’re happy to wholeheartedly recommend. Still, we hate ourselves a little bit for doing so.