A decent tactical match-three, but not the master

Rune Masters is a game I really wanted to like. It’s got some good ideas and a lot of potential, and the core gameplay is challenging and fun. But close, as they say, is no cigar.

Rune Masters was apparently “inspired” by the popular Puzzle Quest series, and there’s no mistaking the lineage. In simple terms, it’s a match-three game played competitively against the computer, with a fantasy RPG backdrop providing a sense of purpose and advancement. You begin the game as one of six stereotypical fantasy classes, like the barbaric Trigoth Hunter, the pious Priest or the quick-handed Thief, after which you immediately fall under the tutelage of “the Captain.” The Captain looks like the sort of guy who should be guarding something, like a castle or a village, but apparently he’s just around to train people who want to take a shot at becoming the Rune Master. He gives you a very basic lowdown on how to play, has you beat up on a couple of harmless opponents and then sends you off to make your way in the world.

The game board is divided into tile-covered squares, each tile representing one of the four classic elements – earth, air, fire and water – or potions that restore mana. Each row or column on the board can be moved in any direction, one square at a time, with the goal being to create horizontal or vertical rows of at least three tiles of the same type. Matched tiles disappear from the board, all the remaining tiles fall down to take their place, damage is calculated based on the number of tiles destroyed and other factors, and so it goes until either you or your computerized opponent are out of hit points.

It’s not just a willy-nilly clickfest, however – Rune Masters is actually turn-based. Each player has an “action bar,” and one you’ve made your move, you can’t make another until the bar has refilled. It can take some time to get used to the start-stop nature of the turn-based gameplay, but it does give Rune Masters more of a strategic feel than conventional match-three games. The enforced pauses, even though they’re very brief, offer a chance to scan the board and formulate moves, something that you just don’t get from most games of this type.

Obviously, being faster than your opponent provides a significant advantage, and some classes, like the Scout, specialize in high-speed attacks. But speed is only one of six attributes that will determine how you fare in battle. You can boost your strength to improve the damage you deal in attacks, or your health and endurance to increase your capacity to absorb it. Wisdom helps you deflect magical damage, while mana makes it easier to dish it out.

Rune Masters

There are also four unique magical skills that can be learned and improved, one for each of the elements, that add an extra dimension of tactics to the game and quickly become vital to success. On top of that, you’re able to carry items that will help smooth your journey to becoming Rune Master. The inventory is very basic, consisting of just armor, weapon and amulet, but there are different items of each sort to choose from, affording some degree of flexibility in how you shape your character.

Unfortunately, while individual battles can be very challenging and intense, the game’s level progression doesn’t provide much in the way of enemies to do battle with. Lower-level enemies are locked out once you’ve advanced too far beyond them, which means you’ll inevitably find yourself beating up the same guy over and over again until you’re comfortable or skilled enough to take on the next opponent in the hierarchy. The money needed to buy items from the marketplace is similarly limited to a fairly small portion of enemies, so you’ll end up farming them repeatedly in order to build up your cash. Not that you’ll need a lot of it; the marketplace has a limited number of items for sale, and they don’t change. But taking on the same enemy several times in succession, especially once you’ve begun beating him easily and soundly, can grow tiresome in a hurry.

Rune Masters isn’t particularly complex, but you’ll have to figure out the details on your own. The tutorial is extremely basic and says nothing about how to recharge your mana, for instance, or how to score a critical strike or what the crosses beneath each enemy’s image represent. Spelling and grammar is rough throughout (I would guess that English isn’t the developer’s first language) and the use of language is often completely inappropriate for the fantasy setting, such as when the Captain says that you need to know “when to throw a knife and when a nuke.” A lot of the in-game art is pretty sketchy too, and you can’t even change player profiles (the game supports up to three) without exiting and restarting.

Rune Masters

A “classic” mode offers the same basic match-three gameplay on a bigger board and in time-limited rounds rather than against a computerized opponent. But without the turn-based twist and RPG context, the gameplay really isn’t interesting enough to it to make it worth bothering with.

I’m pretty sure there’s a game in here that I could really like, if only it wasn’t mired in an overly narrow design and sloppy execution. What Rune Masters does well – the actual battle bits – it does very well indeed. But the rest of the game, which is to say most of the game, just isn’t up to snuff.