Card games certainly have their place in Nintendo's history; any fan of Pokémon will know just how important the trading cards were to the series' success, especially upon its début in the '90s. While it may seem strange to turn a card game into a video game — after all, much of the appeal comes from the physical act of using cards — those, too, have carved out a significant niche in the annals of gaming history. Hearthstone, a digital-only collectible card game based on the Warcraft franchise, hit 20 million users in the span of six months; Nintendo's own Pokémon Trading Card Game Online remains a popular option for players looking to scratch that Poké-itch even after the relative decline in popularity of the physical cards.

Now, Nintendo fans get an exclusive entry in the genre with Lucadian Chronicles, which wears its love for popular card fantasies like Magic: The Gathering on its sleeve. This Wii U title is striking in its detail, from the absolutely gorgeous art on each individual card to a nicely written set of tutorials and rules that can help even the least experienced with the genre get a piece of the action. Its story isn't exactly going to leave a lasting impression, and the overall presentation can be a bit inconsistent at times, but Dark Roast Entertainment's card combat epic features a multitude of player-friendly customization options and play styles that make it an absolute must-try for any fan of the genre.

Trying the game is definitely an option, too, since Lucadian Chronicles follows the "free-to-play" model that allows players to experience a small portion of content for nothing while locking most of it away behind paid DLC. While this has understandably been a great source of ire for gamers in recent years, this particular version does away with all of the usual frustrations — there are no nickel-and-diming microtransactions or overpowered pay-to-win packs to be seen here. It's essentially the same model Nintendo mostly used with Steel Diver: Sub Wars, where a small one-time cost unlocks all the included content. Since card games are complex — this one being no exception — the ability to try out a significant chunk of the campaign for free definitely holds a lot of appeal for those who are unwilling to take the (relatively inexpensive) plunge.

None of this would matter, of course, if the content itself wasn't worth the price of admission. Thankfully, there's a lot to be experienced once you've opted for the full game. Just don't go in with high expectations for the story: the campaign, which follows a ragtag group of warriors as they fight against increasingly pompous baddies in a Tolkien-lite fantasy world, has about as generic and bland a narrative as you can get from such material. It seems like a missed opportunity, especially since the larger-than-life characters depicted in the cards' brilliant art seem like they should be sharply defined and much more interesting — unfortunately, the joyless dialogue and trite fantasy clichés neuter any potential interest they might have generated. As disappointing as that is, the story was clearly never the focus of the developers; that honour goes to the intricacies of the battle mechanics and the structure of the campaign, which can be extremely rewarding if you — pardon the pun — play your cards right.

In the campaign, you'll traverse a world map and come across various bad guys ready for a beatdown; finish them, and you'll get money which can be used to purchase new cards. Each battle has a specific set of extra conditions for extra cash, too (use only so many cards, don't let any of your cards get knocked out), and you can battle as many times as you want in pursuit of them. These reward players' knowledge of the rules, which can be easily picked up thanks to an extensive set of available tutorials. The deeper you get into the game and the more cards you unlock, the more varied strategies you'll be able to employ — since card games can seem impenetrable to onlookers, it's nice that Lucadian Chronicles starts you off small. Best of all, there's a special mode where you can test out any of your available cards in battle against each other, making it that much easier to compile strategies for the campaign and online multiplayer.

Presentation-wise, this doesn't break any new ground — a sentiment to be expected when most of the graphics are static images. As mentioned before, however, the art on the cards is absolutely outstanding; the gallery, which lets you look at each card in greater detail, is a fun diversion when you've had your fill of combat. The soundtrack is also surprisingly well-constructed, offering a suitably epic score to back your battles.

Unfortunately, the presentation can be inconsistent in other areas; this reviewer experienced some bizarrely long loading times on occasion, as well as instances where the music and sound simply cut out for no apparent reason. These issues won't render the game unplayable, but they're not exactly pleasant when they come about.

Conclusion

Lucadian Chronicles is a wonderful exclusive for the Wii U, offering a lot of bang for your buck — if you choose to jump in. The much-maligned free-to-play model is actually put to good use here, allowing players to sample the campaign before unlocking the full experience for a reasonable price. It's paltry sum to pay for all the content, which includes a nicely structured campaign, a number of beautifully illustrated cards, and several modes dedicated to helping you build the best strategies. The story's rather lame, and the occasional presentational hiccup can be jarring, but these shouldn't deter players interested in the genre — anyone who enjoys card games, either online or physically, should at least give this one a spin.