The analog tribute that fighting games deserve.
Fighting games are one of my favorite video game genres. I could rattle off my history and favorites non-stop, talk about the incredible scene and friends I’ve made in it, all sorts of memories, but I’ll spare your time. Suffice it to say I love fighting games, so naturally I go out of my way to play any tabletop attempt at capturing their energy on the tabletop. From Yomi (fun but overwrought) to BattleCON (highly strategic) to Exceed (less-thinky BattleCON) to Combo Fighter (bad), I’ve seen my share, and Pocket Paragons captures the intensity of the genre better than any of its tabletop contemporaries. But in order to explain why PP works I need to explain one of the most celebrated concepts in all of fighting game-dom: the hard read.
Predicting your opponent is important in any game. We call those predictive plays “reads”. A good non-game-specific example of a read might be knowing when to block a particular move or figuring out an opponent’s patterns/habits. But there’s reads, and then there’s hard reads. Hard reads are throwing someone three times in a row because you know that they think you won’t do it again. Hard reads are parrying your opponent’s entire combo and punishing to take the round. Hard reads are downloading your opponent and beating them so thoroughly you inflict real psychological damage. Hard reads are some of the most satisfying moments fighting games have to offer, and Pocket Paragons is a playable tribute to those moments.
At its core PP is built around a rock/paper/scissors mechanism similar to other fighting-card-games. Players simultaneously pick ability cards, reveal them, then resolve and discard the used abilities. If an ability counters another the loser gets their move bounced back to hand before resolution and the winner swings unopposed. Simple, but unlike Yomi or Combo Fighter there’s a few more options to consider. A dedicated block card helps take your opponent’s options out of commission with less risk, the rest card lets you pick up your used options at the risk of getting socked, and then there’s the weapon card, an attack outside of the RPS triangle that has a special effect: instant execution if it connects while your opponent is resting.
Comebacks are a THREAT in this game. No matter how well a match is going or how many punches you land, if your opponent gets a hard read on you and lands that critical execute you are DONE. This makes every match tense beyond belief on the level of some of my favorite fighters, in particular Samurai Shodown. You’ll trade a few blows testing your opponent, knowing full well that you’ll have to give them a window to ruin you in order to press the advantage. Resting doesn’t just give you your options back, it also grants an energy, which you need to fuel your character’s ultimate card that I intentionally left out above in the explanation because I like storytelling.
Each rest and counter you land earns you one energy, and characters need anywhere from 1-3 of it in order to turn their ultimate on. Some characters gain a passive, some pick up a new attack, and some even start with it in play for alternate effects, but all of them change the game fundamentally. You’re now playing some kind of alternate dimension high stakes explosive RPS. The amount of double-think and Sicilian logic-games here is greater than any game with a similar framework thanks to the constant threat of destruction looming over both parties.
But death is not the end, as Pocket Paragons is best played with teams of 3. Not only does this mean the matchups change as your characters are eliminated, but more importantly the absolute coolest part of the game comes into play: Inheritance. In the team game dead characters get to secretly pass down one of their cards to the next fighter, replacing their matching card. By adding a constructed element into the actual play of the game PP elevates itself beyond what most fighting card games offer. Counterpicking is more than just matchup knowledge; you can literally take the move your opponent struggles against the most and just keep using it, or swap a better weapon and go for executions, or something truly bizarre for 300 IQ plays. It bends the RPS triangle in amazing ways, and in so doing creates more opportunities for truly incredible reads.
This is the crux: the reason PP is more successful at emulating fighting games than other analog fighters is because it understands the emotional highs that make fighting games great. Every read you make is glorious. Every win you get feels earned, while losses always happened for an identifiable reason. Every card you pass on feels like you’ve done something illegally powerful. You’re literally always engaged, and never fussing with rules-y exceptions; the game has you actively playing at all times. The vibes are just right, and that’s everything in a game like this. The fact that it does it with fewer cards than any of its competitors and in less time blows my mind. This system is tuned perfectly, polished to a mirror sheen, with nary a trace of waste in its form or function.
I don’t just recommend Pocket Paragons, I am IN on Pocket Paragons. It is the game I care the most about right now, the one I’ll play over anything else and drop other games in order to play more of. I think about it when I’m not playing it, concocting new teams and theory-crafting what they’ll inherit. Everyone I’ve introduced it to has enthusiastically asked for rematches, then came up with characters from other games they’d love to see ported in (and I rage quit whenever I get reverse-sweeped, fuck you Demetri – K). I want tournaments for this, competition, a scene that it deserves. And in a first among all the Kickstarter previews I’ve ever done I’ll be backing it myself, with my own money, because we enjoyed playing it way too much for me to not want the real deal. It has the potential to be a truly great tournament game, the kind of thing worth rallying around, and I fully intend to do my part.
Preview copy provided by Solis Game Studio. You can check out the KS page here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/solisgamestudio/pocketparagons