When you first enter Wands on your Quest, you appear in an eccentric-looking workshop lit by candlesticks.
This is your workshop. A secret place where you can practice your magic without the fear of discovery. Your friend greets you upon arrival. He is glad you’ve returned. “There is much to be done.” This, you know. As you move from workstation to station, you ready yourself for the next opponent you’re going to face: though they are a mystery. When you are ready to modify your wand, you choose the four spells to take with you into the arena. You can only guess what is going to be helpful once you’re in the heat of battle. You choose your disguise. Finally, when you’re ready, you psych yourself up with a few internal pep-talks and prepare for your battle as you step into the portal.
A voice that sounds like its coming from an intercom (radio?) begins a tutorial. This struck me as odd– because the setting of the game suggests the game takes place sometime in or before the nineteenth century–a time before radio existed.
The tutorial is somewhat entertaining, and you do come away with a general sense of how to use the controls. You also learn how to customize your wand, a large staff that can only carry 4 spells at a time, well 5 if you include teleport. The game seems to include teleportation as a spell though I don’t think that the only method of locomotion within the game should be viewed as a spell.
While you’re in tutorial mode, you’re shown how to teleport to arenas and taken to what appears to be a sewer. This is where you can try out any spells you’ve acquired on some dummies.
The wand controls are incredibly clunky. It takes a few seconds to cycle through your spells to pick the one you want. If you need to use a defensive spell quickly, as is often required, this is a severe disadvantage. In gameplay, there is a small buffer for this. Each player only has a limited amount of ‘mana’ which takes time to recharge. Now, Wands was adapted from the Oculus Go version, which only has a touchpad. I think not adapting the controls for the quest was a mistake on the part of the developers. There are, after all, 4 game buttons on the Quest controllers (A, B, X, Y), in addition to the grip and trigger buttons. Being able to access my spells more quickly would have significantly improved my gameplay experience.
Another slight drawback: even though you can see both of your hands, only one controller actually works. This appears to be another carry-over limitation from Wands‘s initial development with platforms like the Go, which only have one controller.
Even if your left hand is visible in the world the developers created for you, it’s vestigial. Frankly, this annoyed me. I tend to think games should follow Chekhov’s rule. Every element in a game must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed. Elements shown should not appear to make “false promises” by never coming into play. Having an extra hand that is there, but useless just reeks of unrealized potential – which seems very much to be an underlying theme throughout this game, at least to me.
Wands is a two-player dueling game. Duels always last three minutes, and whoever has the most HP left at the end of the three minutes wins. Of course, you can also win by knocking-out all of your opponents HP.
While you can level-up and gain experience by defeating opponents, leveling up doesn’t give you any significant advantage in gameplay. However, you can obtain new spells and new avatars. No matter what level you are, you always enter the arena with the same set amount of HP and ‘mana’ as your opponent. ‘Mana’ will recharge every few seconds, and you can heal your HP with Gold syringes that appear in the arena during the first two minutes of gameplay). Otherwise, it won’t recharge.
Even as you level up you gain access to new spells, you can only take 4 spells with you into battle no matter what level you are. While I like the idea that a newbie can take on an experienced player, I also saw this as a missed opportunity to incentivize gameplay.
Each spell has a spell that can counter or neutralize it, but knowing which spells counter others isn’t always an advantage, especially if you’re facing an opponent whose spells you can’t counter effectively. You generally don’t know who you’re going to meet, or what spells your opponent will have equipped in their wands. As a result, I began to take at least two defensive spells into the arena with me. This kept me alive until the end of battles, but also made it more difficult to defeat my opponent.
You vs. AI
The AI opponent is a great way to practice if you’re nervous about playing a real human right out of the gate, or don’t feel like interacting with actual people. The AI, like many an AI, is very predictable. I can only attribute this to the limited number of spells you’re allowed to bring into the arena. For the most part, the AI generally uses the same 4 spells no matter what level you progress to with only a few variations.
Even as you level up, the AI doesn’t appear to get any smarter or harder to defeat. This great if you just want to level up without having to worry about losing too often. It’s also a great way to practice new spells…but it also makes solo gameplay tedious after a while.
You vs. Friend
I think playing a friend in Wands the most fun way to experience this game. If there is anything Wands was built for, it is sh!t-talking and razzing your friends.
“Better luck next time, Sucka!”
“Oh, man, You dead.”
You can engage in this type of stirring conversation as you batter each-other senseless. Also, while a human opponent is less predictable than a machine, if you’re playing the same group of people, you can start to understand their patterns over time. Still, they also begin to adapt to yours, so this simple game becomes a lot more entertaining.
More than anything, Wand’s friend-mode reminds me of the late nights in high-school and college taking out some nerdy aggression in Golden-Eye or Super Smash Brothers. I think Wands would be infinitely more fun in friend-mode if there was a ‘party’ setting, where you could battle multiple friends. As time wore on, I definitely longed for that type of functionality, though I do realize that would defeat the purpose of a “dueling” game.
You vs. Random
For some reason, whenever I chose to battle a random opponent, it always took ages for me to pair with someone. I found myself bored silly while standing in a rather stunning “lobby.” The graphics in the vast lobby were gorgeous, but just standing around is just no fun. While you’re in the lobby, you do have the option to leave and just battle the AI, but when you do, the game also stops trying to pair you with another human.
If I did have the patience to stand still in the lobby long enough to get paired with someone, I almost always had my ass handed to me by someone who was a much better player. No matter how much I leveled up, usually, whoever I was playing was just…better. I found this a little disheartening. Still, my lack of magical skill isn’t the game’s fault, and I definitely don’t hold this against Wands or its incredible team of developers.
If you’re feeling brave, you can choose to converse as you try to find a way to kill a random stranger. Maybe you’ll make a friend? You also can choose to mute your opponent (if you’re worried about talking to a creep), which is always an advantage. For the most part, any time I was paired with a random opponent, one or both of us chose to mute our microphones, and I think that’s for the best. Personally, while I love shit-talking my friends, I’m less comfortable doing so with strangers on the internet.
Gameplay with an opponent is always the same no matter who you’re playing. A random opponent will almost always help you develop your magical skills more quickly than playing a predictable friend or algorithm-driven AI. You’re also less likely to know which spells you should take into the arena with you because you don’t know anything about who your facing. It was facing random opponents that convinced me that the best offense is a good defense, for example.
Drawbacks of random opponents: you can’t host a random opponent, and your arena is always chosen for you. I would have liked the option to have some kind of home-court advantage occasionally. I also would have liked the ability to select a skill range to battle. As a newbie, it would have been nice to battle other newbies. As I got more skilled, I didn’t enjoy beating someone who just started playing. It seemed…unjust.
There are six arenas in Wands. All of them are absolutely beautifully designed immersive works of art and provide a unique challenge of their own. Each arena has a set number of health “pick-ups” that will allow you to heal yourself periodically throughout gameplay for the first two minutes of each battle. Each arena also has at least ten teleportation tiles, and each arena has a unique magical property.
A fiery dungeon and what I imagine hell would be like. About a minute into any match in the Apsis Prison, a gigantic, and very fake looking skeleton emerges to spit fireballs down the center of the arena. He is easy to avoid, though, in the heat of battle, you might still get caught and take a good chunk of damage. The first time I played in Apsis Prison, I thought my AI opponent had summoned the skeleton. Nope. It’s all apart of the scenery, folks. I also learned that you can’t defeat this skeleton. Once he appears, he stays to wreak havoc till the end.
The Temple of Ophidian
Reminiscent of Indiana Jones, the temple’s power is giant rolling stones that roam the corridors in periodic intervals. The only places in the arena where you are safe from getting smushed are teleportation tiles in the very center of the arena. An eternal conundrum presents itself! To be safe from getting squished and losing a ton of HP, you have to put yourself in a most vulnerable position and risk attack or ambush by your opponent. However, each rolling stone is preceded by a distinctive sound, so, as long as you’re vigilant, you can avoid getting hit… but in the heat of battle, good luck with that. There is an advantage to this arena: The temple of Ophidian is full of corridors without a line of sight. Those provide a lot of strategic hiding places, so you can probably hide safely at least for a few seconds if you need to recharge your magic.
My personal favorite, simply because I didn’t love the aspects of the other arenas where they continuously try to kill you. The Celestial Halls is an absolutely stunning arena that only has a few rooms, but allows for some hiding spaces if you care to recover. Its “special power” is an energy portal on the ground floor. If you teleport inside the energy portal, your mana regenerates quickly, as long as you stay on the tile. Still, you’re also more vulnerable and lose more HP if you’re attacked.
Ortis station is an Asian-styled arena with trains that periodically pass by, cutting off access to non-visible areas of the arena. You cannot attack around the trains, either. The trains come with a significant advantage: they have “pick-ups” unique to this arena. If you point your wand at the pick-ups as they pass by, you can teleport for 15 seconds without using any of your mana (leaving more mana for spellcasting).
Dead Masters Vale
Another of my favorite arenas. Lots of hiding spaces to recharge if you need a little air during the heat of battle. The center of the arena has a rotating crystal in the sky above your heads. Every once-in-a-while, the crystal will change colors and then either attack or heal the player closest to it. It turns red when it’s about to shoot a beam that will hurt, and blue when it’s ready to heal. Because the crystal changes color before it shoots its beam, you can choose to hide from it. However, in the heat of battle, you’re probably not looking up the whole time, and sometimes you’ll inevitably get zapped.
Sanctum of Sahir
This arena keeps you moving. When you begin gameplay, you start on the outside of the Sanctum. Every minute you survive, another door opens. The arena forces you to move through the door by making the previous area uninhabitable, first by a sandstorm, then by poison gas. Although the first two sections of the Sanctum are vast, there are no places to hide. Teleport in this arena to get a health pick-up and because you’re being chased by the arena. In the last minute of the match, you and your opponent are forced into the final inner sanctum: cramped space with no health pick-ups. There is nothing to do but shoot spells at each other until one of you is dead. Any time I’ve battled in the Sanctum of Sahir, it’s always ended on a TKO. Each player is just too exposed.
Your spells are your weapons when dueling an opponent. When you start out as a new player, you have access to the four spells pre-loaded into your wand (and teleport). When you go through the tutorial, you will pick up an additional spell. However, you can only ever have four spells at a time per battle. Even as you level up, this does not change. You have to pre-select which spells you will carry with you. You also have no way of knowing, ahead of time, who your opponent might be, or what their spells are – unless you’re playing against a friend, of course.
If you’re playing a lower-level opponent, they have limited access to spells — but this does not confer any particular advantage on you as a higher level player. Whenever you level up, you gain the ability to unlock one new spell: any spell you want. While each spell has a counter-spell, as a low-level player, this doesn’t mean much: you only have access to a few. Currently, there are 26 spells available. The developers will keep adding spells as time goes on to keep the game interesting.
Personally, when I play a game, I love customizing it as much as possible. Wands gives you a lot of space to make your experience unique. In the workshop, you can change the avatar your opponents see when they play you. However, no matter which character you choose, what you see does not change. You will always see yourself as a pair of disembodied hands in brown leather gloves.
I had a few problems with Wand’s characters. For one, as I stated above, you only see yourself as a pair of gloved hands: I really would have liked for the gloves to change with my characters. For another, the characters were all…well, depressing. I know this is a magic game where magic wielders battle each-other to death. I know they’re going for a sort of steampunk vibe, and it definitely comes across, but do all of the characters need to be so dark?
I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters, and because I couldn’t see my avatar anyway, there wasn’t much motivation to bother changing my avatar from the default knight. The characters were also costly to purchase. Again, here I see real potential for improvement: each character could come with a different pair of disembodied gloves or a custom spell unique to that character. This would make purchasing a new character worthwhile and keep the duels interesting. Each new opponent you face might then have a unique ability you couldn’t possess.
Again, I really appreciate the ability to customize elements of gameplay whenever I pick up a new game. In the workshop, you can choose to modify the appearance of your wand. Purchasing a new wand requires winning a lot of battles, however. As expensive as these skins are, they don’t confer any advantage on their wielder. They don’t affect gameplay whatsoever. I found this to be another unfortunate missed opportunity to incentivize gameplay. If a wand’s appearance also gave it some power (maybe a spiral wand conferred some damage protection), I would have logged a lot more hours in the arenas to try to earn new wands.
Truthfully, the longevity of this game is dependant on what kind of person you are. This is a great game if you enjoy one-on-one battles. This is a great game if you always wanted to be a wizard. There are games, like this one, that simply focus on fighting for the fun of it: GoldenEye and Smash Brothers come to mind.
I will say that I did not enjoy that the only functionality of the game were these one-on-one matches. After a few battles with the AI, I almost always became bored due to the lack of challenge. At the other extreme, I was so overmatched by random opponents that I found myself reluctant to step back in. It was crushing – having my ass handed to me so thoroughly.
Eventually, I built myself up to be a better player and hold my own, but what kept me going was knowing I’d have to write this review, rather than fun or challenge of the game itself.
Dueling is the point of Wands. As a dueling game, it is very good, and I’m going to be grading it from that perspective. However, in the tutorial, the disembodied voice set up a promise of a whole world with grandiose statements. You learn in the first few minutes that magic is forbidden above. You learn you have a patron: Lord Gault, who apparently gave you this fancy workshop. Knowing nothing about Wands the first time I played, I believed that – beyond dueling friends (and one algorithmic AI that never changes strategies) – I would be discovering the purpose of my magic.
I would have liked a campaign mode so I could see the world referenced in the tutorial. I would have wanted to know WHY I’m battling other magic wielders. I’d love a chance to quest and develop my skill as I went along, playing increasingly difficult AI or different AI altogether. I would have loved a background story to go with the arenas. Why these places? I would have loved a story mode that explained all of those elements first referenced in the tutorial – even if they were just represented as random letters from this mysterious Lord Gault – appearing in the workshop at intervals. That, on its own, would have incentivized me to keep playing.
Seriously, I want to know more about this Lord Gault person.
I also would have loved a party-mode and/or the ability to team up with friends — and not just beat them to a pulp. But all of that represents me and the kind of person I am, the kind of game I enjoy, and I’m not necessarily Wand’s target audience.
Many play to level up their avatar. Many play to win more swag, new wands, and new spells. I personally love the ability to customize a game, as I have said throughout my review. Wands definitely goes out of its way to let you personalize your game experience. There are enough characters, wands, spells, and arenas that you can have a unique gameplay experience every time you log into your workshop.
On weekends, you can often level up more quickly, as there are often promotions offering double experience points within specific time-frames. Best of all, the Wands development team is continually updating its platform, so many of the issues I had with the game may well disappear as time goes on. I’d keep my eye on their updates.
If you’re into one-on-one, adrenaline-fueled, gameplay (and, of course, magic), this is a game you will definitely enjoy. The basic gameplay is relatively static, and the number of arenas is limited, but the ability to play against endless opponents and customize your wand’s appearance and spell loadout, keeps the battles interesting.
Even though some elements of Wands are can be tedious, in general, it is a genuinely fun social experience. And yeah: magic.
TLDR : Summary
Although the AI opponent does not increase in difficulty, and there is no campaign or story mode, Wands gives you the ability to wield magic against a wide choice of one-on-one opponents in stunningly designed arenas.