South Park: Phone Destroyer is a collectable card game that offers some light tactical tower defense-esque mechanics as the kids of the quiet mountain town play their various dress-up games, everything from Gizmo Ike (which may be the cutest thing you'll ever see) to Choir Boy Butters (he's deadly) and Sheriff Cartman (a gun-touting tank). There is some brilliant writing and imaginary cosplay creations and the game just oozes of top-notch production values. Very much in the vein of The Stick of Truth and The Fractured but Whole, you are the new kid and it seems you're being used in a scheme of Cartman's as you'd expect.
The game offers solo campaign missions ranging from different themes from the old west to pirates, fantasy, and sci-fi. Oh, and there's religion thrown in there for good measure. The missions see you play cards within your zone of control, there are ranged units you'll want to protect, tank units (like Sheriff Cartman or Officer Barbrady), damage dealers, and rogue types (typically tiny kids like Ike and Sally). There's a nice paper-rock-scissors idea of who to use for what purpose, but it's a bit more complex thanks to special abilities and bonuses (some units like Alien Clyde do poison damage, for example). It's really a well-crafted system and win or lose you'll always know why it played out the way it did.
As you'd expect in a card game the monetisation here speaks to your wish to build your deck and improve your chances in PvP. Clearly, a better deck will win most matches, but not all, and there's also matchmaking in place to make it less punishing on new players (you typically face opponents of similar level and skill, and we've both won and lost to opponents of higher and lower rank). Another thing that helps ease the grind is teams where you can gain bonus coins by donating cards and requesting ones you need (for leveling up purposes). It's not a terrible system overall, but this is a game that's going to be difficult to play longterm if you don't plan on investing some money to build your deck.
South Park has been poking fun at things for a couple of decades and naturally, some of their material contradicts older material, but you have to wonder if South Park: Phone Destroyer doesn't take the cake. Back in season 18, there was an episode called "Freemium isn't Free" where Stan is addicted to a mobile game, and as it turns out it was actually created by the Canadian Devil. Now, it's not like a game like South Park: The Fractured but Whole is without microtransactions, and on mobile these days you pretty much don't have a choice but to go free-to-play. Yet it somehow is all the more troubling when the disclaimer for Phone Destroyer says it 'should not be played by anyone'. That joke isn't funny anymore.
We really don't mind microtransactions all that much in this sort of game. But when it's combined with a hard to overview system of upgrades and currencies, along with "special offers" that are timed such that earning enough premium currency to buy said special packs by playing is completely unreasonable, it comes across as predatory. The cost of buying single packs is also relatively high. The slow grind to earn premium currency, the fact that you can't farm packs via PvP without resetting a timer (using premium currency, of course), makes what could have been a funny joke and mechanic such as "the great play wall of China" where you have to win PvP matches to progress in the solo campaign sound hollow. There may not be paywalls here, but there sure is a rather hefty amount of friction and grind.
It's difficult to laugh at sleazy moustache Cartman in his shop when it feels like the game is trying to squeeze you for money at every turn. To be honest, it's got more to do with the moral high ground South Park took in the past than anything else; while progress did slow for a bit, we haven't paid to get premium currency or bought special packs outright, and still progressed through the story at a relatively decent pace, though it certainly feels like you have to grind in order to upgrade your cards. We'd even say that when there's an event on, like the recent one involving PC Principal (giving you extra rewards for PvP) progression pace is actually quite decent for a freemium title.
It's probably the upgrade system that's the weakest part of the game, as you're really encouraged to focus in on a small deck for a number of reasons rather than there being an incentive to build a broad collection and multiple decks. You can only use cards from two "universes" in one deck, and upgrading a card also upgrades your avatar, something that's beneficial in the campaign (more health, more damage dealt for your player character), but that will matchmake you with more difficult opponents online. These in turn may have doubled down on upgrading fewer cards, thus having more powerful cards in a single deck rather than trying to upgrade all their collected cards over multiple decks. Matchmaking isn't purely down to your avatar level as there's a separate PvP rank (you advance with wins, so it's not exactly a skill ranking). We're not sure how that plays out in the late game, but we certainly felt it like the game punished us for upgrading cards out of curiosity, and in a game where there's much fun and variation to be found in the cards this feels like a poor design choice.
Another issue we've got with the game is that it doesn't reward you for a great effort. If you beat a mission that's deemed extremely difficult you're still treated to the same lockers with random loot, and the same goes for beating a better-ranked opponent in PvP. Of course, losing gets you nothing, but we still feel there should be some sort of incentive for beating the odds.
Phone Destroyer is a big game that is presumably going to be updated with more content down the line. For the purpose of this review, we spent around 15 hours or so playing the game, playing hundreds of missions and PvP matches. Each story mission can be completed at 15 different difficulty levels, and we got to episode 9 (level 45) before sitting down to write this review, so there's a ton of content to conquer here.
The PvP is really where the best action is and we've had many enjoyable romps. At first there were some connection issues (which rewarded us with easy wins), but lately, it's been very robust. There's much to explore here and the PvP packs are the best way of progressing and collecting new cards, apart from the free packs Cartman begrudgingly hands out every four hours. There's something utterly beautiful about a game that ends up in Sudden Death and where you land the winning blow as four enemy units bear down on your avatar with deadly intent, landing your single unit's special ability (in our case, Space Warrior Token's charge).
This is a great game that unfortunately gets a bit overshadowed by the perceived double-standards of its business model and its overly complex system of upgrades, special packs, currencies, and items. Nevertheless, if you're a fan of South Park you should give it a try just because it offers great production values, plenty of fan service, and Randy moments (Sixth Element Randy is worth a google).