Critical Review - Resident Evil: Mercenaries

Resident Evil has been just about everything and anything you can think of.  It started as a thriller/horror video game and has spawned movies, anime, tons of collectibles, and now, it's a Deck Building Game from Bandai!  


Bandai has been on a roll with successful Deck Builders recently, not just with Resident Evil, but also with the Star Trek Next Generation series and the Original Series.  We had the opportunity to recently play the Star Trek Original Series, and enjoyed it as a refreshing change to the Deck Builder Genre... but does Bandai make another solid venture into the genre with a completely different theme and rule set?


This review is going to specifically look at the Mercenaries expansion, but know that there is a base set and many more expansions available for this game to augment it and improve upon what you see here!  Check out the Resources links at the bottom of this review for more info!

Resident Evil is a fairly familiar feeling deck builder, combining some elements from other Deck Building Games that anyone who has played DBGs before will recognize and be comfortable with.  It does though, include some interesting new mechanics as well.  In addition, almost all the artwork is video game style and looks very good, but at times, can be a bit "drab" in color.  This fits the genre, but there are moments where you wish there was some lively esplosions or more colorful gunfire on the cards.

In Resident Evil, you will be using ammo and gold as your main resources. Ammo will be used to "load" weapons that you will play and use (you must be able to play an amount of ammo from your hand equal to or greater than a weapon's ammo requirement to deal the damage it can do) and Gold will be used to purchase new cards.  You will have access to Weapons, Items, Actions and Ammo cards to increase your deck's effectiveness.  


The goal?  Simple, enter "The Mansion" which is a separate deck of infected baddies, destroy as many as you can (which are worth Decorations when defeated) and find the big bad guy; more on him shortly.  When the big bad guy is defeated, game over, and whomever has the most Decorations wins the game!


In that sense, Resident Evil is a semi-cooperative game.  You want to work together to weed through the Mansion deck and defeat monsters, improving your skills and leveling up your character, but you also want to be the person with the highest amount of Decorations at the end.  So in most games, get ready for the "ok, I'm done helping you all now and I'm about to charge in and save the day" complex to come out possibly.


Now, while the base rules of Resident Evil will see you starting with 10 basic cards (7 x "Ammo x10", 2 x "Reliable Blade" and 1 x "Custom Standard Sidearm") and then having the ability to play them, acquire new cards and improve your deck, the first noticeable difference is that you play a character! You take on the role of a character in the Resident Evil universe and have both a health total along with an ability you gain when hit a specific level.  Some characters have two abilities they can level up to as well.  

On your turn, you can Buy one card, play one Action (an Action is an actual "Action" card; playing a card is not an Action... somewhat confusing, but easy to pick up once you get it), and go Exploring in the Mansion once. As you can imagine, playing ammo cards gives you ammo and gold. Playing a weapon AND being able to deal the damage value of it is only possible if you play enough ammo to "load" the weapon.  


Yes, there are cards that will provide you more Actions and more Buys per turn.  Sounds familiar right? If you have played Dominion, this system will feel extremely familiar, because, well, it is.  The trick in Resident Evil is that most cards in the main area to buy only have a stack of 5 or so cards, so not only do you have to acquire them fast, you have to make sure they are combined effectively with others to make an impact as you may only get 1 or 2 of a card you want/need.


When you are ready to go exploring in the Mansion, you simple declare it, ready your weapons, and draw the top card of the Mansion Deck.  It should be noted that the Mansion deck is filled with nothing good. It's got infected, beasts, and bad stuff galore, so only head in when you are confident you can kill whatever is on the other side of the door.  After revealing the top card and applying any game text affects, you check to see if the damage you can do is equal to, or great than, the infected’s health.  If so, you defeat it and you add it under your character, gaining an amount of Decorations printed on the card.  If you cannot defeat it, then it deals damage to your character equal to the monster's printed damage.


Decoratoins are key to both winning and leveling up.  As mentioned, each character has a "Level ability" and a Decoration amount next to it printed on their card.  Once you gain that many Dcorations, you unlock that level and have access to the ability.  In addition, the player with the most Decorations at the end of the game wins!  Oh, and yes, there are monsters in the Mansion that will steal your decorations!  


Also, watch your health!  If you character is having problems or runs into some bad luck of big bad guys you can't defeat and takes damage, there are cards that will heal you, there are skills that can heal you, or you can croak and come back once with half health.  Die twice though, and that's it, time to hit the restart button, and wait for others to finish the game.

The skill system I've mentioned is interesting as well.  You don't have to play the game with it, but if you chose, you can, using the provided skill cards.  Skills can be drafted at the beginning of a game or chosen.  We've enjoyed layering this rule onto the game and trying to tie specific skills to the character we're playing, from what we know of them in the Resident Evil universe, so that it makes it much more thematic.


If using the skill system, each player has 3 skills of varying levels.  Skills require XP to be used.  You can gain XP from some cards in the game, but primarily it is gained from exploring the Mansion.  Using the Skill system, you gain 1 XP every time you explore in the Mansion, whether you defeat the monster revealed or not, so it pushes you and accelerates the rate at which you explore.  Since there is a tendency to be cautious exploring, this is a nice accelerator and one I suggest playing the game with as it makes it much more complex, more enjoyable, and more thematic.


Game play continues until someone defeats the big bad guy.  In this game, it's some lovely chap called "The Red Executioner".  He makes an appearance in our video, but essentially, be prepared; he's big, he's tough, and he'll rough you up if you aren't ready for him!


Now, thinking in terms of review quality , there were some things that jumped out at me after reading the rules and looking at the cards for the first time.  First, it is nice to see that while Ammo cards provide Gold and Ammo, you don't have to choose one or the other.  They provide both.  Second, get used to the word "custom".  Almost every weapon in this set has that in it.  Custom Standard Sidearm (not sure how something can be custom and standard, but I digress)... the Custom Pump Action Shotgun... the Custom... well you get it.  It's a bit overused in my opinion, even for an expansion.

Component wise, the game is well done, but lacking a bit in one area.  It's 100% cards, and they are good quality, great videogame artwork. However, this game has you tracking a lot of health from your Character as they WILL take damage from exploring the Mansion... and there's nothing in the game to track that with.  That was a bit disappointing, but solvable with all the chits and bits gamers have hanging around.


Gameplay wise, the design works.  The ability for Ammo cards to provide both the gold and ammo they grant is good, as you aren't forced using one of the other.  The card combinations are excellent and fit the theme very well.  The lack of cards is frustrating though.  With small stacks of cards for purchasing, if one person ramps up on acquiring one major card, like Tear Gas, you can control the game easily.  This, I'm sure, can be fixed by just not playing this game with these cards alone, but using it as a true expansion, but if you plan on playing just this, it's good to know.


Additionally I liked the customization of the Mansion deck.  This set alone has several different scenarios you can use and build different decks of varying difficulty.  You can also customize your own, making it as hard or as easy as you like.  This was a nice and refreshing mechanic that both tied well with the theme and made for a lot of replayability.


Finally on gameplay, there is a Mercenary mode which is awesomely fun! It sees each character starting with their own specific starting deck, themed to the character of your choice.  You are timed, using a separate set of cards to track time, and have to kill or be killed.  It's fast, it's furious, and it's tense... but more importantly, probably one of the most fun experiences you'll have playing a DBG in a speed type fashion.


Experience wise, this game is filled with interaction.  Everyone wants to see what's being bought when it's not their turn, as with the limited supply of cards, one buy can change your plans.  Everyone also wants to see who comes out of the Mansion if someone explores.  In some cases, we found players egging on others to explore and "take one for the team".  An interesting thought we had was a "negotiation" type mechanic to be added in, where you can offer other players a card from your hand to help them if they go in.  They'd keep that card, but who knows, it may eliminate an infected and get you closer to the big bad guy!  Interesting, but again, a house rule only.


Overall, Resident Evil: Mercenaries is a corpse decaying good time and a well themed Deck Building Game.  It's not perfect on it's own, but it shows great potential to be added to a core set or other expansions for a lot of fun. It uses solid core mechanics and adds a nice character system and skill system to its fold that easily separates it and distinguishes it from the pack.  I definitely felt that while it was familiar, I wasn't playing a copy of something else. So, grab your custom-whatever-shoots-a-lot-of-bullets thingy, get some gold, ammo up, and let's go kill some infected!


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