Discover the game of competitive scribbling, ideally with a friend.
Doodle Hex is a one-on-one battle game that demands a swift but steady hand to draw runes on the DS touch screen, each one performing a different spell for use against your opponent. This stylus-based combat successfully evokes both intricate turn-based battling and reflex-dependent fighting games, creating a unique brand of duelling without feeling gimmicky. However, thin single player content and an uninspired theme act as weak vehicles for Doodle Hex's well-executed core gameplay, failing to entice players to explore its arcane depths in the absence of the readily accessible multiplayer battles necessary to enjoy it to the fullest.
Leaving aside its superfluous, derivative magic school setting and the entirely unappealing characters that reside within, Doodle Hex is all about head-to-head battling as you try to drain your opponent's life away in a best of three rounds contest. The action takes place on the touch screen, with a central circle for drawing runes (symbols that activate spells) that serve as attacks or status effects, depending on the rune's type. When a rune is drawn, it creates an orb that begins travelling around the central circle from your character's icon towards your opponent's. A rune takes effect when the orb makes contact with its target, but this can be prevented by blocking, performed by holding the stylus on your own icon to create a shield.
On the surface, something with the same structure as a one-on-one fighting game based on rapidly drawing symbols with the stylus seems at risk of devolving into a scribble-fest equivalent to button mashing. Doodle Hex skilfully avoids this fate in two crucial ways. Firstly, the impeccable quality of the stylus input recognition means that there is never a need to keep redrawing symbols in order to get them to work, but appropriately accurate penmanship is required, so a measure of skill is involved. More importantly, the gameplay design is geared towards strategy and precise execution—spamming runes is not a viable route to victory.
Casting runes requires mana energy, with more powerful runes exacting a greater cost on your mana meter. This meter replenishes itself as long as you are not blocking incoming attacks, but does so at a rate that means continuous rune-casting is largely out of the question. The most effective way to clobber your opponent's health meter is by hitting them with combination attacks; for instance, a rune that temporarily disables shielding immediately followed by a focused barrage of direct attacks. Different types of runes travel around the circle at different speeds, thus the execution of combos depends on precise timing such that runes drawn at different times hit your opponent at roughly the same time, and in the right order. Successfully executing a tactical combo with a few precise, perfectly timed strokes of the stylus is uniquely satisfying, especially as this is much easier said than done in the heat of battle.
With literally hundreds of different runes to unlock and a number of variably capable characters to choose from, there is a tremendous breadth of battle techniques to discover and experiment with. But for all its sophistication, Doodle Hex comes up short in providing a structure within which players are compelled to plunder this potential. The single player game simply consists of wading through battles, either in a "tournament" structure (that incorporates an extraneous, irrelevant storyline) or in isolated challenges, where victory means the acquisition of a new rune. Though these battles can provide a reasonable challenge, the AI opponents predictably lack the creative flair to make them highly entertaining encounters, and with nothing else to burnish the single player experience, it functions best as an introduction to the game's principles rather than as a game unto itself.
Multiplayer battling holds the promise of maximising Doodle Hex's complex gameplay, but unfortunately this is simply quite unlikely to be realised in most cases. Given a pair of people who are sufficiently invested in the gameplay to enjoy its intricacies, the ability to use runes earned in single player modes for battling and trading with each other could yield considerable and lasting enjoyment. The competition would also provide some encouragement to plough through single player challenges that would otherwise remain entirely unappetising. However, the reality is that many gamers will find it difficult to pair up with someone due to the need for both people to have access to a copy of the game, and the somewhat convoluted nature of the gameplay only exacerbates this problem—a few quick battles using the game's basic single-card multiplayer option are unlikely to convince anyone of Doodle Hex's merits. It is therefore very regrettable that Doodle Hex does not include online functionality, as this could have significantly expanded the ability for players to get the most out of the game.
Missed opportunities aside, Doodle Hex is in most respects an admirably put-together game. In addition to its well-conceived and solidly implemented core gameplay, the presentation has its merits: the touch screen display strikes an appropriate balance between its visual and interface roles by avoiding becoming too cluttered or distracting, there are some attractive animated cut scenes found between battles in tournament play, and much of the music is suitable for the various opponents that you will face. There are some shortcomings in these areas though, especially the uninspired designs of the characters, and the irritating vocals they provide during battles.
On the whole, Doodle Hex is a fundamentally solid game that sadly fails to capitalise on its strengths in a number of crucial ways. The single player content does a respectable job of incrementally taking players through the various facets of the sophisticated gameplay, but a lack of variety along with weak character and story elements mean that it accomplishes little else, and hence falls significantly short of being an engrossing standalone experience. Multiplayer trading and battling could truly payoff the promise of the intricate battle mechanics, but like this reviewer, many gamers will never discover whether or not this is the case due to the inherent nature of the game and its platform, along with the lack of online functionality. The unique appeal of its battling alone makes Doodle Hex worth some consideration for a purchase, but if there is little to no possibility of developing a multiplayer doodling rivalry with a friend, the value on offer is fairly limited.