It would be easy to write Witch Wars (Free) off for its, shall we say, intensely aggressive IAP implementation. It would be hard to argue that Com2Us hasn’t reached new heights on that score. But let me play devil’s advocate for a minute. Sure, there are characters that can be unlocked for ten dollars. That’s a thing that happens in this game. But it’s also a solid competitive match-3 in a market that doesn’t have many of those to choose from. If, say, you’ve been waiting for a successor to Puzzle Quest 2 ($2.99) all this time, that might not be something you can afford to ignore.
The IAP breaks down a bit like League of Legends. You start with Athena, the default witch. She’s a bit middle-of-the-road as far as abilities go. You can unlock six other characters, half with coins and half with (far too much) cash. If you do, you can use them online or solo any time. Otherwise, be patient. Every day, a new witch unlocks temporarily for everyone to try out online. In the course of a given week, you’ll be able to play each and every character Witch Wars has to offer.
There are two things that make it possible to just keep on playing Witch Wars without putting in any money at all. The first is that the vast majority of other players are doing the same thing. I encounter Athena in nine matches out of every ten, and virtually never run into a soul using the most expensive unlocks. This won’t last in the long run, but for now it works out well. The second thing is that the pricier characters aren’t outrageously superior. Their abilities, while powerful, are expensive to upgrade, and they can still be defeated easily by a skilled player or a lucky one. Putting down cash is far from a guarantee that you’ll stomp every opponent you face.
With the IAP thing out of the way, Witch Wars plays pretty much like you’d expect from a competitive match-3. The board is filled with RPG fare—swords, potions, spellbooks and coins—and some slightly out-of-place handcuffs. Coins are currency, so they’re valuable despite doing nothing to affect the outcome of the game. Matching swords attacks your opponent, matching potions heals you, and matching spellbooks charges your mana bar. You’ll move up a spell tier for each section of the bar you let fill before casting. Handcuffs lock down your opponent’s pieces, leaving them vulnerable and frustrated.
The main differences between the six characters rest in their spells. Athena has a pretty basic set—a spell to lock your opponent’s blocks, an attack that pulls its power all your on-screen swords, and a third-tier explosion that takes out the other guy’s entire grid. Elrhyme has ice spells, Wisp has healing spells, Silpheed’s are poisonous, and so on. It’s a diverse group of characters, and mostly a balanced one. Not that you’re likely to spend much time with most; it would take about $25 to unlock all three premium characters, and about 23,000 coins for the rest.
The average game is a sprint; with swift fingers you can easily take out an opponent in a minute or two. If you’re quick enough to earn combos you can speed things up further with bursts of bonus power. With such brief games, Witch Wars matchmaking might get a bit frustrating as the player pool shrinks in the long term, but for now it’s filled with a lot of eager players and a quick rematch button that sees heavy use. The game keeps a close eye on your rankings, giving you a rating for your wins and losses and keeping track of wins and streaks. Not only does this offer up some fodder for Game Center achievements, it also provides overall sense of progression despite the brief matches.
There’s another type of progression to be had in Witch Wars: character leveling. Here again we find the pitch for IAP: if you can’t earn coins fast enough in game, you can always buy them (and they aren’t cheap). This, at least, is mostly a shortcut purchase; it would be a struggle to earn enough coins in multiplayer to unlock the priciest character, but it’s doable. In the survival-style solo mode this should be easier; you earn double coins for playing on medium difficulty and triple coins for hard. But to survive a few rounds in hard mode is, well, hard.
So caveat emptor: Witch Wars is out to part you from your hard earned money. It doesn’t make any attempt to hide that fact. But there’s no reason you can’t rack up quite a few wins (and coins) just by playing with the free witches. Putting in cash might put you at an advantage, but it’s smaller than it looks. So ask yourself—is it worth all that to play a fun, competitive match-3? If you can resist the call of IAP, that’s quite the thing to get for free.