Hearthstone is a strange case. It's a constantly updating game that has outgrown its own scope. First, you had Hearthstone, the first online collectable card game to really take off. With its three annual expansions, it's still going as strong as ever.
Then other modes came into play. Tavern Brawls and Arena offer ways to keep the game fresh, and Duels brings in a new way to play the standard, turn-based Hearthstone fans love. Single-player PvE (player vs environment) content kept things ticking over, especially for the less competitive players looking for a different type of challenge.
Hearthstone Mercenaries Review: If You Don't Play Hearthstone, Keep Reading
Things have got weird these days though. Hearthstone Battlegrounds took the auto-battler formula popularised by DOTA Autochess and Teamfight Tactics and brought in its own Hearthstone-style flair - the World of Warcraft universe crossed with an off-kilter, knowing sense of humour. It's essentially a whole new game though. Some areas are the same (health and attack values, keywords, characters), but the actual way you play is completely different.
Hearthstone Mercenaries is the latest addition to this brand of 'entirely new game but it's still Hearthstone' design philosophy that worked extremely well for the massively popular Battlegrounds. This time around, it focuses on Pokémon-style battle scenarios, with teams selecting moves to use on each other and different speeds determining attack order.
That's alongside roguelike elements making each 'bounty' go slightly differently each time. There's also a PvP (player vs player) mode you can unlock later on. So, how does Mercenaries do in comparison to Battlegrounds, the other Hearthstone-adjacent experience that evolved like a mutated Murloc out of the marsh?
New, But Recognisable
It's got plenty of differences to be fair. The emphasis on PvE is the main bit - I'd argue that you can fully experience and enjoy Hearthstone Mercenaries without encountering another player at all. The main focus is completing bounties and levelling up your characters with each run, gaining permanent bonuses and progress as you play more with each Mercenary.
The game does a great job of explaining its principles from the off too. Detailing the basics of the mode before throwing you in, it makes you instantly realise there's potential for this to be much deeper and more tactical than it seems on the surface.
You can mess with enemies' attack order, play minions who might seem like they have a type disadvantage but actually have a great synergy with your other minions, and even implement treasures into your tactic based on the random one you receive.
There's definitely scope for further development in Mercenaries too, and for both new Hearthstone players and veterans of the game, it's an experience well worth trying out.
The PvP mode is slightly less engaging. Sure, it'd be ridiculous for a game like this to not have PvP action, but it just doesn't work quite as well for me. Finding a match with someone with similarly-levelled Mercenaries to you is somewhat unrealistic, and the strategies don't really get more complicated than going with 2 Mercs of each type.
I'm hopeful for the future of Mercenaries, though. Maybe more types will come out, or we'll gain abilities that interact with the opponent's bench more. Things like that could be great - and I'm also excited to get onto the ladder when I have a full roster of max-level Mercenaries.
Progress Is Progress, Kind Of
When it comes to progression, the system's a combination of classic Hearthstone and Battlegrounds. Battlegrounds monetises itself through cosmetics, whilst Hearthstone traditionally requires players to buy card packs with in-game currency or real money. Mercenaries offers both of the above.
That's not to say the system is really 'pay-to-win'. Sure, there are some characters you can't get without paying, and a wider collection will make it easier to cruise through and diversify your strategies. Still, without paying it's still a genuinely enjoyable experience, and unlocking all the characters is more than possible thanks to the duplicate protection in place.
The issue is with levelling up - if you want to substitute a Mercenary into your party, you might need to grind their levels from 1 to whatever you need right now, which can get pretty frustrating and time-consuming. You also get barely any of Hearthstone's Rewards Track (basically a Battle Pass) XP too - it's all very slow.
You get daily quests to complete too, but these involve getting specific characters doing damage with specific moves. It straddles the line between making it a more interesting challenge and frustratingly forcing you to play in a style you might not want to, and everyone's experiences will be different on that front.
The paid element is slightly irritating as well - the pre-order options offered The Lich King and Diablo, both cool Mercenaries I was super excited to use. However, it's actually not possible to get both through normal means and opening packs - you have to either pre-order (and you can only pre-order one of the two) or spend 500 tokens of that specific character, randomly generated through bounties and pack openings. 500 is a lot. It'll take a while.
Needs A Shine-Up
Hearthstone Mercenaries is really slick to play. It runs within the Hearthstone game, offers you enough free content and unlocks to rank up and complete all the missions you need to, gaining access to new Mercs as you go. The village is easy to get to grips with, and you'll generally know exactly what's going on at all times. Most battles lost come down to the fact that you could've done better strategically, too.
There's just a bit of polish and quality of life I'd have loved to see in Mercenaries. It's not game-breaking, but it's slightly frustrating that as you choose your unlocked treasure to boost your Mercenary, you can't hover over them and see their current stats and moves. You can't even click off to view your squad of Mercs. It's sometimes led to me making the wrong decision due to forgetting the specificities of my team and what would help the most.
There's also upgrades that impact your Mercenaries depending on whether they're Horde or Alliance characters, which is a really cool concept we haven't seen in Hearthstone before! Unfortunately, it's easy to tell it hasn't been seen in Hearthstone before: there's not really any way to differentiate Horde and Alliance characters for people who don't know too much about World of Warcraft lore.
In a Q&A with the dev team prior to Mercenaries' release, they did say they were working on a solution to this which will be great to see - Hearthstone has never been about sticking rigidly to the WOW lore anyway!
Is Hearthstone Mercenaries A Worthy Addition?
Hearthstone Mercenaries is a real treat, and definitely worth a try if you're looking for something you can really sink your teeth into but without the extremely expensive cost of Hearthstone's traditional modes. It's far from perfectly polished, but with time and resources I believe the Mercenaries team will be afforded, this game has real potential to succeed in the long term.