Games like this ought to come with a Surgeon General’s warning.
They go down like a Long Island iced tea. Things seem ok at first, but before you know it you can find yourself in big trouble. I realized this only after 30 hours of my life suddenly vanished…poof in the blink of an eye.
Later I took another little peek inside, and there went 20 more hours. Where did it all go? It’s still kind of hazy.
On its surface this game is so simple. You can jump right in and grasp the fundamentals in about 30 seconds. But easy to learn, hard to master, as they say. Not that I ever came anywhere close to mastering it, of course; although you can blame at least part of that on the unpredictability inherent to this genre.
If you haven’t played one of these things before, basically what you’re doing is navigating a series of turn-based battles using a set of abilities–attacks, blocks, special powers, etc.–that you assemble along the way like a deck of cards. Every turn, you draw a certain number of cards and use them to deal damage and defend yourself. The main challenge is in building an effective deck on the fly based on which cards you happen to find.
Flexibility is probably your best friend there. While you can buy a few extra goodies from the shops you visit, mostly your’re stuck with whatever they give you in the battles and other random encounters and you just have to make the best of it.
You may find yourself gravitating toward one sort of deck, but sometimes you just don’t get the right cards and like it or not you’re forced to change your plans. Problem is, doing that requires a pretty broad understanding of the cards and how they work together: which ones are key to build around, which ones are better early vs. later in the run, etc. At first you don’t really have any idea what most of them do, so you end up having to learn a lot of it by trial and error.
If you want to sound fancy you can tell people you’re building a heuristic, but it mostly comes down to observing what works and what doesn’t. As you play you start to get a sense for how happy you usually are when particular cards turn up, and that tends to be a good rule of thumb. Or, you know, just go and read someone else’s guide and give yourself a head start.
Either way, you’ve got a lot of decisions to make, starting with which route to take through each of the three main levels. Do I need more cards? That means I need to steer toward more battles. But then I risk taking more damage. How’s my health doing? Do I fight that boss up ahead and maybe take a big hit in exchange for another magic item? I can heal at that campfire, but that means I don’t get to upgrade another card. So how’s my deck coming along? Do I really need to upgrade certain cards or can I get by with what I have? Do I need to thin out my deck more? Should I risk a random encounter for that, not knowing what I might get?
The whole game is one long balancing act like that, where you’re constantly weighing what you have against what you need and what the risks are. Meanwhile, since there’s no reloading from earlier saves, one wrong move can doom all of your efforts; but I guess that’s the nature of these sorts of games.
Now if this is starting to sound a little intimidating, don’t worry: it’s not really that bad. At the basic level you just need to be relatively sensible about your choices and after a few tries that’ll be good enough to get you through the fake ending.
You can do all of this with four different characters, and each one has a distinctive style that creates a totally different experience, which was quite an accomplishment. There are some cards and items to unlock for each character, but for the most part it’s not a grindy game. The replay value really does come from engaging naturally with the challenges available.
Beyond the fake ending I mentioned, there’s also a real ending, and then 20 more difficulty levels that grow more and more insane. So there’s practically endless content here if you want it, although the average player is probably going to tap out long before hitting the ceiling.
One issue is that healing opportunities are few and far between, so even though it feels pretty fast-paced you do have to play with an eye toward long-term survival. The odds say that sooner or later you’re going to draw a bad hand, which can wreck everything if it comes at the wrong time. That tends to skew you toward certain strategies to smooth over catastrophic damage spikes, either by stacking armor across turns or by accelerating card draw. Also, energy (i.e., more actions per turn) relics are extremely powerful, and can make or break a whole run all by themselves. These sorts of things can place a practical limit on the amount of variety unless you really know what you’re doing.
Plus, I think some of the mechanics would be pretty confusing if you’re not already familiar with how these card games work. I mean, it goes against every video game instinct to turn down a reward, yet that’s often what you have to do to keep your deck small enough to be effective. Same thing with deliberately exhausting (that is, permanently discarding) cards, or removing cards from your deck altogether. It’s not necessarily clear why you’d want to do things like this, and you’re pretty much left to figure it out by yourself. That’s asking a lot of a newer player.
The more the difficulty ramps up, the more optimized and regimented your approach needs to be, and thus the more un-fun it probably becomes unless you’re someone who really thrives on getting deep into the weeds and pondering every little nuance of this system. For most of us, after you’ve seen the same encounters a hundred times it starts to wear a little thin.
Still, you’re dealing with high-grade, weaponized material here, and even at a low level it offers dozens of hours of entertainment.
Just writing this is making me itchy to start another run.
“Come on, just a little taste…”
Ok, that’s enough. Gotta go uninstall this right now before I end up losing my job.