by Jared Jackson


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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An enjoyable deckbuilder with a good story and difficulty spikes, December 12, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

This is something new: an IF/roguelite-deckbuilder mashup. In the very unlikely event that that word salad failed to effectively communicate what’s going on here, the author has cleverly hybridized a Slay the Spire/Dream Quest sort of card game – where you crawl through a dungeon fighting monsters using a deck of cards that represent your attacks, defenses, and special moves, while occasionally adding to, upgrading, or deleting cards from your deck – with a more traditional, choice-based IF structure as part of the interstitial tissue between fights as well as a framing story (well, actually two if you get right down to it). (For sub-genre fans: the ability to see what the enemies are going to do, as well as the need to balance attack and defense, puts this closest to Slay the Spire).

The framing story is actually one of the highlights – there’s an option to skip past all the story to focus on the more game-y bits, but that would be a shame. The top-level frame story is sweet, and there are some good jokes (my favorite: (Spoiler - click to show)when the player character is trying to get into the game convention and is asked for his qualifications, he can bellow out “There is none more qualified!”, which just makes me giggle). There are also lots of choices embedded in the different non-combat encounters the player character runs into. Much of the time these mirror the options that would be presented in a menu in a more typical deck-builder, but it also opens up opportunities for new types of gameplay that I haven’t seen before in this sub-genre, like an extended maze sequence or the chance for some more robust interaction with NPCs.

When it comes to the card game itself, my main takeaways are that it’s big, hard, and unfortunately still a big buggy. Big is easy – there are three different classes to play with distinct decks, three different (large) dungeons to work through, dozens of encounters and artifacts to discover… there’s a lot here, and I know I only saw a portion in my two hours with the game.

Partially, though, that’s because I didn’t wind up getting as far with Tragic as I’d hoped, getting stuck midway through the second dungeon with two different characters. Reader, this one’s tough! And while I am not exactly the Hard Man of American Deckbuilders, this is a sub-genre where I’m fairly well-versed – I’ve slain the spire several times now, got all but a handful of the achievements in Dream Quest, tore through Monster Slayer like a comet punching through atmosphere (that one’s easy)… I’m guessing I’ve put several hundred more hours into these kinds of games than most Comp players, so if I’m crying uncle, I think the difficulty here doesn’t feel well judged for the contest. There are training wheels – copious autosaves and a slowly-increasing health bar every time you die and respawn – but those don’t so much reduce the difficulty as offer the hope that by punching your face repeatedly against a brick wall, your blood might slowly erode it. I can’t even imagine what the harder modes are like!

Upon reading the included strategy guide, partially this may be down to choosing the berserker class first go round – I’m used to that being the easiest archetype to at least see the late-game, even if they’re overtaken in power by fiddlier classes later on, but here it’s apparently the most challenging? Still, when I started over as a mage, even with an “easier” class and a better understanding of the mechanics I didn’t fare much better. I won’t go into a full disquisition on why I think the balance is a bit too unforgiving, but will mention that I think randomness plays probably too big of a role, unlike most other deckbuilders which tend to be a bit more deterministic. There are enemies that summon other enemies in potentially never-ending waves, but rather than reinforcements coming in on a timer, sometimes this appears to happen at least somewhat at random. Opportunities to upgrade your deck – or even more importantly, delete or upgrade old cards – feel less reliable than in comparable games. And some of the more IF-y encounters are far harder than others: there’s a maze, for example, that I never managed to get out of despite having probably three combats, in a dungeon that otherwise I think should have around six to eight before the boss.

Finally, there are still some bugs to be worked out (I understand some have in fact been fixed in mid-Comp updates). While the overall interface is quite nice and smoothly transitions between fights and exploration, there’s some occasional wonkiness and I ran into a few game-breakers. When wandering around the aforementioned maze, I’d often see messages like “there in the middle of the cavern floor lays a {0}{1}” (these were actually Fiery Boots), and there were occasional typos and places where different pieces of text were smashed together without a space in between, I think from some errors in the randomization code. Worse, I ran into three or four different game-ending bugs, two of which I could recover from using autosaves, but one of which I couldn’t: once after dying, I wasn’t able to click on any of the respawn/restart options being presented; another time after I won a hard encounter against dragon whelps, I selected a choice that didn’t lead to any further options; once after restarting to try again with a new class, when I got to the tutorial fight the combat interface didn’t come up; and then the biggest crash was where loading the autosave post-defeat (on the second boss) put me in the middle of the combat, with elements of the interface blacked out.

I liked the story a lot and was eager to see where it went, plus the ideas here are really fun, so I’m very much hoping that there’s a post-comp release to smooth out some bugs, re-tune the difficulty curve, and maybe add some quality of life options (allowing the player to skip the tutorial but not miss out on the rest of the story would be really nice!), since I’d love to see this one through to the end.

MUCH LATER UPDATE: So I went back and played some more, including winning as a mage (ending up at about 180 health) and then having a pretty good run as a rogue before getting brutally smacked down by the Chapter 2 boss. Updates since I first played have smoothed out some of the bugs I noted, so the experience is a bit cleaner now too. I don’t think my take on the game has shifted that much from the additional time, though I will note that I found Chapter 3 substantially easier than 2 with my mage, and I suspect I would have felt the same way if I’d gotten there with my rogue character. There are some cards that are very powerful and lead to some fun synergies with upgraded equipment, which meant I was able to keep up with the escalating difficulty in Chapter 3. But even with what felt like it should have been a viable build, I felt like progress past the mini-bosses and boss in Chapter 2 generally required getting lucky with one of the “get a random attack or effect” cards to obtain something more powerful than I was able to find through ordinary gameplay, and/or getting a particular right card at the right moment a couple times in a row (like a parry that cancels an attack right before you’re about be targeted for a single big strike). I did enjoy getting to see the ending of the game, which wound up going in an unexpectedly serious direction, and having some effective call-backs to some dialogue choices I’d made earlier. I’m interested to see some different variations, but not sure I have the gumption to tackle that widowmaker of a Hydra again, sadly…

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