It’s hard to attach value to a subjective experience. Now more than ever are the concepts of playtime and replayability important factors considered in-game purchases. Board games are no stranger to these issues. As most tabletop games run at least the cost of a AAA title, designers have had to figure out ways to give players the most bang for their buck. MegaCrit Games, the creators of Slay the Spire, draw inspiration from both the digital and tabletop worlds.
The devs have taken the best of the deckbuilding and roguelike genres to craft an immensely deep, frustrating, and gratifying experience. Slay the Spire is a perfect example of “easy to learn, hard to master”. You’ll enter the Spire as a neophyte pawing at cards and items that confuse and overwhelm you. Only by learning, adapting, and taking risks can you emerge victorious.
Ascending the Spire
Like many games where mechanics are at the forefront, Slay the Spire’s narrative is simple and broad but effective for what it needs. The title says it all: you are a champion tasked with slaying the Spire. You must reach the top and overcome anything and everything in between. Along the way, you will encounter traps, treasures, and a host of enemies eager to kill you. The game is divided into three distinct levels, each boasting several different branching floor options.
The genius of the game’s modularity is readily apparent in the way the narrative unfolds. No two runs are the same, thanks to well-placed instances of RNG. Like many other roguelike games, (e.g. FTL, Binding of Isaac, Risk of Rain), the narrative develops in tandem with your progression. In one run, you may be a rampaging berserker who deals out massive damage at the cost of his own health. In another, you may be a crafty rogue dancing around your opponents while they wither away from poison damage. The overwhelmingly diverse combinations of items, cards, and events make every run unique.
A Delightfully Morbid Blend of Gothic and Cartoony
For such morose subject matter, Slay the Spire features a vivid color palette, fun enemy designs, and cartoonishly gothic visual designs. The graphic design of the game makes use of morbid subject matters but presents them in a fairly lighthearted tone. In addition to the painted, colorful quality that suffuses the visual art, Slay the Spire’s implementation of stylized graphics and animation deepens that dichotomy. The slightly stilted unit movements and cartoony visuals play on this notion of suggestive storytelling. It’s up to the player to fill in the gaps.
The world of Slay the Spire acts a context for the mechanics to function in. However, that’s not to say that it takes a backseat. Like FTL, Mario, and the Binding of Isaac, the narrative is there to provide flavor and explanations, both of which feed off each other. Larger, more imposing enemies will be animated slower and appear more threatening, with equally devastating skills to back them up. On the other hand, smaller enemies like slimes and imps will be tiny, skitterish, and comparatively harmless. Every enemy has a unique skillset that corresponds to their appropriate flavor: thieves can mug you for gold, winged enemies can fly and avoid damage, while automatons can shrug off debuffs.
Likewise, the cards and items in the game follow a similar philosophy of form tied to function. As in other card games, flavor, art, and the card’s effect are all closely tied together. Every card in Slay the Spire has unique art that effectively encapsulates the central idea to said card’s function. After a few runs have gone by, you start to recognize cards based purely on the visuals alone.
This seems small at first, but there’s quite a bit of tactile learning that goes into playing the game. With each run, you grow more familiar with the enemies, cards, and items to the point where you’re spending less time figuring things out and can focus more on developing effective strategies. UX was an important aspect of the game that the devs paid close attention. In a game that makes heavy use of iconography to convey meaning (cards, items, map symbols, etc.), it’s easy for the player to get lost if the information is not readily apparent or available. Slay the Spire has no such problem.
A Sturdy House of Cards
Any tabletop gamer will tell you that learning how to play a board game is probably the worst part. Especially with modern tabletop games, rulesets can quickly become overwhelming. By striving for deeper strategy and gameplay, more mechanics need to be established and placed into systems that make sense. What this means for the player is that the game requires both an intimate understanding of the rules and how to effectively enforce and play by them. Not the most elegant solution, but RPG rulesets with dozens of volumes are proof that humans are more than up to the task.
In recent years, however, designers have experimented with different ways to bridge the gap between digital and tabletop gameplay. Rather than strictly residing in either camp, taking the middle of the road approach and use the best that each medium has to offer. Tabletop mechanics augmented by technology create a smoother experience while still preserving the spirit of board games.
Slay the Spire epitomizes this design philosophy by taking mechanics from a number of other games and re-purposing them for greater depth and synergy. There are three distinct systems to manage: cards, relics, and the map. All three systems play into each other, offering variation through randomized encounters and loot. Fortunately, the RNG is such that while it can still give negative results, the player has a healthy amount of options to mitigate that risk.
Ascending the Spire functions much the same as FTL‘s map and event systems. From an initial node, the progression goes through subsequent nodes that branch out. If you are feeling particularly confident, you can try to tackle an Elite enemy or head straight for a campfire if you’re not. Specific encounters and events will be randomized, but most of the time you can plot out a safe path if caution is a greater priority.
The two currently available classes possess uniquely different sets of cards that further open up variety in playstyles and strategy. The Ironclad is a bit more straightforward and focuses on mechanics like heavy damage, blocking, and health management. The Silent, on the other hand, is more of a rogue or assassin archetype. She boasts tech-intensive playstyles that can either deal heavy bursts of damage or whittle the enemy down with poison and debuffs.
A full run will take you across three different levels, each with their own enemy pools and end with a random boss. The boss fights act as a good benchmark for how your deck will perform. If you struggle against a boss, chances are you won’t make it very far to the next level. Your performance depends highly on the items and cards you obtain. Fortunately, the game is generous with how many of both you can find and pick up.
Upgrades come in the form of relics with unique passive abilities, similar to Binding of Isaac‘s and Risk of Rain‘s powerups. The relics are large in number and varied in effects: some will heal or damage, some will change mechanics, and all of them open up unique strategies. Most apparent, however, is where Slay the Spire draws inspiration from card games. Hearthstone, Magic, Dominion, Netrunner, and a plethora of other card games manifest in Slay the Spire’s mechanics.
The combat is fairly straightforward: a random assortment of enemies spawn while the player draws their opening hand. Energy, like mana in Hearthstone or Magic is the resource used to play cards. In the first few fights, you’ll have a small assortment of abilities to play and only three Energy to spend each turn. But as you progress up the Spire, you can find a variety of different cards with different mechanics based on keywords. Managing their effects, costs, and synergy is key to success.
The cards’ keywords make for interesting combat, as the developers have created the framework for a number of creative strategies to develop. You may want to focus on a milling deck that draws and discards to create optimal plays. Another run, you may instead choose to play it slower with a control deck and poke holes in the enemy’s defense. The game encourages experimentation but also demands improvisation, a design philosophy that permeates its design.
Wide as an Ocean and Just as Deep
Slay the Spire’ is an addictive, challenging, and gratifying game that combines the best of “deckbuilding” and “roguelikes” into one tight package. There are so many different systems and mechanics in place that play off of each other in consistently surprising ways. In many respects, it’s a lot like Dwarf Fortress. Even when you do lose, the game does an excellent job of turning frustration into motivation. In your run, you’ll see cards you haven’t really used before and wonder how they work. When you eventually try it out, it’s readily apparent that the card is good, it just doesn’t work with your particular build.
Pretty soon it’s 3 AM and you’ve finally made your deck work. You understand the intricacies of how all the mechanics play into each other, you’ve accounted for its deficiencies, and you’re at the final boss of the game.
Yet somehow, you still manage to die.
But that doesn’t stop you.
You go back into the Spire, confident in this run and your ability to make it further.
You will hate your enemies. You will hate your deck. You will hate this game. But for those brief moments of strategic glory, for the serendipitous card draws and satisfying combos, you will come back.
The Spire calls and you must answer.
‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted
There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.
There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.
Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.
But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.
Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.
Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.
Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.
‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!
Shovel Knight: King of Cards
King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.
Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.
All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.
Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.
It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.
The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.
It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?
Shovel Knight Showdown
Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.
What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.
Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.
Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.
What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.
With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.
‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery
For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.
Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.
Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.
The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.
Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.
The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.
As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.
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