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Impressions: Gordian Quest

Ever wonder what would happen if designers just added all the things to a game? Wonder no more.

Gordian Quest is a sorta-roguelike tactical turn-based deck-building card game, with a full story campaign along with the more “traditional” roguelike modes. You control up to three characters with their own individual themed decks and battle enemies on a grid. Characters can also equip items that boost their stats or even add special cards into their decks. Those stats are important for the scaling of cards and also because there are D&D-esque skill checks occasionally. Also also, characters gain XP and level up, allowing them to place talent points on a customizable, randomized grid and expand in multiple directions. Have I mentioned there are 10 characters to choose from and each character has three distinct themes of cards that can be mixed and matched? And that items have rarity levels and randomized stats, with Legendary versions possibly opening new synergies? Oh, and items have rune slots too, which can be slotted with additional stats or special effects?

Like I said, the designers really went nuts with this one.

In reality, the game is mostly more coherent than I am implying. If you played Banners of Ruin, this game is basically that with some D&D and Card Hunter and FFX Sphere-Grid sprinkled in. Nothing stands out as being completely unnecessary while you’re playing, but just thinking about it now… goddamn is there a lot.

Is it fun? Yes. For a while.

Unfortunately, I basically broke the game before I finished Act 1 (of 4). Two of my characters are an archer and a rogue, with either one of them being capable of solo-murdering the entire enemy team on the first turn. If for some reason there is a straggler, the other one mops up. My third dude never actually gets to play cards at all, but if he did, he also is fairly stacked in the murder department. I had hoped that perhaps things would change once I hit Act 2 – maybe enemies would have a bunch more HP or have more Initiative to go first – but thus far that has not been the case. The only time enemies even get a turn is when they are bosses with literally 10-20x as many HP as normal, and even then they only ever get that one turn before getting melted.

The double-unfortunate thing is that breaking the game in this way was not particularly difficult. Part of that is undoubtedly due to my overall experience with deck-building games wherein winning strategies are roughly the same: prioritize increasing your per-turn draw, and keeping as few cards in your deck as possible. The other part though largely stems from what I imagine was a designer attempt at keeping things “balanced.” For example, the available talents are… boring. Even the ones all the way at the bottom of the tree. So I basically ignore all the Tier 3 talents and just pick the ones that grant +1 draw per turn and similar.

This “balance” extends to the three themes per character as well. My archer has Sharpshooter, Trapper, and Sentry schools of cards. Sharpshooter is all about damage. Trapper is about setting traps on enemy cells and cards that move enemies around (thereby forcing traps to trigger). Sentry is about setting up turrets on your side of the battlefield, boosting said turrets, and then letting them damage the enemy. You would be forgiven for assuming that Trapper and Sentry cards deal more overall damage, considering that that would make sense given the fact that they require setup. But… that’s not the case. Sharpshooter cards deal the same or more damage with no setup. And since 99% of the Trapper and Sentry cards are useless by themselves, you engineer your way to only choosing Sharpshooter cards when offered a choice, thereby increasing the average power level of your damage cards in a runaway feedback loop.

There is a bard character that is all about building up melody combos and essentially buffing the entire party so that they don’t need to worry about defense on their own turns. There is a warlock character that focuses on Bleed effects and debuffs. There is a golemancer that presumably mances golems. I haven’t even bothered trying those characters out because what’s the point? They would never get a turn. There are so many buffs, debuffs, tactical decisions, etc, that are entirely irrelevant in ways it seems impossible to make relevant without massive nerfs and a complete overhaul.

Sigh. Could this be solved by just avoiding the Archer and Rogue? Sorta. Although the Warrior and Cleric characters also have some gnarly damage cards/combos too. Could all this be addressed in a future patch? Maybe. If this was still Early Access, I would not be as concerned. Given that this is a full 1.0 release though, something tells me that they aren’t going to radically alter the way the card schools are entirely set up. And it is not as though higher difficulties can “solve” the issue either – cranking enemy HP higher and player damage lower is only going to make the currently non-viable (in comparison) strategies even more non-viable.

I suppose I will see if anything changes between now and the final boss. Assuming that I bring myself to slog through the rest of the game, like a Conquest victory in Civilization that was a forgone conclusion fifty turns ago.

Up until this point? Pretty fun though.

Impressions: Banners of Ruin

Banners of Ruin is an incredibly slick deckbuilding roguelike that has consumed my life for the past week. While it shares some conventions with other games in the genre, it has a fairly unique mix of them that result in a number surprising interactions. Also, everyone is an anthropomorphized animal.

Before moving on though, let me say this: the visuals and especially the music are phenomenal. The combination sucks you right into the setting, and I found myself humming along with the battle music pretty much the entire time it’s playing. Just like with Tainted Grail before it, I will be tracking down this soundtrack, if it exists.

Just look at how evocative that Pierce card is.

The central premise of the game is that you are a member of a suddenly-deposed House, and you are trying to escape the city with your life. As you navigate the city, you must choose from one of three “path” cards which can lead to combat, shops, or events. These choices are mutually exclusive, and you don’t have a particular notion of what offerings you will get next time. After a specific number of choices, you will encounter the boss fight of the area and then move on, if successful.

Combat is highly tactical. You start with two characters that can be arranged however you like (ahead of time) on a 2×3 grid; enemies are will be placed in their own 2×3 formation facing opposite. While you are free to play cards every turn, your foes will only act one rank at a time, e.g. the front three positions on Turn 1, then the back three positions on Turn 2, etc, unless there are no enemies in a specific rank.

Easy choice.

Positioning matters. Enemies will typically attack a specific horizontal lane. Place one character in front of another, and that front character is likely to eat all of the incoming attacks. However, if three enemies are targeting a character with nobody behind them and then that character moves to a different spot, all three attacks will be negated. And remember when I said that enemies take turns attacking based on which rank they’re in? If they are set to attack you this turn from the front rank and you move them (via a card like Kick) to the back rank… then they don’t attack that turn. Next turn, if you then draw into cards that can move them back to the front, you can skip their turn again.

The tactical nature of the game extends out into deckbuilding and character progression too. Each character has two weapons slots and an armor slot. Equipping a bow will add a Bow card into your deck; equipping two daggers adds two dagger cards instead; a shield will add a shield card, and so on. Armor is more passive insofar as it affects your starting armor only, although there are special armors that have more interesting effects. As characters level up, they can unlock a choice of three Talent cards which are then added to the deck, but only that character can play the card. Same with the weapon cards, actually. Level ups also unlock a choice of passive abilities. Oh, and each race has a racial ability that can be activated any time, as long as you have a secondary resource (Will) available.

I somehow won this early, accidental Elite battle. I mean, I’m amazing, of course.

What all this combines into is an interesting gumbo of choices, tactics, and deckbuilding strategy.

…until you get to the endgame.

There is a final Final Boss that become accessible after performing a series of steps along the campaign. However, the fight itself is so oppressive and ridiculous that it leads to really just a single strategy to overcome it. Once I understood this, and realized the same strategy works for the rest of the game too, every subsequent run started to feel the same. It doesn’t help that while there is a great variety in character races and Talent cards and passives, the number of defined weapons/armors and enemies in general is much more limited. Indeed, I think all of the bosses are the same each time too.

The potentially good news is that the game appears to still be in active development – there was a major release in November 2021, which added new “hallway” scenarios, some optional difficulty modifiers (aka Ascension ranks), mini-bosses and so on. That is not enough to elevate the endgame to a Slay the Spire level, IMO, but A) not everything needs infinite replay value, and B) maybe a future patch or DLC will spice things up.

Overall, I am very satisfied with my (discounted) purchase of Banners of Ruin. As someone who plays a lot of games in this genre, I definitely appreciated the slick presentation and the novel mix of elements. The sort of defined challenges I complained about earlier might be more of a positive to others who dislike a lot of randomness. Or maybe we can just be happy playing a game for ~30 hours and be done.