Short version: Trials of Fire is a deck-building tactical roguelike in which I can’t tell if I’m having fun. After 10 hours, I’m leaning towards Yes. It’s $14.39 on Steam right now, but will be $19.99 next week.
One of the most immediate comparisons of Trial of Fire that pops up from gaming “journalists” is Slay the Spire. This is unfortunate for many reasons. For one, if you really enjoy Slay the Spire like I do, you will be disappointed to learn that this game is, in fact, nothing like Slay the Spire. For two, the actual best comparison is to Card Hunter, which was a criminally underrated and uncopied game from 2013. Seriously, look at the devs (Richard Garfield!) who worked on it. The Flash version of Card Hunter died, but you can still play it on Steam, and it looks like there may be some people taking over the franchise.
Anyway, Trial of Fire. What do you really do? It’s best explained with a picture:
When combat starts, player and enemy tokens alike drop from the sky with a satisfying clink upon a randomize board that rises from the pages of a book. Your characters draw three cards from their deck each turn and can only carry over one between turns. Your deck consists of 9 cards from your class’s default deck, plus any cards that come attached to equipment your party picks up along the way. Sometimes your deck accumulates cards in other ways, such as if your party is Fatigued or Injured (junk cards), or as the result of random encounters. Some cards are free to cast but most require Willpower, which is a temporary resource that dissipates between turns.
The really clever trick Trials pulls though is turning cards themselves into resources. During your turn, you can discard any cards you want from any of your characters to gain 1 Willpower. Have a ranged character in an advantageous spot with a fist full of attacks? Go ahead and dump your other characters’ cards so that your DPS can go ham. Alternatively, discarding a card can allow that specific character to move 2 spaces on the game board. There are already movement cards in every characters’ deck, but sometimes you need just a little bit more distance. Alternatively alternatively, if you discard a card and don’t use the Willpower on something else or move that character, they get 2 Defense (aka Block).
Typing it out makes it seem complicated, but it is surprisingly intuitive as you play.
I also liked what they did with HP. In short, every character has 10 HP baseline. As you equip better armor, you end up with… er, Armor, which is basically bonus HP in battle. As long as no one drops below 10 HP, no actual long-term damage has occurred. Even if some has, your characters regain +2 HP every time they Camp in a sheltered location, which ends up being quite often.
Outside of combat is not like Slay the Spire either. Instead, you move your party around a map while trying to finish the primary quest, periodically stopping at ?s scattered along the wasteland to get some RNG punishment. This part is Trial’s biggest weakness: naked RNG.
Like, I get it, roguelike. I would probably be more annoyed if they didn’t include the percentage chance right on the tin, but it still feels bad somehow. In particular, you can get really screwed early on in such a way that you may as well abandon the run. For example, one of my characters got the Firelung trait, which was a card that is permanently added to the deck that dealt 1 unblockable damage to them and any allies within 1 hex when drawn. That was fun times.
In any case, the out-of-combat part feels the least developed even though it makes up a large portion of the gametime. You can collect crafting material from events and combat sometimes, but you never end up collecting enough to upgrade more than 1-2 items at best. And “upgrading” an item basically means upgraded the cards that it grants, which frequently is of dubious worth. You’re going to want to save mats to upgrade an Epic or higher item, for example, but Epic upgrades take the same mats (plus an epic version) as normal upgrades, so… yeah. It ends up being an Elixir situation wherein you hoard mats the whole game and never use them but you realize you never needed them anyway.
Also, when exploring the map you end up being constrained by two meters. One is “Determination” which only sustains itself while you are moving towards your next quest objective. The other is Fatigue, which decreases while you walk or fight, and requires you to use supplies to Camp to recover. Both meters have to be kept high or else you end up getting penalty cards added to your deck, which again, is a rather harsh kick in the pants. Not that you want to keep exploring for too long though, as there is often a natural inflection point at which you are destroying every enemy in the first 1-2 turns and realize they couldn’t possibly drop anything to improve what you already got going on.
So, yeah. Trials of Fire.
Although the game still feels that it is lacking a certain something, I can absolutely say that the bones are good. The aesthetics and tactile tactical action is something I could play over and over. And have started to do with Combat Run and Boss Rush modes. There is also the higher difficulties, ala Ascension modes. Huh, just like Slay the Spire…
My gaming time, when I actually use it to game, is all over the place lately.
While the Currently Playing sidebar is technically correct, I find myself at the end of the day spending crazy amounts of time playing an Android game called Dungeon Raid. I think the problem is that my current gaming menu is full of open-ended loot games that lack otherwise meaningful progression. While I am genuinely interested in the Tiny Tina DLC storyline in Borderlands 2, for example, I have a hard time treating it like a “normal” game. Could I plow through the story missions and call it a day? Certainly. But… it’s DLC. Skipping the sidequests feels like a waste – especially when the sidequests in BL2 proper are usually hilarious/fun – and that goes double when they are DLC quests. I don’t feel the need to find all the secrets, but the sidequests? I need them all.
Of course, not all sidequests are created equal. Spending 15-20 minutes on some boring chores saps the motivation to go further. And while I largely solved the gun issue I had earlier, I am approaching the other side insofar as I suspect I should be playing this on Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode. Which means finding a Slag weapon. Which means more grinding. Sigh.
I thought I was done with Hearthstone, but I came slinking back in a moment of CCG weakness. Finally did an Arena as a Shaman. Went 0-3. And while I was mercilessly curb-stomped in all three games, on a certain level I just had to be impressed with the thoroughness. One of the games was against a Priest at 12 HP who Mind Controlled my 6/6 creature with Windfury one turn, and then followed up the next with a temporary Mind Control on my Taunt blocker and then cast a copy of Bloodlust from my own goddamn deck. I mean, Jesus Christ, man… good job. My secret Arena MMR must be setting me up against fucking top-decking wizards whereas I never even had an epic card available to pick from.
If that is really what’s going on – as opposed to a huge coincidence of pro players after 9pm – it’s definitely a strike against what I thought was an awesome innovation in Booster Draft gameplay. You always had “that guy” in your Magic Online drafting group, but there were at least even-odds that you’d face similar players first. Scrubbing out at 0-3 when you spent four days doing dailies to get enough gold to get it is demoralizing, to say the least. Is asynchronous Booster play worth it? I’m not so sure anymore.
Card Hunter is as it was (i.e. excellent), but I can’t seem to get any information as to whether the campaign is actually any longer than it was in the Beta. Because if it just sort of peters out at where it did, then I’m not sure purchasing the 30-day subscription/buying the Treasure campaigns is worth the $20 or whatever. And as both I and Tobold pointed out, you basically need to make that decision early on, as it decreases in value/usefulness pretty quickly.
Path of Exile is alright, but after wondering whether my minions build (think Diablo 2 Necromancer) would actually be useful at the higher levels – the boss battle I did a few days ago was an exercise in frustration when she one-shot my zombies and there were no more corpses to resurrect – I more or less metagamed a bit too deep. Once you see things like this, there is no going back. Which is somewhat literally true, since I already “wasted” a lot of my talent points and PoE is “old-school” when it comes to respecing. Even my more modest goal of acquiring a Summon Skeleton gem so my Witch isn’t left defenseless during bosses appears to be best achieved by rolling an alt and completing quests in Chapter 1.
So as I muse on which game I want to play that leaves me least hollow and empty on the inside, I fill the void with Dungeon Raid. Which is a roguelike akin to 10000000 minus the assured progression. But it’s shiny, it’s on my shiny phone, and it’s goddamn addicting in that Candy Crush way without microtransactions.
Yeah, I’m scared too.
The difference between a character with 1 hit point and a character with no hit points remaining is immense. Obviously, right? But as I was musing on the extreme nature of the binary state, I started wondering if there was not some better way to handle the situation.
After some reflection, I am not sure that there is.
First, is there a problem at all with the conventional binary system? I’d suggest there is, at least enough of one to go through the thought exercise. One issue is that there isn’t much of difference between 1 HP and 100,000 HP – you are just as powerful and dangerous at one as the other. Some games might have “Execute” abilities that cause you to care about how many HP you have left, but all that is really doing is making the 1 HP “range” larger or simply making it more ambiguous as to your actual HP state.
The more salient problem with the 1 HP to 0 HP divide is what I’d term the Fail Cascade. Card Hunter (out of beta!) provides an especially stark example of this phenomenon. If one of your characters is reduced to 1 HP, they can still drawn 3 new cards each turn, can still attack at full strength, and can otherwise contribute meaningfully on the battlefield (limiting enemy mobility, being the target of spells, etc). Conversely, a dead character contributes nothing: all their cards are discarded, their body is removed from the battlefield, and you are left with potentially 10 cards to kill the remaining enemies instead of 15 cards. A character’s death is especially brutal in Card Hunter because the abilities you have access to are randomly determined from the cards in your deck. Instead of six chances of drawing an attack card to win the game, you are left with four.
Of course, sometimes the sacrifice of a character can turn out to be a winning strategy. In a 3v3 Arena game in WoW, it might be worth losing a DPS to take out the enemy’s healer in pursuit of an stalling game. In Card Hunter, taking out a Goblin Brute or other dangerous foe is worth it if the enemies remaining aren’t as immediately deadly in comparison. But under most circumstances in just about any other game (including the two mentioned), losing one character is an immediately 33% reduction in fighting capacity, and possibly more painful from a synergy point of view.
Is the alternative really that much better though? We could imagine a game where your health as a percentage is tied to your damage as a percentage; if you are are at 10% HP, your attacks only deal 10% of their normal damage. Personally, I recoiled at the very thought of such a system. Whereas the current design is a hard binary, it at least leaves open the possibility of a come-from-behind victory. If taking damage reduced your ability to deal damage in return, the outcome of most battles would be forgone conclusions within the first minutes of any engagement. Indeed, it is arguable whether we would be trading the binary at 1-to-0 HP for the same binary at the other end of the spectrum (whoever dealt damage first).
Now, I would be remiss if I did not mention the Downed State solution in games like Guild Wars 2 and Borderlands 2. Having played both for a while, I definitely appreciated the extra little window it offered between 1 HP and dead. It is certainly better than the alternatives we have currently.
At the same time though… how different is it really? I can still perform at peak capacity at 1 HP, so my HP totals are 1, 0, and -1 instead of just 1 and 0. The other issue is that I felt as though the Downed state started being an excuse for adding in more “sorta instant death” attacks. If a raid boss in WoW has a mechanic that kills you instantly, it has to give you reasonable warning given how powerful it is. Conversely, an attack that instantly sends you to a Downed State is common in both Borderlands 2 ¹ and GW2. It is a “safe” mechanic to use because it can (usually) be recovered from while still retaining a sense of awe/fear from the player.
Perhaps this isn’t even an issue at all, from a design perspective, as the devs rely on the player to gauge his/her own sense of danger. Personally, I don’t really glance at my HP bar until I start dipping below 80%; once at 50% or so, I start actively playing defensive and looking for ways to replenish HP; at 20% or below, I generally stop caring unless victory is in sight, as I see my demise as inevitable. Thus, my reaction is tailor-made for my play-style, rather than dictated by the devs who might want me to care at X% HP when I don’t, and vice versa.
I dunno. Realism rarely makes for more engaging gameplay, but I sometimes think HP is too abstract.
¹ Technically, there is “health gating” in BL2 which prevents any one attack from killing you instantly as long as you have 50% HP + 1. So, I suppose BL2 has both the tri-HP state plus an execute range.
One of the points I made yesterday regarding Card Hunter’s potential was:
1) Card Hunter is not being made by some large corporation (even if their F2P pricing is similar);
It occurred to me later though, that I never bothered to check on the actual game developers. Who are these guys and gals, and how were they able to create such a polished experience even in this Beta state? As it turns out… well, let’s just say that they have some experience in this regard:
- Jonathan Chey – co-founder of Irrational Games, director of Bioshock, producer of System Shock 2.
- Joe McDonagh – Production Director and Peggle Studio Franchise Director at PopCap Games.
- Dorian Hart – Veteran at Irrational Games; worked on System Shock I and II, Thief and BioShock.
- Tess Snider – from Trion Worlds, programmed Rift.
- Kevin Kulp – DM/game designer, worked at Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin, and other places.
- Richard Garfield – Design consultant. Created Magic: The Gathering.
- Skaff Elias – Design consultant. Magic designer and founder of the Magic pro-tour.
So… yeah. Maybe this team isn’t so indie after all. I mean, when you have Richard fucking Garfield as a design consultant for your pseudo-TCG, that almost feels like cheating. Then again, I’m not particularly interested in having a hipster semantic war. Seven dudes with two consultants and no major publisher with suits to answer to? That passes the indie smell test for me.
P.S. For those just submitting their beta applications, it took me from May 11 to Jun 20 to get in.
I got into the Card Hunter beta last Thursday.
It is rare anymore for me to spend a lengthy amount of time playing the same game. Game developers these days front-load their daily bonuses in such a way that the most “efficient” way to maximize your playtime is to switch between 3-4 titles. And yet I spent ten hours playing Card Hunter on Saturday, and another six on Sunday. So, spoiler alert: I really like this game.
Card Hunter grabbed me from the word Go. In essence, this F2P browser-based game is a tactical, turn-based RPG where your abilities come in the form of random cards. Instead of building an entire deck on your own, a character’s game deck is actually the sum total of the cards associated with that character’s equipped items. This might sound complicated, but it is the exact opposite – after about 5 minutes of looking at the screen, the system becomes immediately grokkable and engaging. For example, here is a character sheet:
All of the cards along the bottom are the sum total of the deck. When you look at a specific item…
…you can see what cards it contributes to the overall deck. As you might imagine, weapons usually contribute attack cards, armor contributes armor cards, and so on. Occasionally though, you will have some items that contribute cards from outside their “theme.” Most items are limited to certain classes, of which there are three: fighter, cleric, and wizard. You can have either human, elf, or dwarf versions of any of those classes, with the differences being the typical D&D tropes; elves have low HP and fast movement, dwarves have the opposite, and humans are in the middle.
How does the game play? Fabulously.
As you can see, the “setting/lore” of the game is retro-D&D, and it is adhered to from start to finish. All characters are represented with those figurines, and all the maps are exactly like this one (with different terrain and such, of course). The game’s F2P currency are slices of pizza, the battles are all prefaced with D&D-module write-ups, and there is clearly some tension going on inbetween the new DM Gary and his rules-lawyer brother Melvin in campaign mode – not to mention Gary’s awkward crush on the pizza delivery girl. Change some names around, add in two more teenagers, and Card Hunter could have described my high school D&D experience to a T.
As far as the game flow goes, it is pretty intuitive. You and your opponent take turns playing one card from any of your characters’ hands. You don’t have to alternate which character’s cards you play – if your warrior has 3 attack cards and someone within reach during each of his/her turns, you can wail on them 3 times. When you and your opponent pass turns in sequence, the Round ends, everyone discards down to two cards, three cards are drawn (one of which is always a movement card), and any Round triggers fire (e.g. players starting their turn in lava take 10 damage, etc).
The strategic brilliance of this combat system simply cannot be praised enough. Yes, the card-based nature of abilities can lead to immensely frustrating, if not outright impossible scenarios. In the screenshot above, for example, my elven mage has drawn all movement cards, severely crippling any initial attack I could muster. Defeat can (and will) be drawn from the jaws of victory even if you are careful. Here was a moment I exclaimed “You have got to be shitting me” out loud:
The above screenshot was taken from the dreaded Compass of Fucking Xorr level, right from where you might imagine is an insurmountable advantage. The armored dogs are dead, I have the last mercenary backed into a corner with 5 HP, and all my dudes are (barely) alive. It’s a new Round, my turn, and… look at the bottom. Don’t see many red cards, do you?
In fact, I drew exactly one attack card, and it only deals 3 damage. That larger card in the screenshot is a “seen” card that I know is in the merc’s hand, and it’s a doozy. Basically, any time you would deal damage to the merc, he rolls a d6: on a 4 or higher, the damage is reduced by 3. Like many Armor cards, it also has the Keep quality, which means it stays in his hand after triggering, ready for the next reduction in damage. And from fighting this guy, let me just tell you that his attack cards all deal 6+ damage from two squares away.
I did kill the merc on the turn after this one, as he just happened to draw a “drawback” card that caused him to discard all his armor cards. But it was a close one either way.
In any event, I am having a blast with Card Hunter thus far. That might sound strange after I just dedicated a few paragraphs to describing what could have been a terrible RNG-based wipe, but that kinda goes with the TCG territory. Who hasn’t been mana-screwed in Magic: the Gathering before? Part of tactical thinking should include the possibility of things going wrong – if games like Frozen Synapse taught me anything, it would be that. If nothing else, it keeps you on your toes.
I’ll go over the other elements of Card Hunter, including the ever-important F2P bits, next time.