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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.

Impression: Roguebook

Out of all of the deck-building games I have played, Roguebook is the one that has come closest to scratching the Slay the Spire itch. And yet it is also different enough that it’s possible that someone who didn’t like Slay the Spire might enjoy Roguebook.

There are a lot of interesting design decisions going on in Roguebook. The basic premise is that you have been sucked into (presumably) the titular book, and you must battle your way past many foes and bosses on your way out. However the aesthetic is one of “blank pages,” where you use bottles of ink and paintbrushes to uncover blank tiles in order to explore and otherwise navigate towards the exit. By default, there is a very straight path to each level’s boss, but you are unlikely to survive without exploring more of the board and getting stronger. Regular fights give ink bottles to uncover straight-line paths, and elite battles give AoE paintbrushes. Gold can be found on the map, and there are a number of other structures that allow you to purchase new cards, get additional treasures, and there’s always a shop available to do likewise.

Make no mistake: exploration is extremely RNG-driven. While there are sometimes pre-revealed tiles you can head towards, the difference between uncovering an empty tile and one that lets you transform a basic card into a rare one with gems attached can be massive. You do eventually start earning progression currency that will allow you to improve future runs – thereby making exploration and combat easier overall – but things can be swingy in the beginning.

Speaking of gems, cards have gem slots ala Monster Train. Some gems are standard sort of “+3 damage” options, but some of the rarer varieties can do goofy things like giving you a free copy of the card, shuffling it back on top of your library, and similar. Artifacts can also be earned/purchased, which give passive (and sometimes active!) abilities.

Combat is fairly standard Slay the Spire with cards costing resources to play, drawing new cards each turn, etc… except there are two heroes. Playing a Defend card (or a few others) will cause that hero to go to the front, with any incoming damage hitting just that person. Losing one hero is not Game Over – you can recover by casting 5 special cards, but you get saddled with two spoiler cards in your deck until that level’s boss is defeated. Each hero has their own exclusive card pools and there are four heroes total, and you can choose the pair at the beginning of each run.

One twist I appreciated was the introductions of talents based on deck size. Basically every X number of cards you add to your deck, unlocks a randomized selection of three talents based on the heroes you’re running. All too often in this genre, the optimal strategy is to keep your deck size as small as possible, so it was fun to see the designers address it with talents. While some of them can be misses, a few can radically alter your entire gameplan.

For example, one character might get “Gain 1 Power each time a card is Dissolved,” which by itself is whatever. But if you paired that character with another that is frequently offered cards that generate 0-cost Throwing Daggers that, you guessed it, dissolve when played, and then combine that with an attack the original character has that deals 1×8 damage… yeah. Does that get your juices flowing?

Overall, Roguebook is a fun game that nevertheless feels a tad easier than Slay the Spire. I have played over 40 hours thus far, unlocking almost all of the Ascension-esque effects. I would say that about 80% of that time has been with the same pair of characters chasing the same strong synergies each game, only deviating if my luck was terrible. In other words, I don’t feel it has the same depth has Slay the Spire, but none of that matters much if you aren’t looking for something to entertain you for 200+ hours. Roguebook is entertaining enough and possibly more approachable at that.

Slay the Spire: Ascension 20

I have finally “beat” Slay the Spire: meeting my end goal of reaching Ascension 20 (A20) on all four characters. There is technically a higher plane of difficulty whereby you face the secret final boss while also on A20, but I am satisfied with where I am. Specifically because games at the A20 level are already incredibly frustrating and unfun already – no need to delve further into self-flagellation.

For giggles, I’m going to post my thoughts on each of the classes, in the order that I reached A20:

The Watcher

The base mechanics of the Watcher (e.g. double/triple damage) are so powerful that I often found myself progressing despite not having any specific deck or relic combos. It does lend itself to being annoying in how much mental math you have to do lest you miscalculate and end up taking double damage in return. Or in the case of Blasphemy, outright losing the game.

Every Watcher run starts by upgrading Eruption ASAP. After that, my successful decks basically had a hodgepodge of loose synergies with Flurry of Blows (stance dancing), cards with Scrying, and Talk to the Hand. I was always happy to see Tantrum and Fear No Evil. Upgraded Blasphemy is fantastic. Omniscience is an auto-include any time it’s offered, even if I didn’t have Power cards at that point; Omniscience into Wish feels like cheating (it is).

The Defect

The only successful Defect runs I have had revolved around Orbs and Focus-stacking. The Inserter relic is always a welcome boost, and lets you save gold/deck space by ignoring Capacitor and Runic Capacitor. Inserter also allows you to take Consume with no downsides, and possibly ignore Defragment and Biased Cognition altogether. In the absence of Inserter, I focused (har har) on Biased Cognition and trying to get artifact to avoid the downsides.

Beyond that, it really came down to getting Glacier and Creative AI, even against the Awakened One. Upgraded Seek is amazing. My success with All for One decks is probably 20%; it feels more like a trap.

The Silent

The only consistently successful strategy for A15+ runs for me has been Shiv decks. Two Accuracy cards (upgraded or not) plus as many Cloak and Dagger and Blade Dances as I can draft. Always draft a Corpse Explosion if offered. Things get infinitely easier if you can snag one of the scaling attack relics (Kunai or Shuriken), or Oriental Fan or After Image. A Thousand Cuts and Envenom are generally overkill. Poison isn’t bad, but hallway fights are worse.

The Ironclad

Yuck. In pretty much every run, you are entirely dependent on which relics you pick up. Corruption + Dead Branch runs make everything worth it, but they are frustratingly rare. Upgraded True Grit is almost always good. Immolate is an amazing hallway card that is still good in boss fights. Fiend Fire can also end many hallway fights by itself with no setup (vulnerability helps).

Again though, your ultimate strategy will vary based on what relics you pick up.

Final Tips

Artifact is insanely powerful. While negating a random enemy debuff is whatever, Artifact also removes the downside of some self-buffs. For example, Biased Cognition and Wrath Form are powerful cards that have scaling downsides… unless you have Artifact. Additionally, it can also be used to make the lowly Flex Potion just straight-up give you +5 Strength for the rest of the fight. For this reason, the shop relic Clockwork Souvenir is crazy powerful.

When in doubt, upgrade your cards. In a recent Defect run, I got a Sunder and Shovel early in Act 1. Instead of upgrading the Sunder, I chose to fish at Rest sites all the way to the boss. I died. Relics can be amazing, but remember you will be playing cards in every fight inbetween, and saving a few extra HP times however many fights will generally make more of a difference than you think.

Hallway fights matter. When you look at cards like Hyperbeam or Blasphemy, you might think “These are useless against bosses.” Maybe. But if you die before making it to the boss, or end up needing to Rest instead of upgrading cards, none of it matters anyway. So if you have the chance to snag a card or two that helps in hallway fights, grab them.

Christmas Haul

I bought myself the following games on Epic:

  • Roguebook – $6.24
  • Banners of Ruin – $5.99
  • Inscryption – $5.99
  • Disco Elysium – $7.99

Basically three deckbuilding roguelikes and Disco Elysium. One item I had in the cart and then removed was Horizon Zero Dawn Complete for $14.99. My current thought was that I should probably wait until/if I do that PC upgrade I talked about – worst case scenario being I purchase it during the Summer sale for a similar (or less) amount. But… it’s also just $15. So maybe? Any thoughts in the comments?

For Steam, it was just:

  • Meteorfall: Krumit’s Tale – $7.49
  • Dream Quest – $4.99

I had an eye on Dream Quest for a long time, ever since I learned that it was one of the OG deckbuilding roguelikes that ended up inspiring Slay the Spire and the creator went on to Hearthstone. It also seemed like abandonware at this point and unlikely to receive a discount. Until it finally did. Krumit’s Tale was just another notch on the Deckbuilding Roguelike belt.

With tax everything ended being about $41 or so. Not a bad haul, assuming that at least one or two of the roguelikes entertain me for X amount of time. Granted, it seems a bit “counterproductive” to acquire more games that don’t strictly “matter.” I am endeavoring to play titles with more meaningful and/or unique experiences after all. On the other hand, I am so far down the deckbuilding roguelike rabbit hole that I may as well keep digging. As Mitch Hedberg (RIP) said:

If you find yourself lost in the woods, fuck it, build a house. “Well, I was lost but now I live here! I have severely improved my predicament!”

By the end of this, I’ll be able suggest deckbuilding games to people with surgical precision. “Oh, you played Slay the Spire but didn’t like energy usage? Might I recommend Fate Hunter?”

Impressions: Tainted Grail: Conquest

I have been looking for the next Slay the Spire fix for going on a year now. Played closed to a dozen different deck-building games in that time. After spending about 20 hours with Tainted Grail: Conquest (TGC), I am prepared to mark the journey as complete.

Tainted Grail: Conquest is a deck-building rogue-lite game based on a Lovecraftian take on the King Arthur mythos. You have been thrown into the Wyrdness of Avalon, surrounded by a corrupting mist and body-horror creatures of nightmare, whom you need to defeat to escape. Defeating a Guardian (boss) will allow you to return the ruins of a village you are helping build up to house the lost souls you save along the way. Defeat all the Guardians and you will face the a final challenge… and get looped back to repeat it all at a slightly higher difficulty.

Deck-building rogue-lite game, remember?

What I really enjoyed about the game is the variety of classes. There are nine in total, with groups of three under a common faction. This means they largely share the same base cards, but their mechanics often make them entirely different. For example, there are three summoner-style classes. The classic Summoner conjures minions and can boost their levels endlessly, but will take a corresponding amount of damage when they are attacked. The Blood Mage conjures minions by sacrificing HP right away, and focuses on boosting their minions’ self-destructive nature to defeat foes. Finally, the Necromancer, you guessed it, summons minions… but also generates spectral versions of said minions after they die, all while boosting themselves into a powerful Lich form to deal massive damage.

Instead of strict floors and encounters like in Slay the Spire, TGC has you wandering around in the fog towards discrete encounter areas on the map. Each step you take decreases the Wyrdcandle you use to push back the corrupting mist, so there is some constraint on how many encounters and in what order you wish to pursue them. The Wyrdcandle itself is a mechanic wherein a temporary card is periodically added to your hand that does something if you cast it, and does another thing if you don’t. If your Wyrdcandle is fresh and bright, the card is cheap and very useful. If your Wyrdcandle is sputtering or gone altogether, the card is expensive and punishing if you don’t play it.

After encounters, you gain XP and can level up. Each level allows you to choose 1 of 3 cards to add to your deck, and every 2 levels you can add 1 of 3 passive abilities to your character. You can also get one-use items from encounters, along with Runestones. These Runestones are basically swappable passive abilities that have two different functions depending on whether they are put in your weapon or armor slot. An example would be the Gar Runestone, which either increases your damage by 2 (weapon slot), or deals 5 damage at the end of turn to all enemies (armor slot). Getting three of the same Runestone allows you to combine them into a slightly stronger version.

None of the details really matters though, right? Is the game fun? Yes. For the most part.

I already mentioned it, but I really enjoy how different each of the classes feels. The Summoner/Blood Mage/Necromancer line seems like they would play similarly, but they really do not. Well… kinda. All three rely on a Golem minion to absorb damage so you can buff/summon other things without being ran over. But the Summoner has no nature healing abilities, so you are laser-focused on giving yourself Barrier (a type of shield). Meanwhile, as a Blood Mage you use your HP as a resource like any other, especially because you can get a huge burst of self-healing if you play your cards right. Meanwhile, the Necromancer has minions like the others, but the bulk of your damage comes from Lich-form and sacrificing minions to fuel it.

There can be some encounters that are especially punishing to some types of classes though. The default class is a glass cannon that relies on Block (negates 1 attack) to save themselves. Block is decidedly less useful when one of the enemies does some weak, 1×3 attack right before the boss’s 70-damage swing. But that also encourages one to blow up those smaller enemies first, I suppose.

[Fake Edit] I wrote the bulk of this Impression riding off the high of the Summoner/Blood Mage/Necromancer sequence. I have since gone back an played every other class, and… they are weak-sauce. Or the Summoner branch is overpowered, which is entirely possible. The “gotcha!” encounters that give Summoners issues are easily negated, but the other class families can be blown up entirely. I didn’t play them long enough to see if some Passive ability makes up for things, but some of them just aren’t as fun. At least two of the classes, for example, basically rely on doing nothing on their turns but turtle up and buff themselves for an explosive future turn. Which is fine in theory, but they also have no self-healing like the Summoners, so each fight ends up being a Pyrrhic Victory at best, and your last one when you face foes that need to be killed immediately.

Finally, I would be remiss to not mention one area that absolutely, as the kids say, slaps: the music. As it turns out, the devs licensed music from a band named Danheim who focuses on Viking/Norse-esque songs. I enjoyed myself listening to the boss fights so much that I ended up acquiring the Danheim discography. If I was still hosting D&D sessions, I would absolutely be incorporating these songs into the battle music rotation.

Is Tainted Grail: Conquest the kind of game I will play for 300+ hours like Slay the Spire? Ultimately… probably not. For one thing, I can’t play TGC on my phone, where I play Slay the Spire now. But of all the deck-building roguelikes I have plowed through, this game is the closest one I have found. And if you have Game Pass, you can try it out for free and see yourself.

Review: Fate Hunters

Fate Hunters is a deckbuilding roguelike in the same… well, not vein, but same circulatory system as Slay the Spire.

In truth, the game plays more like Dominion meets Darkest Dungeon – there is no energy, so you can play all of the cards in your hand every turn, but unplayable treasure cards can gum up your deck if you get too greedy. Monster attacks are straight-forward: they do the thing as what their card says, from left to right, every turn. After each boss fight, you are given the opportunity to leave with all your treasure cards or continue the climb, with each successive boss adding a multiplier to your treasure. If you die, that’s it, you get nothing.

And that’s the entire review. The end.

…I’m being kinda serious.

Some very evocative art

What I can say is that the game is very addictive in the just-one-more-fight way and feels amazing even though it seems low-budget. The card art is very Darkest Dungeon and consistent throughout the game. There is a fairly decent amount of cards available, including a half-dozen classes which have their own specific cards. There are also meaningful choices as you level and when you defeat bosses. For example, do you want to pick one of three random Fates (passive abilities) out of 20+? Or choose one of three Legendary weapons? Or choose one of three Heroic spells?

There is a fairly high variance in card effect quality which can lead to some swingy runs, but overall you are not likely to be shut out of possibly winning. And besides, as long as you get make it past at least one boss, you can just exit the dungeon with whatever spoils you happened to collect and try again.

As for the downsides? Well, the game is done and will no longer get any updates. Which is a real shame because there are a number of tweaks that could have been made to buff the weaker cards/abilities into usefulness. The nature of the game also lends itself to very specific strategies too – you pretty much have to always build a discard-themed deck given how treasures work. There is also zero story or lore of any kind, if that is important to you. The default price of $15 is extremely ridiculous.

But, honestly? It’s on sale for $3.74 right now and I have put in 18 hours already. If you are someone who enjoys deckbuilding roguelikes, it’s a no-brainer. Just be wary of using it as “filler” or a palate cleanser in-between other games, because every time I try and do that, it’s suddenly 2AM and I never get to the other game. Which is a pretty glowing review, now that I think about it.

Non-Service Games

aka regular-ass games.

It is interesting how my perception of games has shifted in the many years we have been living under a “Games as Service” model. Cosmetics, DLC, loot boxes, and all the other myriad monetization strategies nefariously cooked up by black hat economists are just the way things are now. The one little light left in Pandora’s box is that of updates. The suits want to keep engagement high to keep the cash spigot on, so they task the devs with fiddling with all the knobs. Sometimes that ends up making things worse, sometimes maliciously so (e.g. adding time-sinks). But sometimes it works out, and on the player side, hey, at least it seems like someone cares about what’s happening.

Cue my surprise and disappointment and surprise at my disappointment at learning a recent game purchase is… done. Finished. Complete.

Fate Hunters is neat little deckbuilding roguelike I bought for $3.74. The visuals are like Darkest Dungeon, the gameplay is kinda like Slay the Spire, but honestly it plays more like Dominion. There is zero plot, and you only accumulate gold to purchase permanent unlocks if you make it past a boss and retire your deck. Oh, and gold is represented by Treasure cards in your deck, so the more you hoard, the more you dilute your deck. There is no energy, so you basically get to play as many cards as you can (Treasure cards notwithstanding). It is the most arcade-like roguelike I have ever played, but it’s engaging just the same.

It is also “abandoned.”

We finished the game and did almost everything we planned. But there will be no new patches and sequels.

(source)

“The devs are done with the game? Can they even do that?!” Fate Hunters actually plays pretty well – I did not encounter anything remotely close to a significant bug. There are some eyebrow-raising balance issues and some card tweaks that would make everything smoother IMO. The thought that nothing will happen with the game anymore though? It feels like I was duped. As though any game I purchase must have full dev support for at least the length of time I play it, lest it be abandonware. If you aren’t Terraria or No Man’s Sky, who even are you?

Well, you’re a regular-ass game from any time 20+ years ago.

[Fake Edit:] I was digging around and found out that the devs are making a new game that looks exactly the same gameplay-wise… but worse, graphically. It’s in Early Access and is called Dreamgate. On their FAQ thread, they mention:

Do you have experience in developing and releasing a game in Steam?

Our team has been developing games for over 7 years and our last game was Fate Hunter. But unfortunately, we could not continue to develop this game, because the rights to it did not belong to our team.

Based on our past experience, we decided to release our own game, the rights to which belong to us fully and which we could develop as we see fit.

So, there it is. Of course, they also mentioned in another post that they are a 2-man team and “this is not our main project” so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Caveat emptor and all that.

[Real Edit:] WTF. How many done games am I going to be buying?! Just found out about Griftlands:

At this time we don’t have any plans for more Griftlands content or DLC. That being said, who knows? I don’t like to ever say we absolutely won’t do more for a game because that often turns out to be not totally true, but at least for now we don’t have any plans.

(source)

Maybe devs don’t actually like deckbuilding games? Don’t Starve and Oxygen Not Included are both Klei games that have/are getting paid DLC and ongoing support and tweaks. Scandalous!

Impression: Griftlands

Griftlands is Klei’s entry into the roguelike deckbuilder genre. And in typical Klei fashion, it overcomplicates everything.

Dialog is actually pretty good across the board.

In some circumstances, overcomplication can be good news. It represents depth and complex systems and a high skill ceiling. Oxygen Not Included is a gem of a colony sim, and Don’t Starve is one of those genre classics that seems simple at first, but quickly demonstrates how deep the rabbit hole goes.

So what’s the issue with Griftlands? The complication is just time-consuming.

One of the central hooks is that Griftlands is a roguelike deckbuilding RPG. The three characters you can pick from each have an elaborate backstory and encounter numerous choices throughout the game. And speaking of backstory, the game’s lore is extremely elaborate and interesting. It takes place on a remote, swamp-like planet populated by the descendants of a spacefaring civilization that… stopped sparefaring. Most of the citizens worship Hesh, an inscrutable Cthulhu-esque monster in the deep ocean. So you have mechs, bioweapons, ancient tech, and post-apoc Thunderdome elements in this gumbo soup of a setting. It’s pretty cool.

Less cool is how all these RPG/Visual Novel elements interact with, you know, a roguelike deckbuilder. Like how my first playthrough with the first character ended when I died to the final boss after 7 hours, 15 minutes. While you can make different choices the next time around, in reality they are more of an A/B route sort of thing. Do you side with the authorities or the rebels? Do you double-cross the one dude or not? The final boss is always the final boss. My second playthrough was a success after five hours. And that was with me skipping some of the dialog I had already heard before.

Just a breezy 5 hour, 20 minute playthrough.

Even ignoring the story aspects, the deckbuilding side itself is complicated.

You start off with two decks, completely independent of one another: Battle and Negotiation. Whenever you come across an encounter, you often have the choice of determining whether to use one or the other. Generally speaking, Negotiation avoids “battle” encounters entirely, but sometimes they are used to weaken a particularly stubborn foe before fisticuffs. Negotiation is an entirely different battle system with different mechanics and even different “HP”. Additionally, you can “lose” in a Negotiation without losing the game, although that typically results in you no longer being able to do any more Negotiations for the rest of the in-game day.

On top of this, all cards have XP meters that increase as you play them. Once filled, the card gets one of two upgrades to choose from. The generic cards have a dozen or so potential options, but the main ones you get from shops or win from battle will just have the two options. This XP element will typically encourage you to stall battles out so you can level-up your cards, but this can only be done for X number of rounds before your character becomes exhausted. Nevertheless, the XP mechanic complicates things quite a bit considering the final encounter for each character is always a Battle, so choosing Negotiate all the time will lead to inevitable failure.

Turns out this combo is pretty strong.

On the Battle side of things, everything is more straight-forward. Ish. You face off versus one or more enemies like in Slay the Spire. You might get some help though in the form of a pet, hired goons, NPC helpers, or NPCs summoned from cards in your deck. Each of the three main characters have their own special mechanics. For example, one gets Charges that can be expended to boost cards, another takes self-damage that turns into end-of-turn self-healing, and so on. You can add cards to your deck after successful encounters or buy them from shops. Grafts are permanent items you, well, graft into your skull that act as passive abilities. And so on and so forth.

Oh, I forgot to mention about relationships. During Battles, enemy character have X amount of HP, and then a slightly higher threshold for Panic. For example, someone may have 80 HP but Panic once they get to 20 HP. Cause all the enemies to Panic and the encounter ends with you having the choice as accept their surrender or execute them. Executing characters grants you a special card, but will also likely cause one of their friends to hate you. This hate manifests as a Social Bane, which is just a persistent debuff that exists as long as they hate you. Some are whatever, but others increase the costs of all vendors, or cause you to lose money every time you sleep, and other nastiness. You can try and kill the person who hates you to erase the Social Bane, but unless you properly provoke them into a duel, you just continue the cycle of hatred.

On the flip side, Social Boons also exist. Most of the time they come from doing quests for people, but sometimes you can just straight-up throw enough money at someone to get them to like you. Just like in real life!

Are you feeling the overcomplicated-ness of this game yet?

Overall the game is fun, but honestly it is in spite of all of these systems. A particularly long Slay the Spire run takes me maybe 2-3 hours max. Doubling that for Griftlands does not double my fun. Indeed, the longer things go on, the more disappointed I become if I don’t succeed. The saving grace of most roguelikes is winning or losing quick enough that you can jump back on the horse without questioning your life choices. With Griftlands, you have plenty of opportunity to ask questions.

As a final note, there is a Brawl mode which eliminates all the plot and just lets you play battles in sequence. I just completed my first one before writing this… after 3 hours and 20 minutes. That is one long-ass roguelike experience.

The Dalaran Heist

One of the most enjoyable things out of Hearthstone have been the roguelike deck-building modes (Dungeon Run) launched with each expansion since Kobolds and Catacombs. The exact formula has changed a bit each time, but the idea is that you start with a deck with only a few cards, and as you face off against increasingly tough bosses, you get to pick a “bucket” of three cards when you win, punctuated with the occasional passive effect or uber-powerful cards. This mode is something that could almost stand on its own, given how engaging it has been for me these past few weeks.

With the latest version though, Blizzard might have gone too far with the options.

The original Dungeon Run featured all nine classes to choose from, each with a simple starting deck. While it could be frustrating to lose over and over with the same class, knowing you would still have to deal with some subpar cards, the Treasures (passive abilities) and bosses you fought and the buckets of cards offered would quickly change how each run would go. Then came Monster Hunt, which featured four made-up classes with new Hero powers to play with. Then was a puzzle-mode interlude with the Boomsday Project. Then came Rastakhan’s Rumble, which featured “shrines” that did special things, but you otherwise used troll versions of the basic classes.

With Dalaran Heist, we are back to choosing one of the nine classes. However, you can also unlock two additional new Hero powers (per class!) by doing things like casting 25 elementals and other achievement-esque things. You can also unlock two additional starter decks (per class!) to shake up the early game. Finally, in addition to passive abilities and uber-cards, there are two sets of Tavern encounters which allow you to do a random assortment of things, like add new cards to your deck, increase your starting health, or even remove some cards.

In short, the whole thing is kinda nuts with the options.

One would think this would be a good thing. “Lots of replayability there!” But too much of a good thing is a problem. I finally cleared the Heist on Heroic mode and I am beyond done. Not because I only needed to beat it once, but because there is too much to contemplate. I beat Act 5 (Heroic) with Paladin, Boon of Light Hero power, and Old Hero starting deck. I could try and do the same with all the same settings but changing the starting deck to Adventure. Or Holy Flames. Or use the default Hero power and Old Hero starting deck. Or any of the five other permutations. Nine total combinations across nine classes on two separate difficulty levels.

[Fake Edit] I knew there was a Random Deck option too, but I thought that meant it would randomly pick between the three starter decks. I have just now read that it actually gives you a purely random set of cards as your starter deck. Not only does that add another three permutations, it arguably adds a quasi-infinite variety of starting positions.

Oh, and have I mentioned there are Anomalies you can activate too? Stuff like “After a player casts 3 spells in a turn, that player summons a 5/5 dragon.” I don’t know how many of those effects there are (Edit: Fifteen! 1-5!), but that would again layer on additional RNG and permutations.

Like, Jesus Christ, Blizzard. You guys crammed pretty much every possible idea on the whiteboard and put it into one game mode. I’m actively wondering if this might be the last Dungeon Run-esque version we get for a while. Where could they go from here?

Impressions: Monster Slayers

Monster Slayers is basically a worse Slay the Spire.

Monster-Slayers-Attack

Ugh, the visuals and UI are just bad.

The premise of this deck-building roguelite is that you are part of a guild of people trying to take down the Big Bad Guy. Your deck and cards are reset on death to the default ones associated with the class you pick (of which there are several), but you maintain any gear you have accumulated, and any Fame unlocks. Considering that gear increases the damage of your attacks, can give you “temporary” cards in your deck (that will persist as long as that gear is equipped), and boosts your HP, these are essentially permanent advantages that you maintain as soon as you collect them.

The issue is twofold.

First, it is physically impossible to actually “beat” the game without several cycles of death and gear accumulation. In other words: grinding. It’s not the grinding that’s necessarily bad, but rather how the game is balanced around it. You will essentially be paired up with monsters that you have zero chance of defeating, not because of poor planning or execution or even RNG, but simply because the game is “balanced” that way. Losing in that manner never feels fun. Roguelikes (and -lites) often feature punishing RNG, but that’s not what’s going on here – you are engineered to lose X times in Monster Slayers, guaranteed.

Monster-Slayers-LevelUp

Weeee

The other, more important issue is that… the gameplay is simply bad. In Slay the Spire, you get a notification of what the enemy is about to do, and so there is a possibility of some interplay or tactical considerations. Should you try Blocking the damage, or are you free to go all-out Attacking?

In Monster Slayers, beyond a description of what the enemy does in general, e.g. “Vampire Bats can drain health,” there is no real indication of anything. So what happens is that you just play your cards until you run out of cards or AP, and then your opponent plays their cards, and you wait to see if you’re dead yet or not. That’s really it.

There are some other “minor” issues like the game looking terrible, the UI being horrendous and mostly useless, not having a understanding of what cards the enemy is playing (not that you can interact with them much), the music being repetitive, and the act of playing cards not feeling good. For example, the Rogue class has several “Deal N+1 damage, draw a card” attacks, and while it’s fun chaining those together, if you click too quick, you’ll accidentally play a different card.

If you are looking for another Slay the Spire fix, look elsewhere. If not… play Slay the Spire instead.