by Jason Parker (Ragachak)
Nothin’, not even children’s trading cards are free.
Deckbuilders definitely seem to be en vogue again, and that’s without a doubt a great thing. Deckbuilders come with all the cards you need to play the game without having to buy booster packs. Deck of Ashes just has players hunting down the cards, playthrough by playthrough, slowly building a collection. When you die to an enemy encounter (and it’s going to happen), you start over, as does your collection. Depending on how many Points you earned through that playthrough, you can unlock passive traits, new card recipes, and things of that nature. So playing over and over will still provide new challenges and ways to grow. This game is still in Early Access, so there is still a lot of room to grow and change as time goes on. I will say that despite my years of deckbuilding and CCG experience, this game is brutal. Even with varying degrees of difficulty, this game is pretty difficult. I appreciate that though – roguelikes are no fun if they’re easy!
There are four degrees of difficulty to choose from. Wanderer is the easiest; on that difficulty, you respawn at your Camp when you die, and you have more health. This mode lets you learn about the cards without any risk, so it’s a great way to learn deck builds and combos. Next came Raider, which offers more health than normal, and death resets the chapter, instead of the whole game. You can also still perform the Ressurection Rite to evade death. Adventurer is the mode I played on, where you have a normal amount of health, you start at the beginning of the game when you die, and you can perform a Resurrection Ritual at your camp to avoid death. Martyr is a step above that; you cannot perform the Ritual, and the game is even harder still. I think I’ll stick to Adventurer if it’s all the same. At least I’m building a collection of potential cards, and just have to unlock their use in each playthrough.
Right now there’s only one character to use: Lucia the Eternal Flame, who is, as her name suggests, a Pyromancer. Sly the Black is coming soon, and I imagine he’ll take advantage of more of the stealth, poison, and sneaky cards I see the enemies use. The game takes place on a series of maps, with your Camp located in the center. The paths branch off to various tiles that do anything from Random Events (Question Marks), Resources (Circles with a mining pick), Chests (require x amount of keys to open), or Battles (Swords). There’s also a meter in the top middle of the screen, and when it gets to the end, you must go back to camp and prep for the battle with the Lord of that map. It’s typically something hideous, awful, with tons of HP and powerful cards to battle you back with.
You start off with 8 cards in your deck, though you can purchase more card recipes from the Merchant at your base camp (center of the map). Cards are bought with gold, and crafted with Ash. Ash is acquired from winning fights, occasionally from events, and from Ash Storms, if you can get to the Ash Urn in time. Ash Storms randomly happen between turns on the map and last for three turns total. A turn passes when you walk from one spot to the next on the map. The Ash Master in your camp can renew your cards once a day, and perform the Ritual to bring yourself back to life and cheat death. It’s a little on the pricey side in terms of gold, but no risk, no reward! This camp is key to your success and the only real safe spot on the map. Each of the members of your camp (Ash Master, Blacksmith, Herbalist, Merchant) can be upgraded, using resources that are mined from the map. When you hit a circle tile, a mining pick will pop up on it, and you can mine resources. The further out you go, the darker the combat/event/resource tiles get, which is also an indicator of how dangerous they are. The further out, the greater the danger. But you can teleport back to camp, and there are also portals to use that can teleport you around, once you unlock them.
Whether you engage a Battle Tile or get Ambushed on another tile, combat works the same way. The side with the highest Speed goes first, and thankfully, you can see what each creature is going to do before they do it. Their card is revealed to you, and it can be hovered over for more info. One of the things I’m not as wild about is that you draw two cards a turn. When you have 8 cards starting, it doesn’t take long for you to run out of cards to draw. At the end of your turn, you can also return up to 3 cards to your deck, and draw that many more back. This is borderline useless at the start of the game, but once you have a sizable deck, this can really turn the tide of battle. When you can’t draw more, you receive a card that recycles 5 cards from your discard pile back into your deck for 20 HP. This is a mechanic called “Strain”, and there are other cards that are built around the concept of paying life for effects. The player receives 5 Mana a turn, and this regenerates every turn.
I’m not exceptionally upset about the low amount of mana, but I wouldn’t mind having an option to increase it. The part that is a pretty major turn-off right now is the length of the fights. Even the level 1 enemies take several turns to kill, and in that time period, you could be crippled and unable to come back after a few fights. Every 24 hours in game you can get new products at your camp and can refresh your cards, but that means surviving that long. Even one enemy on its own feels like it takes forever to do battle with, and there are plenty of them that summon minions, or create minions when they die, heal, or drop constant DOT damage on you. The longer a battle takes, the more often you have to recycle cards into your deck, and creating a cycle of having to go back to town, waste resources on healing, or avoid exploring out of fear of death – especially in the early going. This could probably see a little fine-tuning. That said, I do like the character dynamics, I like the actual battle mechanics, and the concept of recycling cards with a cost, but I think with as much RNG as this game has, it can feel very deflating.
Deck of Ashes created an interesting, but frustrating, dynamic for me with recycling cards in exchange for life. In my first playthrough, I managed to get through a few chapters of the game with relative ease, but after chapter 1, I started coming across a new type of card that enemy characters insert into your deck – Diseases. These ailments are presented as cards that are shuffled into your deck. You can cast them, which has a negative effect on you, and it puts them in your Ash Pile. Alternatively, you can just keep shuffling them back into your deck. The only way to get rid of these is to have a card that dispels a random illness from your deck or to cure them by upgrading your Camp Healer. This requires quite a few resources, so I found myself fighting less, and farming resources more. This left me with a weaker deck, but at least I could protect myself from those ailment cards. In later parts of chapters 2 and 3, having so many of those ailments in my Ash Pile turned to be profitable – I had a card that dealt damage according to how many cards were in my Ash Pile! So at that point, I had 30+ cards in my Ash Pile, thanks to the Ash Master. He can (for a price) turn some of your cards to Ash, including these Diseases. They still can come back with the Ash Ritual or when you renew your deck though. There are cards that deal bonus effects every turn when they’re in your Ash Pile, so it is helpful to at least consider that, especially if you have no discard engine.
The Story Thus Far: 3/5 (Good)
I enjoy the story Deck of Ashes tells. I won’t spoil it, but Lucia as a character does have some depth, and this, coupled with the grimdark aesthetic, gives a lot on offer. I like the designs of the enemy demons/undead you fight, as well as the actual card art. Everything in this game stands out nicely, and though the Epilogue is not playable yet, I’m glad it’s set aside, away from the main story so players should have access to it when they please. The Prologue was treated as a Tutorial and did a solid job of teaching the game’s mechanics and base keywords for cards. The whole presentation of this game, in general, is very well done, and the atmosphere is created in a way that I truly appreciate. Deck of Ashes is a pretty dark tale, and they hooked me early on. I wonder how the other character is going to play, and how their tale will intertwine with Lucia’s.
Honestly, I think Deck of Ashes offers a lot for fans of games like Slay the Spire, especially for the price of 15 bucks. It has plenty of replay value and several different ways to build your decks. The game has more than enough challenge and is certainly a new take for me, in the deckbuilder genre. I’m looking forward to seeing how it grows during Early Access. I can only imagine/hope they will add more cards, and adjust combat a little to feel less frustrating, but overall it was a lot of fun. I do wish battles didn’t drag on for quite as long as they do though. Every playthrough, you get a little better. As the card library and the game itself grows, I think this could be a truly enjoyable deckbuilder/roguelike.
Note: A game key was given for purposes of this review.
Deck of Ashes Image Gallery