Sometimes, it behooves a reviewer to convey a game’s nature by comparing it to other games. It’s not a tool to be overused, particularly if you want to keep your articles relevant to newcomers, but it provides a solid shorthand. The problems arise when the comparisons don’t stop at mechanical and aesthetic inspiration, and they turn into a discussion of quality. It can be hard to stop measuring a game up to another title’s standards.
That’s the problem I’ve encountered, trying to discuss Deck of Ashes. The game itself, as a deck-builder with roguelite elements, a hand-drawn art style, and a dark, grimy aesthetic, immediately comes off as a cross between Darkest Dungeon and Slay the Spire. Of course, I must ground the discussion of this game’s merits within its own context, regardless of its comparative quality.
Even judged by its own merits, however, Deck of Ashes is an uneven experience. It delivers some well-balanced, challenging boss fights and yet also presents a repetitive early game. Its monster design can be intriguing and disturbing even as you’re picking apart disproportionate humans and inconsistent stylistic choices. And so the question remains unsettled: does Deck of Ashes eventually overcome this duality and successfully provide a compelling experience all its own?
- What is Deck of Ashes? It’s a dark fantasy deck-builder with roguelite elements. Battle hideous monsters, upgrade your (anti) hero, and embark on a quest to undo the terrible Ash Curse plaguing the world.
- Developer: AYGames
- Publisher: Buka Entertainment, Whisper Games
- Release Date: June 9, 2020
- Price: $14.99
- Reviewed On: PC
- Website: www.deckofashes.com
Aesthetics and Antiheroics
Deck of Ashes opens with a cinematic rendered in its grimy, hand-drawn style, narrated by a mysterious, deep-voiced man. This cinematic establishes the Outcasts, a gang of bandits who once dominated the countryside before being led to a powerful artifact by Lady Death, unwittingly afflicting the land with the Ash Curse. Now, monsters rule the realm, and life has become quite cheap. Enter the Ash Master, who recruits the former members of the Outcasts to destroy Lady Death and break the Ash Curse.
Much of this story’s success is contingent on its presentation. For good or ill, the dynamic outlined in this article’s introduction is on full display here. The broad strokes of Deck of Ashes’ aesthetic perfectly fit the tone, with grotesque enemies and filthy, dilapidated environments well-suited to this dark fantasy post-apocalypse.
The biggest problem with the audiovisuals, however, is their inconsistency. Certain characters break from the general grime of the aesthetic, looking profoundly out-of-place, and some body designs are so disproportionate that stylistic choice doesn’t seem to account for it. Similarly, and this is evident in the opening cinematic, voice acting is variable in quality. While the narrator conveys a passable air of menace, the other voiced character in the scene sounds like nothing but a guy in a recording booth, undercutting any potential mood or drama in the game’s opening.
Another major determinant in the story’s effectiveness is, of course, the writing. As far as the actual text in the game is concerned, most of what’s on display is competent and generally entertaining. But there are a few issues, the smaller of which being localization problems that result in grammatical errors recited verbatim by the English-speaking voice actors. This contributes to the larger problem, which owes its existence to the general shaky quality of Deck of Ashes’ presentation.
Essentially, the game’s dark and gritty tone starts to work against it after awhile. Trying to establish a grim, oppressive atmosphere is a tricky balancing act, and one’s execution of such a world needs to be exceedingly deliberate, cohesive, and consistent. As we’ve established, these things cannot be said for Deck of Ashes. Consequently, while the actual writing is often serviceable and even packed with some interesting worldbuilding and character drama, the whole experience feels a bit like a teenager’s attempt to be edgy.
Risen from the Ashes
Thus far, the breakdown of Deck of Ashes has skewed towards the negative. Luckily for the game and its players, the mechanics of the game are considerably sturdier on closer examination. There are, of course, still issues. In my time with the game, I came off of a defeat wherein I’d conquered the first area, and when I spawned in with a different character, I was disappointed to find that playing that same area again felt almost identical to the first time. There wasn’t quite the dynamism one might hope would arise from the inclusion of various roguelite elements.
That said, the actual framework for these maps is quite engaging to interface with. You travel via waypoints, with various random events and dungeons and loot scattered across the landscape. Much of the decision process of the game involves managing your titular Deck of Ashes, where cards from your Battle Deck wind up when expended. It costs Rest Points or a once-per-day visit to the Ash Master to replenish one’s deck and carry on the fight, which can only be replenished mid-combat by sacrificing a chunk of your health. It’s fun to plot out one’s journey and try to gather various card recipes and consumables, angling for keys and Ash Storms in the hopes of getting a rare drop.
Combat itself, meanwhile, generally feels fun and satisfying. After an informative-if-lukewarm tutorial, early encounters are mostly a way to familiarize oneself with the mechanics of Deck of Ashes, experiment with a new character, and get a feel for navigation. Difficulty subsequently ramps up, but with a sense of progression that feels natural and well-balanced.
Near the end of my first run, I managed to defeat the boss of the first area by a hair’s breadth, squeaking out a victory with only a sliver of health to my name. In that fight, I was rewarded for paying attention to what my enemy was doing, what sort of effects it was imposing on me, and adjusting my strategy accordingly. The battle was climactic and challenging, and it was easily one of the highlights of my time with Deck of Ashes.
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Zoom Out: Verdict
Combat - 8/10
Travel and Progression - 8/10
Roguelite Elements - 7/10
Aesthetics - 6/10
Tone and Storytelling - 6/10
Deck of Ashes wears its inspiration on its sleeve, often to its detriment. Its art style and presentation often suffer from qualitative inconsistencies, warping the game’s dark tone and making things seem a bit silly at the worst of times. However, it’s hard to shake the subtle fun of the game’s mechanics once you’ve settled into their rhythm, and plotting out a journey within this world and battling its denizens is certainly worthwhile.
- Fun, challenging combat
- Interesting map mechanics
- Some cool monster designs
- Can get repetitive
- Inconsistent art style
- Uneven voice acting, localization problems