Monstrous Manual

HIGH Mechanically satisfying. Surprisingly evocative art and character design.

LOW The premise is thin. The quality of unlockable cards per character is uneven.

WTF Who do we need to bribe to get a daily challenge mode?

In gaming, collaborations don’t always have a happy ending. Sure, when the creators of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest came together to form Squaresoft’s “dream team” in the early ’90s, they ended up producing one of the most beloved games of that era with Chrono Trigger. When Hideo Kojima lent his name and oversight to MercurySteam for the development of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, however, the results were uneven at best.

As such, it was easy to be skeptical when I heard that Richard Garfield, one of the most famous designers in the history of collectible card games, was partnering with Abrakam Entertainment to create a roguelike deckbuilder called Roguebook. Even as an extension of Abrakam’s underrated Faeria franchise, it still had too many question marks — its Kickstarter campaign barely made it across the finish line and there are already a hundred run-based deckbuilders out there that have already covered similar territory.

As I played through the closed demo for my preview earlier this year, however, I found myself coming back to the beta, even after I had filed my piece. Just like the old PC Gamer demo CDs that wore down the double-speed drive in my childhood computer, this Roguebook beta kept finding its way onto my screen, goading me into thinking thatthiswould be the run that would put it all together.

This intense gravitational pull remains in the final release version, where little has changed from my preview writeup when it comes to the fundamental mechanics. The biggest change is that two more characters join strongman Sorocco and his glass cannon comrade Sharra, but players will have to complete certain events in Roguebook to unlock them.

Beyond that, the core loop of Roguebook remains tight — the player must navigate the obscured pages of the titular tome by defeating enemies with a chosen pair of heroes. Each turn-based combat victory provides a consumable ink or brush, both of which can be used to clear their path on the map  to the boss of each chapter. Exploration of the map can lead to other discoveries as well, such as various treasures, card draft opportunities and alchemist houses where weaker cards can be transmuted (for a price) into stronger combinations of cards and gems, which can be slotted into another card to add a bonus effect.

Other than a few late-game exceptions, Abrakam and Garfield hit all the right notes with their individual card designs, giving each a compelling mixture of flavor and function. The character designs throughout the game are great high-fantasy artworks that are cute and clever without being cloyingly sweet or corny. Most importantly, almost all of the cards are effective at teasing mechanical and narrative synergies with each other, which is the perfect motivator for drawing players into ongoing experimentation.

It’s these synergies in Roguebook that fuel the interplay between the tactical card battles and the more strategic ‘risk vs. reward’ decisions in map exploration. This feedback loop is incredible and a large part of its success lies in its pursuit of a “big deck design.”

Generally, deckbuilders require the player to cultivate a perfect deck, carefully thinning out and pruning functionally dead cards like the malformed branches of a bonsai tree. Roguebook, on the other hand, completely buries that tradition as a core part of its design by incentivizing the player to accumulate cards and build up with passive skills at certain card count thresholds. This larger collection also leads to a natural difficulty ramp — players can’t mount a meaningful challenge to later enemies without picking up more powerful cards, but each card picked up is less likely to be drawn as the card count increases.

Thankfully, Roguebook’s razor-sharp design can still present interesting variations to this loop across multiple runs, even with a postgame hook that is somewhat lacking.

Completing Roguebook unlocks a progression tree of embellishments which are permanent boosts that can be purchased. To keep this from becoming a depressing grind, the postgame also features an epilogue level that’s reminiscent of the heat system in Hades as a part of its New Game+ modeAs the player applies more penalties and modifiers at the start of their run, the epilogue difficulty level increases, along with a corresponding boost to the page reward for completing a run. Unlike Hades, there is no meaningful exposition or narrative texture with each successive run, which is disappointing, but the combinations of modifiers do a fantastic job of interrogating the possibility space that’s teased by earlier (and simpler) playthroughs, throwing one curveball after another into the player’s expectations of both combat and exploration.

It’s easy to think that the run-based deckbuilder genre has been entirely tapped out, but Roguebook counters that notion in an instant. Though its broader narrative and post-game balance may be a little thin, everything else between these pages is incredibly rich and satisfying. By combining the elegance of tabletop map exploration with a thoughtful evolution of deckbuilding mechanics, Abrakam and Richard Garfield have found a match made for the history books.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Abrakam Entertainment SA and published by Nacon. It is currently available on PC via Steam. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on an Alienware Alpha R2. Approximately 50 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode and the game was completed eight times (up to Epilogue Level 7). There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: There is no ESRB rating for this game, though there is a provisional 7 PEGI rating. The game presents turn-based combat where melee attacks and magic spells are used to kill enemies. Other than a “bleed” mechanic that is used as a status effect in combat, there is no violence or gore presented through combat. The reviewer did not find any profanity or explicit written content of any kind during their time with the game.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no required sound cues for gameplay. There is no voice acting and, thus, no subtitles required for cutscenes. There are no options to resize or recolor text. (See examples above.)

Remappable Controls: Controls are not remappable, as the game is entirely controlled by mouse.

Steve Gillham
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