This one required a little digging to find its earliest availability. Even as a fairly young medium, video games are notoriously poorly archived, compared to books or film. Modern accessibility for older titles is one thing, but even just getting a solid date on the earliest release for an indie game that is only 6 years old at the time of writing isn’t always as easy as you may assume. According to Mobygames and Steam itself, Card Quest was released on November 7th, 2017. However, early tweets from two-man developer WinterSpring Games link to reviews that received early copies of the game. One such review states that it was available through early access on Steam from January 20th, 2017. The reason I’m posting in order of these early access release dates is because I would bet that the majority of the traction for these indie games came as soon as they were out (regardless of how ‘complete’ they were), especially during the immediate post-Slay the Spire boom we will soon reach. After all, Slay the Spire itself received over a year of hype between its early access and ‘official’ releases, so I’m going to extend that consideration to other games, too.
Premise and Gameplay
Card Quest actually has multiple settings. There are three scenarios, all loosely bound by a fantasy theming. The first, City of the Undead, sees you trying to rout a zombie plague that has taken hold of some villages over a single night. The second, Dwarven Mountains, has the player helming a throne reclamation attempt on behalf of an exiled dwarven prince. Lastly, ‘Enchanted Forest’ is a hunt for a legendary beast through a forest maze. Each of these little scenarios is played out with a class of your choice. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: you can choose from a rogue, a wizard, a fighter, or a hunter. As usual, class choice largely dictates what kind of deck you’ll be running around with. Rather than altering your deck as you progress or unlocking new cards between runs, you make direct changes to your character’s loadout and background (here called a ‘school’), a little like you would with a Dungeons & Dragons character. For example, at the start, your Fighter class can only come from a ‘Guardian School’ background, which revolves around blocking as much damage as possible. Later, you can unlock things like the high-risk-high-reward Berserker School or the dodge-focused Paladin School, each of which adds a new set of special cards that interact differently with the class’ base cards.
Each class has an individual tutorial that plays out not unlike a series of puzzles. They tend to only have one intended solution as a means of introducing you to the unique mechanics of the class you’re currently using, but it can become pure trial-and-error if the trick isn’t immediately clear. I question their value as tutorials because unlike actual runs, you instantly fail them for not adhering to a very narrow range of accepted moves, but I suppose they do force you to solve them in a way that makes you aware of unique ways to deal or block damage. They are still worth completing because they unlock additional trinkets that provide effects in combat, as well as a little bit of dialogue from a mentor figure. We know very well by now that this isn’t a genre particularly held back by a lack of worldbuilding, but it’s nice to get a little whenever you can find it.
By the strictest possible definition, the game barely qualifies as a ‘deck-builder’. You can only change up your cards if you take up one of the few mid-run opportunities to change your class school, as described earlier. On the one hand, this does mean you never spend any time worrying that your deck is too thin or thick. Many cards allow you to draw more cards as a secondary effect, so there is fun to be had in getting a cycle going, keeping space in your hand, drawing new cards, and balancing the energy (here called ‘stamina’) needed to play them.
There are two major elements to Card Quest’s gameplay that distinguish it from other games we’ve seen so far. The first is that individual cards are extremely powerful right from the start, and are not upgraded in any typical way. Whereas most deck-building games keep their cards relatively simple, only performing one or two actions simultaneously, Card Quest’s cards are relatively complex, with many providing a varied mix of damage dealing, blocking, dodging, resource building, card drawing, etc. Unless you change your class background mid-run, you will be using the same slim deck of cards throughout the whole run, with multiple copies of several of them. The second standout is the ‘chain’ mechanic. Many cards behave differently if you play them after another card in the same turn. For instance, the Hunter’s ‘Move Away’ card usually just allows you to dodge one incoming attack for a cost of 3 stamina. However, if you have already played a card that turn, its additional chain effect is triggered, reducing its stamina cost to 2, pushing enemies back one row, and allowing you to draw an extra card. Such powerful secondary effects compel you to think carefully about the best way to manage your hand.
Honestly, there isn’t a whole ton of randomness between runs. You can chart your usual path to the boss from an overworld map, and these let you know what types of enemies you are likely to encounter through several back-to-back fights in that area. The greatest randomness you are ever at the mercy of is trying to work out how far you are from drawing the cards you need. Cards in your hand are retained between turns, but you can only have five at any one time, so discarding what you don’t need in the hopes of seeing it again in a couple of turns when you do need it becomes part of the strategy. Enemies, particularly bosses, can be quite fiendish, with multiple attacks and defensive strategies. Several have passive dodge abilities, meaning they can’t even be hit unless you have certain cards. It is hard to feel like you have bad luck when you have so few types of card in your deck to worry about, but it does mean you will be wanting to switch up your class and school often to keep things fresh.
By 2017, pixel-art nostalgia was definitely back in full force among indie games, but a number of them tripped up where it mattered, failing to maintain readability of action and information. Fortunately, Card Quest doesn’t trip over its shoelaces here in its pursuit of looking like an RPG running on an Amiga. The use of windows to partition enemies, resources, and other parts of the UI bring to mind things like Dungeon Master. Enemies inhabit the screen’s top half and your hand occupies the bottom. Critically, given how mechanically busy the cards are, the pixel font is legible and of a decent size, so you’re never squinting to make out what something does. Likewise, the card art is well done, but more importantly, distinctive enough in colour and design for you to choose things at a glance without mistaking them for something else, assuming you remember what they do. To nitpick, animations can’t be sped up, and they can take a second or so longer than you’d really like. That adds up over the course of a run, especially when you’re in the pocket and your brain is a card or two ahead of the strategy you’re trying to put in place, but you’re still waiting for that archer to just hurry up and shoot you.
The music probably gave me the fastest laugh I’ve ever had out of a videogame. This won’t matter to anyone except myself, but I cracked up when I booted the game and was immediately met with “Five Armies” by royalty-free music legend Kevin MacLeod, a song that I have associated with the mad competitive eating challenges of LA Beast for at least 10 years now. That’s neither here nor there, but when else am I going to bring that up? All the music and sound effects seem to be from free libraries, and besides the aforementioned novelty of whatever associations you may carry from hearing them elsewhere, they’re completely serviceable and unobtrusive.
Card Quest initially seems deceptively simple and narrow in its range of cards and gameplay styles, but it offers one of the most immediately compelling ‘flow’ states that I’m always searching for in a gameplay loop when I start up a new roguelike deck-builder. When I’m playing the Fighter class (my personal favourite), I’m able to get into an almost solitaire-like zone – discarding things I don’t need to keep space in my hand to draw more cards that will allow me to dodge instead of block which will allow me to save more stamina which will allow me to draw more cards… you know this feeling. A post on the game’s Steam community made by the developers last month says that a remaster of Card Quest has been in development for around two years, but is currently on hiatus. I wish them the best and look forward to whatever the next entry may look like whenever it happens. The core of the game is already very solid, and there’s relatively little that needs to be ‘fixed’ for it to be as good as possible.