Cards of Cthulhu, released on PC on October 11th, 2016, was developed by Brazilian team Awoker Games. A little context I’d like to couch this in before getting into the retrospective proper: its full price on Steam at the time of writing is 0.79 GBP. That’s not even a full US dollar. It’s currently on sale, too, at 71% off. 23 pence sterling, for Pete’s sake. I’m not trying to drum up sales for it – read on and draw your own conclusions. It is, by a considerable margin, the cheapest game we’ve looked at so far, and likely to remain as such for a good while longer. Worth keeping in mind.
Premise and Gameplay
Booting the game will immediately throw you into your first run. You don’t even have to click through a title screen or choose a mode. Assuming you didn’t blink, you may have caught a splash screen of Cthulhu with a woman in one hand and a beer in the other. Presumably, she has been kidnapped and you’re on your way to save her. I’m the sort of person who likes coming up with their own interpretations when things don’t explicitly tell me what’s going on, but Cards of Cthulhu doesn’t really give you even that many pieces to work with in the first place.
You choose two starting cards and get going on your bike. You add more to the deck over the course of the run, for a maximum of six. The game automatically steers you from enemy to enemy, but you are told in advance what’s coming up next – an encounter, a card drop, or a boss fight. Battles take place in real time, with you and the enemy choosing cards to chip away at one another’s health, cause status effects, and so on. The twist this time around is that the cards alone are not the only way to win. Anytime you’re not waiting for your card to activate or suffering from some sort of status effect cooldown, your motorcyclist will fire away at the enemy with a shotgun, doing a single point of damage every second. The challenge lies not just in knowing what card to play at the right time, but knowing when not to play anything at all. Letting the sawn-off finish the job is sometimes totally fine. Some encounters will pit you against multiple foes one after the other. Because cards can usually only be played once per fight, it’s entirely possible to run out of cards before you’ve beaten all the enemies, so it never becomes a simple game of clicking on cards as soon as they become available.
A run plays out over four stages, each consisting of a handful of battles and card drops before a showdown with the great tentacled one. Beating the game unlocks two harder difficulty modes (that can’t be switched between!) and that’s your lot. For every several enemies beaten, you can unlock new cards and passive benefits such as higher maximum health for yourself or lower health for your enemies. I do wonder if it’s possible to even beat the game on your very first run. Some of these unlockable cards are so game-shatteringly overpowered that the mid to late-game enemies seem to come in larger groups or have higher health pools to compensate. You may have a deck of cards you blast through the first two stages with and then run into some real trouble on the third and fourth ones. Even so, with runs taking less than 10 minutes each and every enemy killed contributing to new unlockables, your time rarely feels wasted.
The only randomness that really matters are the card drops that are randomly laid out on your path. You can’t do anything to affect the order or types of enemies and bosses that come your way, so all you can do is just choose the best cards from what you’re given. There are about 10 unique enemies you can encounter, and they are even re-used as boss encounters with some minor palette-swapping. One good thing about this is that you can quite quickly get a handle on what certain enemies are likely to do and play around them a little. Guitar-playing, slug-riding demon lady is likely to heal you both to waste your cards, so you may as well not even use any until she does so. Harpy lady with some sort of mechanised hand-bra (lots of women, come to think of it) will wait until she can play a card that does a whopping 8 damage at once, so destroying it before she can trigger it is a good move. For a game you’re likely to beat in an hour or so, this is an acceptable amount of variation, but once you’ve got a handle on what it’s likely to throw at you, there’s little more it can do to surprise you.
I’ll bring this up first because it’s probably going to be a dealbreaker for a lot of people looking at something with ‘Cthulhu’ in the name – the game isn’t really Lovecraftian in any way. For vibe, it puts me more in mind of the film Heavy Metal, or perhaps a hint of Planet Terror. The background is an unchanging plain that serves purely as a conveyor belt to wheel you to the next encounter. Enemies themselves are a sufficiently demonic bunch. My personal favourite is the chainsaw-wielding fella with several rows of teeth where his abdomen should be. He’s standing at a jaunty angle that makes it seem like he’s having a very hard time balancing his weapon over his head. The body parts of the enemies undulate and swell in a way that is reminiscent of the idiosyncrasies that come with animating multiple layers in Flash. In general, the monsters reminded me of a classmate I had who would use a ballpoint pen to draw similar mutants in his exercise books that would look at home on an old metal album cover. Many players seem to be a bit turned off by the enemies, but I can take or leave them. They’re novel in a kitsch way, but it’s a shame there’s so few of them. You’ll see the same ones repeatedly within the same run. What puts me off more is a lack of aesthetic cohesion. For example, the Cthulhu you see at boot up, the Cthulhu you fight at the end, and the Cthulhu corpse in the ending screen are all drawn by three different artists. In isolation, they all look fine (OK – maybe the boss sprite with a hairy beer gut isn’t to my taste), but are at such stylistic odds with one another that the tone comes undone, assuming one was being set up in the first place.
Besides an ending song, there is no music at all, just an ominous background hum, which is fairly fitting. The trailer on the Steam page has a reasonably exciting piece of BGM that doesn’t appear anywhere in-game, but I imagine if that was the only song around, it would get repetitive very quickly. The sound effects are serviceable. They exist. The gun sounds like a gun. The motorbike sounds like a bike. Moving on. I am grateful that you can mouse over your cards for tooltips on how they work, but you will have so few in your deck at any one time you will rarely need a reminder of their functions. All in all, very little about the presentation is going to stick with you after you stop playing. For an indie title, these things matter considerably to its legacy. In the previous post, we saw Frost get its world of chilly desperation just right. For that, I’m inclined to think about it from time to time. I’m not sure yet what I’ll remember about Cards of Cthulhu in a few weeks, months, or years from now.
Given the price, I went into Cards of Cthulhu with very low expectations and as such didn’t come out at all disappointed. The deck size and number of decisions you can make at any given time are quite low, and it is orders of magnitude less complex and involving than, say, Coin Crypt, with which it shares its snap-decision combat. While there isn’t anything to come back to besides higher difficulties that get progressively easier with unlockables, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the 3 or so hours I spent with it. It certainly wasn’t a waste of money, at least. Do you know what else you can buy for 79p nowadays? Nothing.