When facing down a zombie hoard, you might not be all that comforted to know that your only defense is a deck of cards. Regardless, that is exactly where Draft of Darkness puts you.
The game casts you as one of a selection of characters deep in the heart of a unique, procedurally generated map filled to the brim with monsters just waiting to tear you limb from limb. Players are tasked with exploring the map in search of items and allies to increase your strength, fighting through ghoulish creatures and hostile robots with every step.
Combat is turn-based and is mediated through your card deck. All characters involved in the fight will be placed in a turn order as dictated by their speed. On each playable character’s turn, you’ll be able to spend your limited pool of action points playing cards, switching weapons, or using items. Different cards have different effects, such as dealing damage or applying status effects, with more powerful cards typically costing more action points to play.
Expanding and refining your card deck is the primary gameplay loop of Draft of Darkness, and it adds a substantial level of complexity to what could otherwise be a fairly straightforward system. More powerful cards can give you an edge in combat, but they typically also cost more action points and thus have to be used more sparingly. In contrast, if you fill your deck up with low-powered cards to ensure you always have something to play, you’re less likely to be able to draw the heavy hitter you need to finish off your opponent.
Adding to the game’s complexity is item economy. Winning battles and looting chests can recover various useable items, such as pills to recover lost health. Making this system more strategic, however, is that some items will do different things in and out of combat. For example, the healing pills will recover more health if used outside of battle, but as a single-use item, you may regret using them up if one of your characters has a sudden run of bad luck in a fight. Deciding when and how to use the few items you can scavenge is a vital part of keeping your party alive.
Together, these systems build in a surprising level of strategy to your actions. Combat can feel a little slow-paced, particularly some of the harder encounters, but the constant focus on planning ahead really helps to keep you in the moment.
Outside of combat, there are also quests and puzzles to explore. As well as a nice change of pace from the card game, these aspects help to keep pushing you forwards and making you explore new areas. Given the somewhat repetitive and laid-back nature of combat, the puzzles in particular are an excellent change of pace, and give you a nice bit of variety in the type of content you’re engaging with. The puzzles are never particularly difficult, but they’re a fun addition all the same.
Where this game really excels is in its atmosphere. Draft of Darkness is sold as a horror experience, which you may not expect to mesh particularly well with the slow, measured pace of a card game. In some ways this is true – the monsters you encounter along your journey don’t offer much terror beyond the occasional surprise attack – but in terms of sheer dread, the soundtrack really sells it. Even when you’re exploring enemy-free rooms, the continuous, discordant music and sounds is always there to keep you on edge. It’s not so oppressive as to be overwhelming, but the sound design really works to back up the narrative.
All that said, Draft of Darkness isn’t a perfect game. There’s quite a steep learning curve initially to get used to the type of cards on offer and the general flow of combat, but once you’ve settled into things it does get a lot smoother. On the more technical side, the walking speed can feel quite slow, particularly if you’re using a keyboard to navigate rather than a mouse.
The biggest concern for me as the game currently stands is that it can start to get old quite quickly. There are special events and encounters that really help to make you want to push on, but at the moment they’re quite scattered and due to the random nature of procedural generation, it’s impossible to say if early-game players will stumble across the content they need to get hooked into the narrative.
Overall, these issues really are minor. Further, the game is currently in early access, so it’s likely that further changes will be coming to Draft of Darkness that may resolve them altogether. Horror game or not, there’s not a lot here to scare players so if that isn’t your type of thing, this title may still be worth a look. On the other hand, if you go in seeking something very dark and tense, then the slow pace of the combat is likely to dash your expectations pretty quickly. As it stands, I’m excited to see where this game goes in the future; parts of it still feel a little underdeveloped, but the existing content is definitely a solid promise of good things to come.