Deck of Ashes is an approachable and easy-to-understand card-based RPG battler that requires a bit of patience, but not for the reason you might think. Rather than the game’s pacing, its poor design and badly integrated systems force you to deal with the hand that you are dealt, like the backup pack of cards that you’re never quite sure is a full deck or not.
Allowing you to select from 5 different characters – all with their own story and voiced cutscenes – the fantasy story has procedurally generated areas of increasing difficulty and a time limit before the area boss ‘finds’ you, giving you time to strengthen a hand capable of defeating them in its turn-based combat system.
It’s a reasonable enough concept except for the fact that the area bosses are given one line of dialogue and there seems no logical reason for you to just hang around until the big bad guy arrives on the scene. Apart from this structure, the rest of the card-based gameplay is quite similar to Slay the Spire – the gold standard in the genre – with cards drawn from your deck with a certain limit of points usable per turn.
You’d be forgiven if your enthusiasm set ablaze here as – up to this point – there is very little to grumble about, with a decent in-battle system and overall presentation that combines a combination of art design and an atmospheric soundtrack that suits the fantasy genre well.
The real problems, however, arise outside of battle when you attempt to amend your deck.
This is possible at your camp where four merchants are located, each of which are able to ‘help’ in some regard. You can improve your base stats, upgrade your cards, trade resources and dispose of your cards. The issue here is the disposing of cards which confusingly can be done in three different ways. You can dismantle, burn or cure cards for a fee and it is this highly convoluted feature that effectively broke my save file and prevented me from progressing, losing hours in the process.
As you enter new areas you are lumbered with these deck-clogging ailment cards which do you the pleasure of nullifying turns, abilities or by simply reducing your health, and the only way remove them is by paying to ‘cure’ yourself. For some strange reason it is also possible to ‘burn’ them, but this only removes them temporarily and if you were to ‘renew’ your deck between battles, it puts them back in your deck. Why you ask? Personally, I’m not exactly going to re-poison myself for giggles at a later date, but who knows, someone else might wish to?
Placing myself in this ridiculous position I not only bankrupted myself in an attempt to burn the cards – and still end up lumbered with them – but I had progressed enough to the point where the enemies would do enough damage over time to kill me before I could remove all the ailment cards from my hand and draw any of my go-to cards.
Somewhat impressively, I also managed to further compound my error by diluting my deck with non-playable cards (that as far as I could tell didn’t even do anything), so after utterly bossing the game and not dying even once, I managed to flip the narrative to find myself unable to progress – at all.
You could argue that most people wouldn’t spontaneously combust so pathetically – and you’d probably be right – but why the game allows you to hinder yourself in such a manner can only be put down to poor system integration and implementation.
Sadly, these usability issues are almost everywhere you look and affect the experience. The cards themselves are so large, for example, that they block the visual of you attacking your opponents. Buggy menus and unintuitive navigation make it hard to tell if the game has frozen completely or if the cursor is highlighting something off-screen, and an evil save feature which gives you unlimited slots, doesn’t let you make different versions of a save file – all while autosaving your humiliation into perpetuity.
Although there is little strategy required to defeat the enemy – as you can use the same attacking approach for each and every one – and the main gameplay loop varies little mode to mode, there is plenty of extra content for those who do enjoy the core concept, so while I have piled on the negatives here, there is an audience for this game – it might just be smaller than it could’ve been.
It’s frustrating when a bug prevents your progress, but when its the game’s own mechanics, it’s a little harder to forgive, so although Deck of Ashes is a decent card-based RPG battler, its middling benefits smoulder in the wake of its issues, preventing the player from having a consistently fun experience.