If you’re wondering what Zoeti means, then you’re not the only one. The best Google could come up with is an American company that makes medicine for pets. Probably not what they’re going for. In this case though, Zoeti refers to one of two Goddesses. These goddesses had a bit of a tiff and scattered themselves over the land. The best way to worship them? Poker, of course.
Zoeti is aiming for the rapidly growing card-based roguelite genre but instead of faffing around with fancy cards, it plays it refreshingly straight. Lay down your three of a kind, smack enemies. There’s really not much more to it other than that, though. If you’re already a fan of the genre, then Zoeti will entertain but it struggles to get out of the shadow of its fellows.
Let’s focus on the meat: the combat. Zoeti works by dealing you a hand of regular playing cards, which are then matched up into poker hands. There are no aces or face cards for some reason; I guess fantasy poker has simplified itself a bit. As you progress, you can assign skills to these hands, which allow you to attack, defend or boost a skill. Deck customisation comes down to picking your skills, assigning them to hands and using the cards you’re dealt to line things up. Drawing a straight flush was a source of much glee, as I got to basically wash my hands of any enemies in my way.
It’s an interesting system. Cards not used during a turn are kept to the next, allowing you to build your heavy hitters a bit more effectively. You can keep your hand and bank on a full house or play it safe and armour up. The three different characters change it up a bit too. You’ve got a knight, who focuses on defense, an assassin, who uses combos and dodging, and a mage, who blasts things with elemental attacks. I tended to lean towards the assassin, as my skills at these games basically comes down to chaining together attack cards and praying. You also pick up accessories as you go, boosting skills here and there.
Zoeti‘s basic looking playing cards are a bit of a shame though. I’d hoped for a little more variation than bog-standard playing cards, given the setting. Some sort of variation on suit maybe? Still, the art style in general is rather nice. The landscapes and towns we visit all look beautiful and there’s nice touches in the character design. Assuming you like anthropomorphic animal characters that is, which thankfully I do. It even varies up the monster design quite a bit, even if it does like its hornets.
Full House of Gripes
Things are sounding rather positive but unfortunately Zoeti crashes head-first into some of the issues with the genre. First and foremost: repetition. When you start one of the story sections, you begin with a dialogue scene. The writing here is shaky – being a little over-reliant on twee humour – but it looks nice enough. Shame it’s going to be skipped most of the time, as it never changes between runs. After that, you pick a path to the boss, which is littered with monsters and encounters, and off you go.
The issue is that there is a relatively shallow pool of encounters for each run, so you’ll end up skipping through those too. This is paired with the fact that skills are drip-fed to you after encounters. Meaning, by the time you reach the first boss, you’re likely to have a mismatched set of skills that you have to frankenstein together into a working deck. As a result, half of my runs fall at the first hurdle. So it’s back to the beginning and the same set of encounters once again. All the runs started blending into each other.
It’s not helped by combat being a static affair. Zoeti, and others in the genre come to think on it, tend to shy away from unique animations for attacks. Fights began to feel like clockwork. Two pair for evasion, chain one pairs or use a straight. Repeat. This also leads me to a more contentious point: the difficulty is all over the place. ‘Duh’, you may say, ‘the genre lives on RNG’. That doesn’t account for how some bosses will do little more than sneeze at you while others will fire off multiple powerful moves in one go. One lad recovers health, damages you and buffs itself in one turn. Every time I face a boss that hurts me when I draw a card, I have to fight the urge to restart the run right there.
Time To Fold
Things aren’t helped by the sheer amount of status icons that clutter up your health bar. A few of my more irritating deaths were caused by one of my many status effects quietly ticking up to an insta-kill. By that point I had so many different icons that I lost track of what was doing what. It was hard to come back after that. You could say, perhaps quite rightfully, that it’s my fault. But Zoeti isn’t great at telling me things at the best of times, which leads me to think it’s not quite ready for the stage yet. For one thing, a card makes reference to selling items – something I seem unable to do. There’s also a ‘Create A Deck’ button that just shows me my playing cards and nothing else. Presumably it’s supposed to do something.
Now, if reading about Zoeti is giving you some deja-vu then allow me to explain. Zoeti is heavily inspired by Slay The Spire, even going so far as to name-drop on it on the Chinese version of its website. That puts it in a difficult place, because Zoeti is directly copying Slay The Spire‘s homework at points. The map layout, the items and the general gameplay; its all there. It’s just rubbed out the ‘Dark’ in ‘Dark Fantasy’. The poker system does add a little frisson, but by copying over so much, it’s running into the same issues that plague the genre.
Please don’t take away from this that Zoeti is bad. When everything aligned, I found myself getting quite into it. Unfortunately, a nice central idea can only get you so far. A bit longer in the oven and Zoeti could be great but at the moment it’s feeling a little underbaked.