I’ve previously written about using the deckbuilding mechanic to represent progression in a role-playing game here, here and here. Personally, I’m still working on a design which has this as a core mechanic which I’m hoping to have more to talk about soon. To me, this seems almost like a Grail Quest, as I’ve yet to encounter an implementation of this that satisfies me. Dream Quest is the game that has come closest to the ideal in my mind so far.
Dream Quest is a roguelike RPG which uses deckbuilding as its main mechanic. It’s a very cleverly designed game that has a lot of depth and is also a lot of fun to play. The game also has a unique aesthetic, to say the least. I believe the entire game was made by one person, including the art. It’s pretty simplistic, with a stick figure as your avatar and simple line art for the cards, but also some nicer pieces for the character art.
The art actually brings up an interesting point. To some, the art would be a turn-off as it looks like an early alpha build. If you can look past it to experience the great gameplay, the art becomes something of a memorable identifier for the game. I consider it something of a selling point, since people are more likely to remember “great game with weird simplistic art” than “okay game with okay art”.
Kingdom of Loathing, Dwarf Fortress and even Minecraft (although the blocky style can be excused as serving the mechanical function, the low-res textures can’t) come to mind as games that succeed in spite of their “poor” graphics because they provide a unique gameplay experience and the art becomes embraced as part of its charm. However, it is incredibly risky for novice developers to bank on this tactic as it is heavily reliant on there being a great, unique game underneath it all.
Now that we’ve done away with the obligatory mention of the art, it’s time to tell you about the actual game and how great it is. You start with a deck of cards that represents your character’s skills, which are a combination of Attack, Action, Mana, Spell, Prayer, Reaction and Equipment cards. In combat, you draw cards equal to your hand size each turn and can then play your cards to deal damage, gain mana, or gain other effects. Attack, Mana, Prayer and Equipment cards are always playable at no cost. Action cards will use up your available Actions, and Spells require you to pay Mana. Reaction cards are triggered and played when certain events happen. Played cards are usually discarded at the end of the turn, except for Prayers and Equipment which stay in play. Unplayed cards can be either kept to your next turn or discarded to make way for new cards.
As you defeat monsters, you level up and can gain various upgrades. Basic cards like Attacks and Mana cards can usually be upgraded to have stronger effects (Attack 1 deals 1 damage, Attack 2 deals 2 and so forth). You can also upgrade your starting mana pool, health, action pool, or gain equipment slots (Each equipment slot allows you to start combat with an equipment card from your deck in play). You can also gain special powers that do not use cards, which are unique to each class. You start with the classic 4 classes (Rogue, Priest, Warrior and Wizard) and can unlock 10 more classes as you play the game. I like that each class is able to feel different by focusing on different card types. For example, the Warrior works well with equipment cards while the Rogue is all about chaining Action cards together for massive damage. The Wizard and Priest both use mana and spells, but the Wizard focuses more on bursts of elemental damage while the Priest focuses on counting down Prayer cards and Damage Over Time effects while healing and keeping yourself safe. The advanced classes offer a mix between those styles and the classes I’ve unlocked so far are quite cleverly designed and a lot of fun to play.
Throughout the game, you will also come across Shops where you can add new cards to your deck, Temples where you can delete unwanted cards from your deck permanently, Forges and Lemonade Stands where you can upgrade your cards or stats, Treasure Chests which provide new cards or upgrades, and Altars where you can permanently alter the game (Eg: No longer being able to heal from cards but healing for every 3 damage dealt). Sometimes you may even encounter a strange hut where you can trade cards or some strange mushrooms, which are a nice little extra.
The monsters are varied, with each monster having a unique gimmick and also quite tough. You will get annoyed by the Ussuri, who counter your first card played each turn and weather the Ghouls, who never take any damage but die immediately after a set number of turns. Each floor also has a Boss monster, which you need to defeat to advance to the lower floors and they are usually quite tough and can be near impossible if you did not build your deck right. It’s a good tactic to scope out each floor and find out what the boss and/or more powerful monsters are before you add or change cards in your deck. Encountering new monsters unlocks their entry in a handy bestiary that also provides some tips on dealing with them.
There’s also an achievement system which lets you unlock cards, talents, passive abilities and new character classes as you complete them. For example, each Boss type usually unlocks a corresponding special card when defeated. You also gain points for each playthrough, depending on how well you do. These points can be used to buy the achievements if you can’t be bothered getting them (for example, fighting 5 dragons for the Dragon achievement may take a while if the RNG hates you) and could also be used to restart a level once, from your last level up.
As you can see, the game has quite a lot going on. However, it’s not enough to make you feel bogged down and there’s a nice level of depth to the system. The mechanics interact with each other really well and it’s really fun to feel your character get stronger as you modify your deck and stats. However, it’s still a roguelike and it’s not an easy one at that. You may be able to breeze through the lower level monsters, but you can really start feeling the difficulty as you make your way down. Some of the Elites and Bosses can be downright unfair unless you’ve fought them once before and know how to prepare your deck for them or play around their powers.
Like Goldilocks and the little bear’s porridge, this particular combination of mechanics is just right for me. It’s really fun to play, has a lot of tactical and strategic depth, challenging without feeling impossible, and just downright addictive. It’s all that I’ve wanted in a deckbuilding roguelike, and I love it. I’d give it 4.5 out of 5 Strange Green Mushrooms.