Deck of Ashes by AYGames
Deck of Ashes takes single-player deck-building combat in a dark fantasy direction, complete with the thickly-lined art style and grotesque monster design pioneered by Darkest Dungeon.
Putting My Cards on the Table
I should probably admit that I’m not necessarily a card game addict. I didn’t get obsessed with Slay the Spire last year or Monster Train last month, and I’ve played Magic: The Gathering only a single time in the 1990s (it was fun, but not so fun that I ended up playing it again).
I am, however, a fan of spooky and grotesque stuff in general and Mignola-inspired comic book art and Lovecraft-inspired monsters in particular, so if the developers at AYGames didn’t bait me one way, it certainly wasn’t the only trick up their sleeve.
On top of the game’s appealingly grim mood – sometimes grim to the point of caricature – the variety of player characters are arguably a bigger draw for repeated play-throughs than the card mechanics themselves.
Kicking Ash and Taking Names
While each character can use a variety of card types, from basic damage-dealers to damage-over-time effects and statistic boosters, each also has a variety of effects and special abilities.
Buck the Bestial Rage, for example, is a warrior who builds up a special “Rage” statistic with each attack and unleashes extra damage via his monstrous “pet” each time the Rage meter reaches a new threshold.
Most fascinatingly, Magnus the Ugly Jester metamorphosizes into one of several different forms every few turns, each more horrifying than the last and each with a different bonus to his various card types, which can include mind-control on enemy monsters, among other things. (His attack animation, a quick outburst of insect limbs and bony appendages, is also wonderfully hideous).
Playing with a Full Deck?
A variety of additional mechanics, including cards that only take effect once placed in the discard pile, add to the variety.
Figuring out the various synergistic effects of both the cards themselves and the way they interact with specific player characters and enemies make Deck of Ashes a game worth coming back to; there’s a lot to learn, but not so much that it feels overwhelming or over-complicated.
The same goes for exploring each level’s map to find fights and gather resources to improve your cards and other statistics before the clock runs out and a boss fight starts. It’s a simple framing device that allows for multiple approaches, from cautiously collecting artifacts and herbs to aggressively seeking out the toughest fights for the chance at greater rewards.
The narrative and stylistic approach, on the other hand, occasionally leave something to be desired.
While many of the monster designs are pleasingly bizarre, especially the ghosts and zombies, some of the more “ordinary” humans just look ugly, not so much intentionally grotesque as simply ugly.
On the other hand, that makes sense, because the various player characters are largely ugly on the inside, as well. Each is a member of a hated and feared band of brigands responsible for an apocalyptic “Ash Curse,” and each is heading toward a final battle with Lady Death in order to reverse that curse (or claim its power).
It’s an intriguing enough premise, but the dialogue and voice-acting range from melodramatic and overwrought to simply cumbersome that doesn’t hold up to Darkest Dungeon or even Vambrace: Cold Soul.
A Decent Dark Deck-Builder
Fortunately, the card mechanics and character variety are compelling enough to make up for the places where the story falls short, as is the chance to come across new mysterious and multi-limbed monstrosities to fight.
A variety of character skins – which have in-game mechanical effects as well as cosmetic ones – and a “Draft Mode” that lets you build your deck rather than drawing it randomly adds to the game’s replay value.
While Deck of Ashes faces stiff competition from some critically-acclaimed and best-selling recent releases in the card combat genre, there’s enough entertainment value here that it’s worth checking out, especially if you need a break from slaying spires or catching rides on monstrous trains.
Deck of Ashes is available via Steam.
Watch the official Deck of Ashes trailer below: