Nowhere Prophet by Sharkbomb Studios
Full disclosure: Nowhere Prophet was the game that I thought I was going to make, so I come at this with some prejudice. I am analyzing this like it’s my own child, considering the implications of what turns my life would have taken had I produced this game and released it so that some doorknob like me could review it for a wizened game review blog. I will thus treat it with the respect I would afford my own progeny.
So what do we have here?
Read the Cards to Reveal Post-Apocalyptic Prophecies
We have a really nicely designed survival-punk card battler, taking you across the wastes to encounter semi-randomized – OK, fine, “procedurally generated” – maps and encounters. You will unlock new cards to add to the total deck from which you will craft your playing hand. You will stop at markets to sell scrap for battery juice, food and luxury items to distribute to your followers.
You are, after all, the Nowhere Prophet, and your devout followers will only remain that way if you dole out the occasional bling. This makes them hopeful for more, like a bunch of alley cats with a saucer of milk. This morale is tracked by your Hope meter. The Hope meter gets slowly depleted through travel across the rugged and difficult terrain and through “special events.” It’s important to keep hopes high because it is these very followers who form your deck and thus your ability to survive the wastes and make any progress.
Taunts and Territorial Tactics
Followers have the standard attack and defense stats, plus occasionally special powers or abilities. They come in all shapes and sizes and perform all manners of feats. There are drone swarms and shamanic healers, scouts and assassins, tanks and ranged attack characters.
The bad guys are marauders, rogue bots, or…leper alchemists: the standard assortment of random post-apocalyptic archetypes drawn from a Scrabble bag. You may notice a little flavor in that they share a sort of Eastern theme, but we will get to that later.
In addition to dragging units to attack their opponents, you get a bunch of playable Leader cards that grant you special attacks, powers, buffs or debuffs. They each cost a certain amount of energy, which you build up by one tick each round to use in drafting cards.
I’m not sure why – maybe the variety of attacks, the hex tiles and all the varying factions – but I was reminded more than once of Neuroshima Hex if it were card-based and had a semi-randomized story campaign.
Though they come in with summoning sickness, unlike Magic: the Gathering, any character can direct attack the boss at any time, unless there is an enemy on the map with a Taunt aspect or other mitigating factor. There are also landscape and weapons tiles that can change the way the round plays out – some offer buffs, others; hazards.
Before you begin combat you can edit your deck to pull all semi-wounded players out. At the start of the combat round, you can mulligan any cards out of your starting hand.
In the Wasteland, Even a Paper Cut Can Be Deadly
When one of your cards get knocked out, it takes one red stripe. Unless that is healed back, the card can be lost forever. Those wounded in battle in this manner will have to be healed at a camp or by other means outside of combat, so you may choose to have them sit out of your deck until you can get them back to full fitness.
I liked this way Nowhere Prophet forced me to manage my deck and make certain important strategic choices and sacrifices in this way.
Besides followers and batteries, you need to keep food stores high – and higher still as you gather more followers – because food is what you burn when you travel. Run out of food and things go south pretty quick.
If it is ever your turn to draw a card from your deck and you can’t, you take direct and immediate damage. This will end your one shot at glory PDQ. Over the course of multiple games, you are able to keep your over-the-top gains: cards you unlocked remain available, so you don’t lose all progress when you inevitably bite the dust. It’s good to feel that there are some dividends for your efforts.
Life in the Wastes Is Hard; the Interface Doesn’t Have to Be
I like the UI. It’s big, chunky and flat. Combat is hex-based and positional: you cannot attack through another character, and you can hide behind objects to defend against attack. You get as many moves and attacks as you have action points.
Clean, clear and straightforward, unlike Against the Moon which has – as I ranted on about for 800 words – way too much proprietary terminology. Just let me focus on the business and keep your thematic flavor text to the loading screens. If I want stories, I’ll go to inkle.
Journey away from the West?
Looking at the marketing pages, I see that this is an adventure based on non-Western sources. Is that like gluten-free? Kidding aside, it IS important and essential that there is greater interest in seeing more cultures, locales and influences represented in games of all genres.
Unfortunately, I had to read the marketing copy to really detect it here. Sorry, it’s pretty subtle, drawing its post-apocalyptic themes and aesthetics primarily from Westerns – as in the genre, not the locality – and Mad Max and the Magnificent Seven. Admittedly, there are some visual cues evocative of Indian or Arabic science fiction imagery, but it doesn’t provide a substantial, meaningful distinction from other games of its type, just a slightly different aesthetic flavor.
I would hope that a true non-Western experience would be more than a lightly rethemed version of a common framework. The more I played the game knowing this, the more I could see touches here and there, but at the risk of beating this to death, the stories just felt like the same old zombies attacked the same old fallen fallen world, tasking you to pick your way through the remains by diplomacy or brute force.
No alternate mindset, nothing to really change my perspective, not even any real exposure to new cultural ideas. Lepers? Warrior monks? I’m looking…
That extends to the score, as well. Mike Beaton’s music is cool, mostly nondescript orchestral plucks and cyberwave ARPs, with the non-Western elements represented by occasional sitar drones used to enhance its mostly melodic minor, diminished or major Locrian-scaled compositions. These elements make the journey a little smoother and don’t get in anyone’s way. (They can become repetitive pretty quickly, though – not the composer’s fault – so I turned off the music after a while).
Following the Prophet on Endless Wanderings
All told, Nowhere Prophet is a well-designed simple story generator with clean and clear combat and UI. It’s quick to learn, tougher to master. Some of the nodes can become a bit repetitive, combat can become a bit of a grind, and it isn’t the most groundbreaking thing ever made, but it sits on the better half of my “What games should I play” meter, and I ran through more rounds than I had anticipated. I’m edging it up to a 4/5 for its design, clean deployment and that little bit of extra.
Now in MY version of this game, you collect the scrap and turn it into structures in preparation for a giant epic conflict at the end – not quite Minecraft creepers and leaning toward being a building game at heart, rather than a 4X strategy – but doing something more with all that salvage than just trading it: claiming land, creating a more permanent buttress against the winds and sands and raiders…
But in the end, the Nowhere Prophet’s people are nomads. Hunters and gatherers, they may do best always moving, finding what new resources still exist in the vast and broken expanses that they dare to traverse in hope of better days of the continuum.
Nowhere Prophet is available via Microsoft Xbox Game Pass and Steam.
Check out the official trailer for Nowhere Prophet below: