29 August 2018
Fighting with frustration
Hot on the heels of its successfully Kickstarted sibling, Dark Souls: The Board Game, but with no miniature funfair, is Dark Souls: The Card Game. It is a co-operative dungeon crawler with, as the game itself puts it, ‘deck evolution’ mechanics. In reality, the ‘evolution’ would be more accurately compared to light deckbuilding, while hand management is a more predominant part of the game.
Players begin by choosing one of the four character classes straight out of the Dark Souls video games – knight, herald, assassin and sorcerer – receiving their corresponding decks before proceeding to explore, fight all types of monsters and creatures, and attempt to defeat two bosses, all before the embers in the bonfire fade completely, thus signifying the game’s end.
Fans of the franchise will instantly recognise familiar items, monsters, bosses – Pontiff Sulyvahn, High Lord Wolnir, Vordt of the Boreal Valley and an Abyss Watcher are all taken from Dark Souls III – and even game mechanics that have made the transition, if with a little transformation, from the video games. For example, monsters respawn, in a very Dark Souls fashion, in the area after bonfire visits and have to be cleared again in order to proceed further. Unlike the video games, however, the type of monsters will be different the second time around, although their numbers and levels of difficulty will remain the same. Unfortunately, even with this twist, it is a grind that can feel like a slog.
Those new to the Dark Souls universe will not find themselves gated by their lack of lore knowledge. The main meat of Dark Souls: The Card Game is the fight: a mixture of Dark Souls monsters with Magic: The Gathering mechanics, a touch of luck, and a whole lot of strategy and team co-operation.
Hand management is the key here, as your deck is used to attack enemies but doubles as the life of a character. The deck is only refreshed at the bonfire, so there is a certain push-your-luck element in assessing how many cards everyone has left and whether it is worth attempting another encounter. Bonfires can be visited only five times throughout the game, adding another layer of challenge.
Players have a refreshing amount of freedom during each encounter. While there are a certain number of actions that can be performed, they can be carried out in any order, allowing players to be incredibly strategic about their turns – blocking, dodging and attacking as best as their cards allow.
The deck composition can be less co-operative. It consists predominantly of stamina cards – the energy required to power weapons – plus some defensive and offensive items. It is not uncommon to draw a whole hand of stamina, on its own useless in a fight. On a more interesting side tactically, as the items are rare, in fights you think twice whether to use a cheaper attack that will require discarding the card or a more costly attack that will allow you to return the item to your hand.
Every bonfire visit adds three more cards to the deck, but the choices are not overly exciting. The team shares loot, earned from victories, and on average get one item card each, which can easily get lost in the thick deck. The rest is filled with yet more stamina cards. As the types of cards in the deck are targeted to specific heroes and their abilities, the fight will still flow nicely and be challenging. But the actual deckbuilding feels lacklustre, more like health buffing than creating an exciting deck shaped by player decisions.
The artwork of the stamina cards sticks out like a multicoloured sore thumb among the sombre palette of artwork retained from the video games. The rulebook can be equally frustrating, with diagrams that don’t show everything you need to know, typos and incorrect page references.
Despite exasperating presentation elements, the game itself is frustrating in the right, Dark Souls way. The barely-wins with your last card are exhilarating; the near-losses are infuriatingly fun. There is freedom to explore the game the way you want to, and you can even attempt the boss fight in the first round if you dare. But, in that case, you’d better prepare to die.
Dark Souls: The Card Game has high moments in its frustratingly fun fighting, but it’s also overly reliant on players being fans of the franchise – especially when there are better dungeon crawler-style games out there.
Designer: David Carl
Graphic Design: Tom Hutchings
Time: 60 minutes
This review originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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