Roguebook Review (PC)
A deck-builder rougelike where you write the story.
Creating a card game that works like a well-oiled machine is no easy feat, but Roguebook might just deliver. Creator of Magic: The Gathering Richard Garfield is behind this game’s card system — which is satisfying, somewhat unique, and presented in a very pleasing package. In concept, this game is very similar to the well-received deck-builder dungeon-crawler Slay the Spire. But here in Roguebook, card battles are interspersed with map exploration, and finding pages and ink. Themed around a book, there are some original ideas here, but also a lot of unrealised potential. If you’re someone like me who needs story and mythos to invest you in a game, Roguebook’s tale might fall a bit short. But are these gripes enough to dampen the pages and make the ink run?
The ‘Roguebook’ is a book of legend with a will of its own that you/your player characters are trapped inside. Your only chance at ever escaping — so says the wise Naddim — is to chart your own path through the story. A twisty tale with many battles and magical encounters. A run will have you take on three different stages that increase in difficulty, and these stages aim to offer a lot of variety. A stage is presented as pages in the Roguebook. Winning a battle will reward you with different kinds of ink, which you use to reveal new sections of the map on the page.
I flipped between finding the map exploration either charming or tedious. If you find the right bottles of ink then the map expands generously with each encounter, and as tiles are revealed so are essential items like health, treasures, gold (to buy and augment cards), and faeria wells (which give a permanent energy boost within runs, allowing you to play more cards a turn). Sometimes however, you can feel mired in this process; in which case a bit of strategy is required to reach your goals. This felt really engaging in my first few runs; after a while though, I was feeling the gears start to grind.
You uncover the page in jumps and starts, filling in a little bit of ink here, and then a slightly bigger splotch there. Sometimes you only uncover a small handful of coins or even nothing at all, which can be disappointing. I think a bigger focus on story is the crucial element missing here. If I was being told a story as I uncovered the rest of a page, or even just had the characters chatting to each other a bit more, I could feel more engaged looking at empty tiles.
A Story of Sorts
One of the ways the creators have been able to incorporate some good writing is with ‘narratives,’ which can be found somewhere in each map. These are short tales of your adventure, a few sentences long, accompanied by some lovely art, and they often reward you with a useful treasure or other boon. I just wish this stuff was more common. These little encounters are so engaging, and the rewards are memorable. In one encounter my heroes came across a statue of a raven, which came to life and joined one of them as their familiar. A permanent ally on the battlefield.
The player characters are interesting enough at face value: a fierce swordswoman, a brash brawler, a grizzled, bloodthirsty killer, and a wise old turtle shaman. You choose two of them for each run and mechanically they all interact with each other differently. But when I was over 10 hours in, that's still all I knew about them. Part of the idea with these games is that lore is told through the cards, but I didn’t get a great sense of that here either. So what we’re left with is disconnected scraps of story and characters that, although they have some dialogue, feel mute and unmemorable beyond their designs.
The Heart of the Cards
You build your deck by buying cards from the merchant, and by opening magic vaults found across the map. For a low price, the vaults offer a choice out of three cards. I wasn’t always tempted to open these vaults. Once I had a few good cards I didn’t want my deck stuffed with filler that would mean I drew the good cards less often. I liked how this made the merchant seem that much more appealing as you have control over what you’re buying there, but on the flip side, it meant that this common exploration reward wasn’t being used every time I found it. It’s a careful line to tread, knowing how often to grab more cards and when to save up for better things in the store. But as you complete more runs, you can increase the chance of getting valuable cards in these vaults, making them very useful indeed.
The cards themselves include a mix of attack, defence, allies (like minions), and magical effect cards, and certain builds will lean more heavily on one type over others. Some attacks are stronger when played from the front or back, and defense bonuses too can be stronger if a certain player is in front or behind. Many cards switch your characters’ place so this adds another layer of consideration to each hand you play. That being said, switching back and forth didn’t ever become a mechanic I cared about much — though that might come down to the player. The characters switch whether you want them to or not and the main thing you have to focus on is keeping whichever character can afford to take the hit out in front.
A lot of the art is excellent, and the map is especially well made. There’s a good variety of enemies and I really loved some of their designs. The battle animations, music and sound effects, are well produced and smoothly incorporated. This is a fun card game with all the bells and whistles.
In a single player, offline experience like this, a balanced deck isn’t the goal. So you’ll be trying your best to make ‘broken’ decks that will put equally unfair bosses in their place. Boss battles add new mechanics to make for surprising and tough challenges. I relatively breezed through my first run of the game, but then the difficulty spiked with a boss that just didn’t seem fair — since it ate my whole deck that I’d crafted so carefully. There are a variety of these big bad end bosses and they’re each a significant step up from standard battles. In the case of this one I needed to deplete its large health pool in fewer turns and/or build a deck stacked with allies whose cards, once played onto the field, couldn’t be taken from my hand. In each case you’ll need to do more runs and get more unlocks to make these strategies possible. Luckily you do get ‘pages’ (for unlocks) at a pretty good rate, so you always feel like you’re progressing.
I felt proud of myself whenever I played a good combo of moves, though I’m not sure the music and visuals always sizzle enough to let you feel it. However, the developers have said in live streams that they would like to add more unique animations for individual cards.
If you do invest in this game there are many runs and hours in store, with a list of optional specialised runs to unlock. Not only ‘beat the game with harder enemies and harder bosses’, but themed challenges as well. This is another place where the 'story' theme of Roguebook does actually come into play a bit. For example, ‘Fairy Hunting’ is one game mode where you’ll encounter many fairies throughout the run — each giving you buckets of cash if defeated — which you'll need in order to beat a very difficult boss.
It's these varied challenges, the polished gameplay and the progression system, that make me want to play more of this game. Though I do overall think Roguebook is lacking in personality — when it really shouldn't be — its broad and undefined appeal is still enough to have me coming back for just one more run.
So, why should you play it?
A deck-builder where your luck, abilities, and access to high level cards improves with each run, alongside your own skill! What a concept.
Ink and explore a quaint fairy-tale map.
Develop strategies to outwit devilish bosses.
But why shouldn't you play it?
If you’re looking for more than just a basic framework of a story. You want to get invested in your characters (and therefore your deck).
If thinking at all tactically gives you a headache, and I’m talking more about map exploration than deck-building here.
A Steam code was provided for the purpose of this review.
Fletcher is a writer and digital artist who often gets trapped in games for months on end. He gets most excited about open world fantasy and 3D platformers, but his favourite game is still Hollow Knight. On weekends you’ll find him playing D&D or gazing lovingly at his well-maintained aquarium.