The comparison between any roguelike deckbuilder such as Roguebook and the 2019’s masterpiece Slay the Spire is a hard one to escape, and more often than not a dooming one. Roguebook borrows heavily from a slew of titles that came after Slay the Spire, trying to recreate its magic with varying degrees of success. At the same time it also introduces new elements that keep things fresh and interesting, trying to push the genre forward. As an additional pull to fans, the game design features Richard Garfield’s contribution, the creator of the little known card game Magic: The Gathering.
Roguebook is available now on Steam and soon on consoles.
Story – A welcomed necessary evil
The story of Roguebook is very minimal, as it is common for the genre. Your party of two adventurers finds itself stuck in a book and hoping to escape by venturing deeper into its chapters, defeating enemies, resolving events and drafting cards to overcome each chapter’s boss. There are four total characters, each well-defined. Sorocco, a giant sort-of-toad guy, is the bulky defensive type, while the frail Aurora, an old turtle, provides healing, card draw and can summons heaps of frogs.
The game share its fantasy setting with developer’s Abrakam first game, Faeria. It suits well a genre where narrative is on the background and most of the lore is transmitted visually through card art and random events found on the map. We know that darkness consumes Seifer, the demon infested rodent, not just because of his flaming arm, but also because his cards can summon many demonic minions.
Personally, the barebones story works for me, as it is has never been a dealbreaker in any game I play, and especially so in a roguelike deckbuilder. However, it might be a bit of a let down for people looking for a remotely involving narrative.
Gameplay – A familiar book face
If you are familiar with the genre then the combat of Roguebook will be not be new to you. Each round you draw a number of cards from your deck, and can play as many of them by spending the corresponding amount of energy, which refreshes each turn. Unplayed cards are discarded and the whole discard pile gets reshuffled into the deck once this runs out of cards.
The enemies always take their turn after you, acting out based on the intentions that are displayed over them. This is the key element that allowed the genre to thrive, providing a chance to strategise based on known information.
The main draw of Roguebook is how the different characters playstyles and archetype synergise between them. This idea is not entirely novel as it was used before to good effect in Monster Train, another critically acclaimed entry to the genre.
Here it is fleshed out further. Some items need to be equipped to a specific character and will only benefit them, for instance. Block on the other hand is shared between the two heroes. Additionally, other than their own cards, each character has access to specific perks, unlocked when adding a certain amount of cards to the deck each run.
Panting a picture
Perhaps the most novel aspect of Roguebook is how it handles exploration. You start each chapter with a number of paint brushes and ink pots and use them to “paint” blank hex tiles around the map. This can possibly reveal points of interest like new battles, new events and magic vaults to draft cards from.
You have a slim chance of randomly finding ink on the map. The best way to gain more is by battling monsters, which always guarantee an ink or brush drop.
This system is a nice shake-up of the standard formula of branching paths progression of titles like Slay the Spire and Monster Train. However, it does not come without its own drawbacks. It is entirely possible to reveal very little useful tiles using the available brushes and ink and end up feeling underpowered. At the same time, it is also possible to create a deck so powerful by the end of the second chapter that you can head straight for the final boss, ignoring anything else on chapter 3.
As you play, you gain experience for each character used and for the team. Levelling these up grants access to new cards for each character and unlocks new relics, though it can feel slow. Having had three successful runs with increasing difficulty, I still need to unlock various items and cards for each characters.
Speaking of which, something that Roguebook does really well is its Epilogue system. After winning the game a first time, you get the option to make the next run harder by selecting your choice of run modifiers, similarly to Hades‘ Pact of Punishment. Coming from the fixed, incremental difficulty of Slay The Spire’s Ascension levels, this was a great and welcomed change.
Progression, however, feels somewhat unbalanced. On the map and during certain encounters, you gain stacks of pages that you spend to unlock permanent bonuses. While some feel like should be already included, others seem an unnecessary help to the player.
Furthermore, when playing without specific difficulty modifiers, the majority of the map encounters are not mandatory. This combined with some earlier luck in the previous chapters, reduced the final chapter to a single fight in two out of my four victorious runs.
These problems will hopefully be counteracted by the higher difficulty modifiers. The developers are also actively patching the game.
Still, as it stands, when combining the progression bonuses, the exploration system and some busted interactions between relics, character perks and cards (looking at you bleed builds), I was left feeling like I was breezing through the game. Initially I thought I just became a better player, but a quick Slay the Spire run ended in tragedy after a couple of minutes showed me that is definitely not the case.
Graphics & Sound – Top of the range
Having played my share of similar titles, I can safely say that Roguebook is among the best looking roguelike deckbuilders ever. Seeing enemies actually nocking an arrow and shooting it instead of dashing forward to attack makes a huge difference.
This polish comes at the expense of speed of execution. Don’t expect to be able to dish out your whole hand in a flash. A couple of times I was frustrated by the delay, but it’s a trade-off I’m happy to take. Another complaint would be the walking animation on the map looking a little stiff, but I am really nitpicking here.
The soundtrack mixes elements of orchestral and electronic music to good effect, creating tension and ambience. Sound design also complements those big swings in combat really well. These two tend to take a backseat while playing though, not because they are not valid in their own right, but because of how good the visuals are.
Roguebook was reviewed on PC, with a key provided by HomeRun PR.