Game Info:

Deck of Ashes
Developed By: AYGames
Published By: Buka Entertainment, Whisper Games
Released: June 9, 2020
Available on: PC, macOS
Genre: Rogue-like Deck-builder, RPG
ESRB Rating: N/A
Number of Players: Offline Single-player and Online Leaderboard Competition
Price: $19.99 on Steam

Thank you to Buka Entertainment for sending us a review code!

My first introduction to Deck of Ashes, like most gamers before me, was through the game’s Steam page shortly after I redeemed this review code. It was apparent that although players had positive things to say about it, the game was often compared unfavorably to an earlier more popular (and more family-friendly) rogue-like deck-builder, Slay the Spire. I have not played Slay the Spire, so Deck of Ashes is my first experience with the rogue-like format in a deck-building game. Despite many Steam comments and reviews that claim Deck of Ashes is not a beginner friendly entry into the genre, I found it easy to learn and enjoyable to play. Though its broad appeal is limited by more mature themes and a visceral, macabre art style, Deck of Ashes contains hours of strategic deck management and fun gameplay, hindered only by an unfortunately frequent occurrence of glitches.

The narrative dictates an episodic gameplay structure, though the story of the world is not particularly strong. A roving band of murderers and thieves known as the Outcasts become so rich and powerful that they try to steal power from an ancient being, Lady Death. She guards the Ash Box, a relic of supposed unlimited power that the Outcasts promptly try to take. They squabble over who will reap the benefits of the artifact and as a fight ensues, one of them drops the box and it shatters. The Ash Curse is released upon the world, which afflicts each of the 4 main characters in a variety of ways and somehow separates them from each other. As the player, it is your job to pick one of these Outcasts and travel back to Lady Death in Death Valley to kill her and somehow reverse the effects of the Ash Curse.

Each character has a unique albeit shallow backstory and they all have different playstyles. But the only effort the game makes to mesh their stories together, other than some flashbacks, is the Epilogue, which is locked until the Campaign mode is beaten with all 4 Outcasts. The Ash Master is a mysterious magician of some kind who serves as a guide to Death Valley no matter which character you choose, but the Outcasts all seem so hostile toward him and everyone else it makes the development of more complex story relationships difficult. The voice acting throughout also struggles to enhance any sense of character depth. Although the voice recording is all very clean and sounds great, it is rare for genuine feeling to come from a line of dialogue. There were several complaints among Steam users about voices not matching the visual of a character (i.e. a wimpy voice belonging to a giant wereboar creature), and while I agree partially here I feel the issue has less to do with the voice acting itself and more to do with the overall balance of sound in any given cutscene.

The strongest aspect of Deck of Ashes is its art style. An amalgam of gory and grotesque monsters are on display throughout, many with unsettling yet unique designs. Still pictures during flashback scenes are all nice to look at and give some much-needed context in lieu of the limited voiceover performances. Card art lacks as much contrast and polish but I felt the aesthetic depicted perfectly what cards would look like in a gritty, dark, and dangerous world. However, the art style is also what will severely limit this game’s mass appeal. Exposed bones and body parts are frequent among monsters and there are heaps of blood and gore as part of creature design. If you read D&D Monster Manuals as a kid like I did just to fawn over the art, there’s plenty for you here provided you don’t have a weak stomach.

Deck of Ashes

Strong Points: Fantastic monster art; rogue-like and deck-builder elements mesh well; moderately high replay value
Weak Points: Several stability and bug issues; mature themes will keep many players away; weak narrative; unbalanced sound and voice acting
Moral Warnings: Blood, gore, and frightening imagery are woven into the aesthetic of the game; occult themes, environments, and occult magic used by the player; hyper-sexualized female bodies and some nudity; alcohol references; blasphemy

Starting in the tutorial gives a good sense of different aspects of gameplay but it is pretty limited in scope and much more linear than the game itself. The real game will begin once one of the two modes available are picked, Campaign or Badlands, although I would recommend starting with the Campaign. Badlands is a pick-a-path style arcade mode of sorts with online leaderboards for experienced players. Easier paths make for faster travel through the node map, but less points are awarded for defeating easier opponents. The total score at the end seems to be based partially on real-time map completion and points accrued during the run. Campaign mode will throw you directly into the story after an Outcast is chosen. You will also have a choice between two ways of obtaining the first cards for your deck: Standard or Draft Mode. In Standard mode you’ll be given a preset 10 cards to start out with. The presets are serviceable but once players get familiar with card battling I don’t see many people going back to them. Draft mode allows you to pick one card from a provided set of three until you draw 10 cards. This option gives much more customization freedom for the seeds of a new deck and I much preferred using this mode to start my campaigns.

Your base of operations is a camp where the members of your traveling group stay: The Ash Master, The Blacksmith, The Healer, and The Merchant. Divided between them are options for card crafting, character upgrades, item purchases, and certain special tasks that can only be performed with them in the camp. When not in the camp, you will be exploring the outside world laid out in the form of a node map. The campsite is the central node, and players must move from node to node to fight battles, gather resources, or engage in various events. Node icons will often change as you move around to provide surprises. But there’s no time to waste. A Ruler of the Land (whether it be a swamp, city, or boneyard) is constantly searching for you and gets closer to finding you every day. All tasks on the node map take up time, so strategizing inevitably becomes about maximizing time spent obtaining as many resources and upgrades as possible until the final battle with the Ruler. Once a Ruler has been defeated you will move on to the next area, and eventually find Lady Death herself.

I found the node map structure a little repetitive but I still enjoyed seeing how hard I could push myself before having to return to the base camp for upgrades and respite. The best node on the map is the Dungeon, which provides the most rewards for the exploration time put into it. A dungeon boss awaits at the end of every dungeon, and once beaten provides keys to a chest (or multiple chests in Heroic dungeons) with coin and new cards to choose from. I never saw the same dungeon boss twice in my multiple playthroughs so there is variety in replay. Each of the Outcasts will have different paths to Lady Death that will feature different Rulers but there are some that are repeated. You won’t have to worry about being caught away from camp when the Ruler arrives though, because you will automatically be given a chance to prepare in camp before fighting the boss.

Card-battling is another strength of the game, primarily due to the eponymous Deck of Ashes or “Ash Deck” as it is referred to in-game. For anyone familiar with card games, there is typically a pile you draw from (often called the active deck or battle deck) and a pile you put cards in after they’ve been played (most commonly called a discard pile or graveyard). The Ash Deck is the discard pile, but instead of simply being a place for used cards, certain Ash cards will actually be the most useful in this deck. Often times Ash cards are non-playable and must be discarded somehow to enter the Ash Deck and become useful. The smart player will figure out how keep Ash cards in the Ash Deck and use Battle Deck cards liberally. If a player’s Battle Deck is emptied, they must use an Ash Pact card to renew cards from the Ash Deck into the Battle Deck at the cost of health. The trick here is that unless an Ash Pact card has been upgraded fully, the cards to be renewed can’t be chosen, so it’s anybody’s guess as to what cards will return to the Battle Deck.

This all sounds complicated but I picked up the pattern within my first few battles. Each card you can play has a mana cost associated with it, and your character has a specific number of mana points. I figured out quickly how to maximize my card usage so that I used as few cards as possible to win a battle and keep my Ash cards in the Ash Deck. After every battle you can heal up or renew cards into the Battle Deck via a limited number of Rest Points. If you’ve played your deck well and avoided taking massive damage during a battle, it is as simple as renewing the most essential cards and using leftover Rest Points to heal back up. All of the Outcasts’ decks have myriad ways they can be built depending on player preference, which really helps out in character replay value, but each Outcast does tend to specialize in one area.

Deck of Ashes
Score Breakdown:
Higher is better
(10/10 is perfect)

Game Score - 78%
Gameplay – 17/20
Graphics – 9/10
Sound – 6/10
Stability – 3/5
Controls – 4/5

Morality Score - 35%
Violence – 3/10
Language – 5/10
Sexual Content – 5/10
Occult/Supernatural – 0/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical – 4.5/10

Buck, The Bestial Rage (my favorite of the bunch) is a heavy hitter that uses his cards to basically pool together all the ways of doing damage to an enemy and crush them. His Traits (special abilities that can influence deck playstyle) are all used through his pet panther/demon/chimera hybrid, Charon, and are some of the best in the game. Lucia, The Eternal Flame makes excellent use of the Ash Deck and is the most cerebral damage dealer of the Outcasts, focusing on card play sequencing and combination. Sly, The Black Serpent uses his low mana cost cards to combo damage and relies heavily on residual damage effects like Poison and Bleed. Magnus, The Ugly Jester is the wildcard of the bunch and relies on defeating enemies by changing forms and causing them to damage themselves. All Outcasts are mostly balanced in terms of deck potential but I have to say I obtained a much better grasp of combat playing Buck and Lucia than I did playing Sly and Magnus. I only mentioned Traits in regards to Buck/Charon because I found good uses for nearly all of them, while the other characters seemed to have only one or two viable Traits.

Most actions in Deck of Ashes rely on simple point-click and click-drag mechanics, whether that entails selecting cards, nodes, or items. Selections feel tactile and responsive. I played the game consistently at peak resolution (2560x1600) and experienced no frame-dropping even with multiple creatures performing actions on screen. Load times were consistently 2 seconds or less. There is an option for external controller connection and the developers just recently added support for PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One gamepads, along with a new patch as of November 26th. I wish I could say that the patch fixed any and all stability issues with the game but I still experienced several odd bugs that made for an uneven experience.

When beginning the Campaign mode straight out of the tutorial, all upgrade purchases were locked (as they were in the tutorial). I had to exit the game and reboot in order to access any upgrades. In another instance, after receiving some perks that severely reduced the cost of creating new cards, I attempted to make some new ones. Turns out every time I made a card I was given ash, the currency needed to make the cards. This resulted in my gaining of a ridiculous amount of ash very easily which made the rest of my run much easier. The game crashed at one point while I was playing Magnus and I lost that entire save. There were a few other bugs here and there but in general, poor stability was the biggest issue I experienced. Deck of Ashes is a seamless experience when it works; I just wish it worked more often.

Though no ESRB rating exists for Deck of Ashes as of yet, I would definitely expect it to receive an M for Mature. There is a plethora of blood splatter, gory images, and gross-looking creatures. Most female characters seen are hyper-sexualized with patchwork outfits that barely cover anything. The succubus enemy is a cross between a woman and a goat and its breasts are fully visible. A few area environments are based around the undead and the occult and there are several cards that reference occult practices. Magnus, The Ugly Jester is a particularly rough character who is angry at the world. Some of his voice lines include “I’ll be your new god!” and “I’ll drink from your skull!” The Lord’s name is taken in vain at least twice. Each of the Outcasts is a notorious thief, murderer, or violent person and they are the only playable characters. Players will only kill monsters of the world, but each Outcast has primarily selfish reasons for their journey to kill Lady Death and aren't looking to lift the Ash Curse for altruistic purposes. It is hard to recommend this game on the basis of its themes alone, but there really is some decent card play to be experienced here if you can ignore all the excess.

Despite the stability issues and the mature themes, I actually enjoyed my time with Deck of Ashes. When everything comes together the game provides a tense deck-building experience enhanced by the rogue-like format. If you are worried when you see the words “rogue-like”, don’t be. Start on Easy difficulty and learn the mechanics. I did, and I made it through a couple of Easy runs and a Normal run of the Campaign (4-5 hours for each run) without dying. If you’ve played Slay the Spire and can handle a more mature game I would at least recommend giving this a shot for comparison’s sake. If you only own a console you’ll have to wait a bit but you are in luck; Deck of Ashes is slated to be released on PS4, Switch, and Xbox One sometime in the spring of 2021 along with a brand-new playable character.

About the Author

William Miracle

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Christ Centered Gamer looks at video games from two view points. We analyze games on a secular level which will break down a game based on its graphics, sound, stability and overall gaming experience. If you’re concerned about the family friendliness of a game, we have a separate moral score which looks at violence, language, sexual content, occult references and other ethical issues.

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