A RogueLight devised around the idea of randomly generated dungeons consisting of a series of three screens each before delving to a deeper layer may sound like a great match for mobile play, especially when coupled with an interesting visual style. Sadly Five Card Quest isn’t as interesting as its concept makes it sound.
Developed by Rocketcat Games, who also developed the outstanding games ‘Wayward Souls’ and ‘Mage Gauntlet’ for iOS, Five Card Quest is an interesting addition to a catalogue of largely action orientated titles. That it attempts to infuse combat with a card-based mechanic only adds to the strangeness, heaping on a layer of complexity to a relatively simple concept.
In terms of style, Five Card Quest uses a distinctive abstract formula that looks great when static but can appear sparse and dull when partially animated. Animations themselves are small looping runs that make some of the characters appear to be breathing and others as if they are bouncing up and down a little too quickly. Many of the games monsters lack animation of their own and instead use a series of static poses for the player to gauge what their next action will be. Backgrounds are interesting and present a sense of depth, but dungeons themselves are simply a string of boxes on a plain coloured background that may or may not contain an icon. Sadly Five Card Quest feels a lot like a case of style over substance in the presentation department.
Musically, Five Card Quest uses a synth soundtrack that’s both simple and haunting, if a little heavy on the pan-pipes. The title screen features a nice melody that loops after a generous period but doesn’t build to anything in particular, instead just idly looping a melody. The background music used in the dungeon is similar in that none of its tunes amount to anything in the long-run, and battles feature a piece that is surprisingly jovial in tone and lacking in energy. Sound effects are infrequent and whilst those that are used are well recorded and sound great, many actions that one would imagine should use them (such as selecting a card to play in battle and activating it) lack any sound what so ever. The subsequent attacks are also a half-second or so out of sync with their sound, making everything feel very trippy.
Story is light in Five Card Quest, where the premise is simply that you take on the role of one of five different classes (Priest, Rogue, Archer, Guard and Mage) and accompanied by a partner of another class venture into the tower of a ‘Golden King’ who has been lording over mankind. From this short introduction screen it’s straight into the action without a tutorial of any kind and players are left to sink or swim, learning the games mechanics as they go. RogueLikes have always been a story-light sub-genre of the RPG and what’s displayed here is more than enough to give the game a framework that intrigues new players.
Gameplay sees exploration of the tower one room at a time with each room unlocking those connected to it upon completion. Most rooms will contain battles, some treasure or shops from which to purchase single-use items, and some will even be empty. Most thrilling to discover are the rooms containing a randomly drawn third party member or fountains, that restore a large portion of the party’s health. Clearing three screens worth of dungeon in this manner and finding a staircase restores a small percentage of team health and generates another floor of three screens. So far so simple, but the game becomes exceedingly complicated when battle begins. Battle is split between three distinct rows upon which enemies appear, with your characters opposite them. Actions are selected from a randomly generated draw of cards from the individual decks for each class type, meaning that what characters are capable of doing if somewhat hamstrung by the luck of the draw. Some of these cards are light, medium and heavy attacks with special rules attached to them, whilst others are more powerful but require sacrificing character health or other cards from the selection. Occasionally shiny versions of cards will also appear that are extra efficient at what they would normally do. Where this system falls down a little is in card icons never really matching significantly with what the result of using one will be, prompting a lot of reading text around each card in order to understand exactly what it will do. There’s also the matter of waves of enemies appearing one behind the other and damage never dealing even half as much as you’re taking. Ultimately it’s something of an unfair system that upgrades the games difficulty through turning combat into a chore. Luckily enemy stances and positions indicate what they will do next, and allows you time to find a suitable counter-move IF it’s in the hand of cards you’ve been dealt.
I don’t dislike Five Card Quest, but I feel that it’s a weak title that doesn’t live up to the premise of what it could have been. The graphics are lovely when stationary but dull when animated, and the combat becomes a chore over the course of the games length. Beating this game took a mixture of luck, careful planning on when to use the limited healing fountains available (as you cannot double back to floors previously explored to use any you’ve missed) and the willpower to keep playing when the fun left the system several floors into the game. I will admit however that winning in combat feels like you’ve overcome an ordeal by fire and holds a great sense of satisfaction. Approach this title with care and the knowledge that you’ll likely die on your first ten attempts. Embrace it as a challenge and you might just enjoy yourself.