Card games are my catnip. Particularly deckbuilders, with the two sub-games meshing awesomely into one: the nerdy optimisation of a deck, and then the card game proper. I love watching my best laid plans chugging into action, overpowering enemies with the cards I’ve gained. The complete lack of twitchy gameplay also means I can shut that part of me down, and just get lost in the intellectual gubbins. A deckbuilder can be the shoddiest, roughest little card game in town, and I’d probably still love it.
Cardaclysm: Shards of the Four (was ‘Cardageddon’ not available?) is a deckbuilder in the purest sense of the term, with you acquiring cards, building a deck and then bashing enemies over the head with it. I started engaging the reviewer filters that I normally do in this situation: not everyone loves deckbuilders as much as I do, so I need to temper my enthusiasm a little bit. Be objective.
Cardaclysm: Shards of the Four could and should have been my jam. But at no point did I need to engage those reviewer filters. It left me completely cold, and I only sporadically got my deckbuilding hit.
Cardaclysm came out on PC in June 2020, and has had a year to boost its offering with DLC. It’s now released as a full package for console as Cardaclysm: Shards of the Four. My first impressions were good rather than bad: this was a step above most deckbuilders in terms of presentation, and there’s actually some real-time gameplay on offer.
On the presentation side, this is a lush-looking beast. The procedurally generated worlds could have been Diablo offcuts: they’re detailed, busy and beautifully lit. You almost wonder why so much attention has been lavished on them, considering everything else is static, like a game board. The creatures aren’t exactly original – these are your usual knights, spiders and wolves – but they’re well-realised, and someone has put a few coins in the VFX kitty, as everything explodes and fizzes with aplomb.
You get to move about the world in real-time too. You’re handed full control of your character as they romp around the levels, picking up power-ups for the next battle and approaching enemies for combat. It’s more immersive than you’d expect from a game like this. More often than not with a deckbuilder, you have to get excited about a game map or some interfaces. Not here.
The pattern of play is pretty simple. You arrive in a procedurally generated map, and there’s often a mutator in play. Night-time levels, for example, will cause damage to creatures after every turn. Then you’re hunting around the level for a red key, which will open a red door at the end of the level. You also can’t leave the level until you’ve killed all the creatures, so that’s objective number two. Creatures stand there, creepily watching you with red rings around their bases. Get close and you auto-start a battle, so you need to be prepped, and that means collecting enough of the temporary buffs scattered around to take on the beast.
If you’ve played Magic: The Gathering or – let’s face it – pretty much any combat-based card game, then you’ll find the combat completely familiar. Creatures have attack stats, which does damage to opposing creatures’ health stats. Kill all the opposing creatures and you win, but be wary that a single attack on your wizard will cause you to lose.
There are some curiosities about how the card stuff plays. In most deckbuilders, you get mana, energy or gold every turn, which allows you to cast spells and whatnot. In Cardaclysm: Shards of the Four, you only get your ‘tokens’ on turn one, and you have to budget accordingly.
We’ve never encountered this approach before, and for good reason. You can’t hope for better cards and the ability to cast them on the next turn. You have to spend all of your tokens on creatures immediately, and hope that it’s enough to win the fight. You could theoretically hold something back in reserve, but – more often than not – that means your creatures will die and leave you exposed. You’re putting all of your pieces on the board on the first turn, and that causes a few issues.
Number one is that you’re only as good as your opening hand. There’s a mulligan mechanic here, so you can switch out any cards you don’t want, but often you’ve got a hand that won’t win the game and you’re done for. Number two is that there’s no coming back from a bad situation. Often in deckbuilders, you can draw THAT card, the one that gets you out of the hole. In Cardaclysm, you might draw that card, but you won’t be able to afford it, or find space on your board to place it down (there is an additional cap on how many creatures you can play per game). You’re stuffed, basically.
It made me realise how important the ebb and flow is to a card game. Matches need to develop to keep me interested. In Cardaclysm, they just ebb. You put your army out to battle, and hope they’ve got enough in the tank to defeat the enemies by game end.
The cards aren’t interesting enough to make up the deficit. There’s a lot of stuff here you’ll know from Hearthstone and the rest, as there’s poison, deathrattle and double-striking, just under different names. A few cards make you consider potential combos, and some – too few, actually – offer a chance to offset the lack of tokens every turn. Credit to Cardaclysm, though, as it does have a massive volume of cards, with over 200 to collect, and a fun upgrade system that means you can combine unwanted cards to create better versions. There’s certainly plenty to fiddle around with.
Defeat all of the enemies in the level, and something rather unexpected happens. A ‘Cursed Being’ arrives through the portal from whence you started, and begins to hunt you down. You’ve got to hot-tail it to the red door with the red key before they catch you, or you’ll be forced into a battle. These battles tend to be way above your pay-grade, so avoiding them is the sane thing to do.
There’s so much that could be written about this mechanic alone. When it first happens, it’s a bewildering, Dead by Daylight event that scares the bejeezus out of you. We got caught, died, and had to play the level again. You soon learn to give it a wide berth. But while it’s imaginative, it’s also a thudding pain.
The Cursed Being appears when you’ve killed the last creature, but nothing in the game actually tells you that the creature you’re facing is the last creature. Since the levels are procedural, the last enemy might be near the starting portal, and you failed to spot it. Well, now you’re doomed: the Cursed Being is going to squish you. The only way to survive is to play tentatively, and to memorise where each level’s exit is so that you can make a speedy retreat. But each level looks so much like the last that you might make a mistake.
Sometimes, you want to face the Cursed Being, as you can level up to the point that they’re beatable, unlocking one of the titular shards (and boy are they worth it). A handy popup nudges you to take them down. But you have to complete a full level to face the Being, which can take ten to fifteen minutes, and even then you’re rolling the dice to see if you defeat them, since you need a good hand and turn to have a chance. It’s too tedious and takes too long to fight Death, War, Famine and the rest when you actually want to. Basically, it’s an idea that works for no one: those who want to fight them and those who don’t.
Yet, none of these are Cardaclysm’s biggest flaws. The first is the ‘why?’. Why am I jumping into procedural dungeon after dungeon? Why am I honing my deck? Cardaclysm: Shards of the Four does a very poor job at presenting an objective to you. There’s no main objective, other than reaching an arbitrary point where you might be able to kill your Cursed Being. There are no sub-objectives either, like completing sets of cards. A few quests appear in a pub that you can visit between levels, but they only come in one flavour, so you soon get bored. Cardaclysm can’t find a good reason for you to continue playing.
The second is the dreaded bugginess. Every two or three levels, we were hit with a bug where we couldn’t place any cards. The cursor would be stuck on our hand of cards, rather than the game board where we wanted to place them, and we were forced to surrender the battle. The problem is that losing a battle is hugely punishing: the game nicks six cards from you and requires you to fight six creatures to get them back. But the bug could happen to you again, stacking the lost cards, and you’re locked in a never-ending spiral of bugs.
Which leads to the third flaw. Dying in Cardaclysm is awful. It takes the cards from you, but it also resets you to the state that you came to the level in. Far too often, we changed our deck and armour loadout mid-run (Cardaclysm has a pretty cool inventory system) to better suit the level’s mutators. But then we died, only to find that we’d reset to an older deck and setup. Complete a quest and the quest is reset. Get a cool card or artefact and you don’t have it anymore. Upgrade some cards and you have to do it all again. The hard-reset is a crazy decision on the part of the designers, and – coupled with the random deaths – was too much for us. We would have turned our back on the game if it wasn’t for things like, you know, fair reviews.
Bugs can be fixed and unfair deaths can be patched, but right now Cardaclysm is a hard game to play. When it’s carrying some teething pains from the port – including a hit-and-miss ability to select a monster on the battlefield, and an inability to highlight enemy creatures to find out their details – it amounts to a decent game that has too many flaws to ignore.
Cardaclysm: Shards of the Four is a case of Emperor’s New Cards. It’s one of the finest looking card games out there, but it’s hiding a frustrating, buggy experience and a battle system that leans too heavily on a good first turn. It’s not a complete disaster (or cardaclysm) but these are all avoidable problems that hunt Cardaclysm: Shards of the Four down, like one of its Cursed Beings.
You can buy Cardaclysm: Shards of the Four for £12.49 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S