If your Halloween is decidedly one-player this year, then you might want to treat yourself to Cards of the Dead. This is a reasonably traditional dungeon-delving card game, where you flip cards to reveal enemies or treasures, but it’s been decked out to be a zombie apocalypse. It may not look like much, and it’ll be too random for some tastes, but there are worse ways to spend £6.69.
You start on level 1-1, in The Streets, and you only have a few cards to flip. You’re safe for the time-being, and the cards are mostly weapons, vaccines and food. Flipping each card dinks down your vaccine level, though – represented by a syringe on the bottom-left of the screen – so revealing every card on a level, willy-nilly, is not necessarily the best approach. Your vaccine levels will soon reach zero and you’ll be taking damage every turn.
Much like a real zombie apocalypse (we imagine), there’s no tutorial in Cards of the Dead, as it chucks you in at the deep end. Sure, it’s possible to pick up the basics and then push on from there, but the lack of tutorial felt like an omission. There’s some slightly more complicated stuff here – like the three different numbers that sit on the corners of a zombie card – and a tutorial would have meant slightly fewer deaths.
Keep turning cards and you’ll find an exit, which will take you to 1-2, 1-3 and beyond. Eventually the stabilisers come off and zombies start appearing. Their health is in the top-left corner of the card (no thanks, tutorial), and your weapons will have a damage stat and a number of uses before they crumble to dust. So, you’re donking them on the head with baseball bats and axes, or firing at them with revolvers and shotguns, and taking damage if you can’t kill them in one go.
Some of the more elaborate zombies will do different things, like the rather unfortunate pregnant zombie who pumps out zombie babies (did the only female zombie really have to be a baby factory?). But in return, there are more elaborate beneficial cards. You can duck into pharmacies, petrol stations and safe houses to raid them for shotguns, chainsaws, tools and the like. It’s two tug of wars running concurrently: between the zombies and your ability to kill them, and between your vaccine/health levels and your ability to replenish them.
As with any good Resident Evil, strategy often comes in the form of fight or flight. You might uncover an exit early, and deliberate over whether you should flip a few cards and stock up before you dive into it. Or you might flip an alarm which triggers swathes of zombies, and ponder whether your best bet is to take a hit from all of them before escaping with what remains of your life.
And that’s it, really. There’s a hint of the rogue-lite about Cards of the Dead, as it’s often less about completing the game, and more about getting as far as you can. There’s The Streets, The Outskirts and The Lab to explore, each divided into nineteen levels, and you’ll be struggling to make decent headway in all of them. Getting to the latter stages of The Outskirts is a good run, and even getting to The Labs is a real achievement. To give a sense of long-term achievement and progression, you can find journal pieces, which in turn unlock characters to use.
In presentational terms, it’s a bit ragged, with its drab backgrounds and character headshot that manages to make original Doom Guy seem high-def. But each card is clear enough, and we rarely found ourselves confused by what was going on.
The controls would obviously be better on PC and touchscreens, as moving from card to card can be awkward with the pad and no cursor. Layouts of cards are higgledy-piggledy, so getting to a card that’s offset slightly up-and-to-the-left is more difficult than it should be. And the inclusion of a backpack is baffling: it effectively acts as three more slots for your cards, but is awkward to open and manipulate. Why there weren’t just three more slots, we don’t know.
But moving from level to level feels pretty good. There’s a fantastic balance at play, as you teeter on the edge of various limits. If you’re managing to keep your vaccine, health and weapons topped up, then fair play to you; in almost all instances, one of them will be letting you down. And that’s how it should be. Cards of the Dead does a great job of keeping you on edge.
The card variety’s pretty hot too. There must be a hefty deck of hazards and scavenged items, as we kept getting surprised by them. Hazmat suits and first aid kits start dropping in, and they’re nigh-on essential for a good run. Zombies with eight or nine health start dropping in too, and a sequence of them can scupper all your good work. We left Cards of the Dead impressed with how different each run can be, simply because of the card variety and secret rooms.
But we never quite had that ‘one more go’ feeling that every rogue-lite demands. The two main contributors to that are randomness and a lack of progression.
Cards of the Dead is utterly random. It’s kind of the point. But there’s very little mitigation of that randomness. If you hit an exit early, you’re golden; if you hit it late, you can be doomed. There are cards like the torch which can reveal exits, but they’re rare. Fate plays a big part in Cards of the Dead, as it will often withhold vaccines, health or weapons when you most need them, and – most of the time – it will be because you didn’t have the means to sniff them out. We imagine quite a few players will be turned off by that roll of the dice.
Plus, playing over and over just isn’t that attractive. You have the chance of finding journal pages, which in turn unlock characters, but finding them is, yep, random (and you need a complete set to get that character). There’s no XP to earn, new cards to unlock or anything like that. Without these rewards, Cards of the Dead can feel a bit stingy, and it makes you question whether to replay or not.
A game developer would probably not want to see the word ‘workmanlike’ in a review, but it’s exactly what Cards of the Dead is. It’s a shabby-looking, functional little card game, which delivers just enough tension and survival-horror to warrant the price tag. With a spit and a shine, and more reasons to replay (as well as kicking the randomness out of touch), Cards of the Dead could have been something a touch more special.
You can buy Cards of the Dead for £6.69 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S