Roguebook Review (Switch)
Release Date: April 21, 2022
File Size: 1.2GB
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Resident roguelike/deck-building expert Evan here, ready to report my findings on the latest addition to the Switch library. Roguebook is the brainchild of Richard Garfield, who some might know as the guy who made that sort of popular card game Magic: The Gathering, and Abrakam, the developers of the already successful Faeria (also on the Switch). What could possibly go wrong? Well, with a title that literally features the word “rogue,” one might expect a certain style of gameplay and progression to be on display. In a similar vein, we’ve seen how the roguelike formula can be applied, so repurposing that in a manner that fits Faeria’s preestablished lore and art should be a cinch.
Believe it or not, Roguebook is just about as successful a product as its esteemed pedigree might imply, but it’s not the be-all and end-all experience one might be looking for from a deck-building roguelike/lite, though that might depend entirely upon how familiar you are with other games of this style. If a slower-paced affair with more transparent options and freedom seems up your alley, then Roguebook might be the game for you. Read on to find out why.
Roguebook first tasks the player with creating a team of two unique characters to tackle three chapters in the cursed book of the title’s name. These characters will impact the kinds of cards you are able to find throughout the game world, which offers a number of “draft spaces” the player can access through clever play. You see, there are two phases to Roguebook‘s runs: the exploration phase and the combat phase, and although combat is the more exciting of the two, a far greater amount of time is spent exploring in comparison with just about any other roguelike deck-building title. At the start of each chapter, Roguebook crafts a straightforward path from its beginning to the end-of-act boss, and upon this path, you’ll usually find a single draft space, a normal battle space, and an elite battle space. However, this isn’t necessarily the path one must take in order to encounter the boss, and probably shouldn’t be, either, seeing as slightly off the beaten path are troves of treasures, battles, and other treats worth exploring.
This is where the primary element of Roguebook‘s exploration comes into play. Its ink system allows the player to fill in large spots of the map (or page) with brush strokes or create more precise, linear paths with inkwells. However, both of these resources are limited, and can only be found as victory spoils from battles or in much less frequency on the map itself. There are also sight towers that will paint in a similar way to your brush strokes for free, so approaching them while using that resource is a careful consideration. Similarly, there are runes of sight the player can encounter that will reveal a small section of the map, albeit one that might be a fair distance from their current position. The Roguebook map is designed similarly to Faeria’s own hexagonal grid, so crafting lines only works on the diagonal, which might require some planning in advance. As treasures are usually hidden from sight, the player reveals them by painting over a space they inhabit, though there are artifacts the player can obtain to reveal these permanently on the map. Utilizing this system and uncovering spaces with valuable rewards is an essential part of Roguebook‘s gameplay, and greatly differentiates it from other deck-building titles.
Then, of course, there is combat. Roguebook attempts to further distance itself from its contemporaries with another defensive option atop blocking/shielding cards: the ability to swap the positions of your two heroes, giving them positional advantages based on their innate abilities and also deprioritizing their likelihood of receiving damage. As swapping positions and circumstantial bonuses are a major part of many card descriptions, it is essential that players learn to adapt their deck to this system as soon as possible in order to master Roguebook‘s combat. Similarly, the game pushes players to continue to expand their deck’s size through the trait system, which allows the player to pick from one of three bonuses every time their deck meets a certain number of cards. These can drastically improve the build for a particular run, but once you’ve selected a trait, you won’t be able to access the other two you neglected, instead having to move on to the next tier. This adds a further risk and reward element to play, but character and build archetypes are usually telegraphed enough for you to make a wise strategic decision at any point during play.
Though not necessarily a cutting edge feature, the game also leans heavily on the ability to summon allies, which are akin to Magic’s token system. These additional “permanents” remain on the field, but can only be targeted by very specific (read: boss) enemies and usually possess a number of counters that reduce in number when triggered manually or by actions the player performs. If one is looking for consistent forms of damage, there are many allies that are aggressive in nature, dealing a set amount of damage to single or many enemies after the player turn has completed. These cards and others benefit from the game’s gem system, which forgoes the concept of a strict upgrade to a base card for a more versatile option. Gems apply particular bonuses to cards that can invert their properties, add new effects, or enhance already-existing properties.
These are the more unique aspects of Roguebook‘s combat gameplay, but you’ll find its foundations to be very similar to other deck-building titles: block to reduce damage, target enemies with specific cards, and try to survive for as long as possible.
Roguebook‘s aesthetics are not unlike its contemporaries, with battles taking place on a two dimensional plane and the character sprites appearing to warp and bob to imply motion. While I might find its collection of characters a bit of a mixed bag in terms of aesthetics, the entire product is well-polished from a visual standpoint. The combat backgrounds in particular feature lush colors and a degree of detail that hints at a more rich and mysterious realm than your standard fantasy fare.
The soundtrack of Roguebook is another matter entirely, however. While leitmotifs are an effective way of creating earworms that settle into the player’s mind, Roguebook relies on its core musical theme to a disappointing degree. Its exploration and battle themes change slightly across the three chapters, it isn’t enough to keep these themes from feeling repetitive and bland by hour ten. This is a disappointing element of any roguelike that prides itself on multiple runs, but it’s a blessing that this music can be reduced in the gameplay options, in addition to the other auditory elements, as some of the vocal lines are extremely corny while others are energetic to an absurd degree.
Impressions and Conclusion
There’s no particular segment regarding narrative here, and that’s mostly because Roguebook is devoid of one. The goal is to escape this eponymous book’s pages, but even after completing the game, you’ll find yourself compelled to continue running the same cycle over and over, though not without some gameplay modifications. As is the case with any roguelike/lite, the completion of a single cycle is only the beginning, and Roguebook offers a number of “epilogue” challenges that modify gameplay from slight to absurd levels. Players that have completed enough of these epilogue challenges can start combining them together in order to further heighten the difficulty or improve their chances for success. As the game itself states, the epilogue content is equal parts difficult, but also forgiving, and can enhance the enjoyment of a playthrough or truly brutalize a player, depending on their choice.
Roguebook does suffer from a particularly frustrating element of most deck-building roguelike/lite design, however, in the form of its experience system, which trickles out new cards to players as they fail or complete particular runs. The game- and each playable character- don’t feel fully realized until you’ve unlocked the full toolkit, with some characters in particular feeling useless in certain kinds of setups without more powerful options unlocked. Given that the game has a fairly predictable “build routine,” as in card types that one can expect to prioritize during each chapter, having some options locked away for a decent chunk of time feels disrespectful to the player- or at least, to this one. While this slow trickle might ensure that the player must invest a certain amount of time into the game before it reveals all of its tricks, a good roguelike doesn’t necessarily need to hold its cards close to the chest early on in order to enrapture players. This sort of system might work better for other games in this subgenre, but it doesn’t work for a style of play that rewards meticulous planning.
What further complicates this matter is Roguebook‘s bizarre embellishment system, which allows players who have successfully completed runs and gathers its meta-currency to invest them in particular bonuses that can further enhance their chances of success. These bonuses range from more base health for party members, to enhancing the likelihood of higher rarity cards or gems, and usually have a lower immediate price of entry that rises a fair amount upon further enhancement. What makes this system expansive and also confusing is the ability to disable unlocked options- not reverse your purchase, because of course the game wants you to keep playing in order to generate meta currency to further invest-deactivating effects that can make the game more or less straightforward to play.
I don’t know if I think Roguebook can be successfully completed with a “level zero” build- I think it’s likely, given the sort of community that gravitates towards this style of gameplay- but I also struggle to think of how enjoyable this game would be without some of its embellishment unlocks equipped. Does the game expect that a fully-optimized build of one of its characters has all health bonuses unlocked, or did they deliberately cripple the character in order to guarantee repeated runs? It’s a tricky question, but it only further lends an aura of uncertainty to Roguebook that I think can be best circumvented by saying this: unlock everything. Put the time into clearing out this system, and you’ll likely have an informed enough opinion by the end of its weird skill tree to determine what works best for your particular playstyle.
Roguebook‘s greatest difference from other, more linear roguelike/lite deck builders is its exploration phase. While this does make the game feel much more like a traditional sort of tabletop RPG and offers more expansive fun to those who like to press their luck, it’s a slow-moving and time-consuming portion of the game, ultimately increasing the playtime of a run to twice or even three times that of a standard run in something like Slay the Spire. For those looking for a more variable sort of experience or one in which luck can be pressed in a variety of ways, this difference might appeal to them, but others might feel cheated by a two-to-three hour-deep run being cut short by an unforeseen trip-up in their play style or a map hazard that cripples their ability to progress forward, Roguebook might not satisfy you in the way that its peers aim to achieve. However, what might seem a contentious design decision to some may appeal to others, so… your mileage may vary.
The last thing I’ll note about the game is its somewhat unstable performance on the Switch. I don’t doubt that there’s a great deal of number-crunching going on in the background during battles, but the execution of commands, especially towards the end of a run, can take several seconds. While the combat animations are simple and effective, it is surprising that the game’s performance should suffer as much as it does, especially when stacked against its contemporaries. Many games of this kind have options to speed up the pace of combat- Roguebook stumbles on its basic settings. I’ve experienced a handful of crashes, as well, at seemingly trivial moments- sometimes when entering into combat, other times when executing a certain command. It’s a toss-up.
Across the base four characters that Roguebook offers, there’s a healthy variety of tactics and synergy to create a neat mixture of strategies in order to tackle its basic and more advanced challenges. Despite its somewhat bland aesthetics, the core gameplay is extremely compelling, offering up plenty of choice. While it may take longer than some might like to truly get to the more complex challenges and rewarding options, the game does more than enough to stand apart from the other titles that orbit the deck-building roguelike/lite star. Although it’s not as smooth or brisk as those in its wheelhouse, it offers the exact sort of experience a player with a penchant for exploration might prefer. Just be prepared to lose frequently before grasping victory.