"...Deck of Ashes has some intriguing mechanics, is fairly polished in most areas, and definitely has potential for future growth with the addition of more content."
I was recently given the opportunity to play Deck of Ashes, a card driven roguelike currently in Early Access on Steam. From the information I gathered beforehand, this game combined my love of titles like Darkest Dungeon and card games like Magic; I was quite excited to see how it would try to carve a place for itself in the crowded roguelike subgenre. What I found was that Deck of Ashes has some intriguing mechanics, is fairly polished in most areas, and definitely has potential for future growth with the addition of more content.
The game begins with a pretty nice fully-voiced cutscene introducing you to the world of Deck of Ashes. In this world, a feared band of mercenaries end up opening a Pandora's box of sorts while fighting over who would claim it from Lady Death. This places a curse on the world and leads to the dark fantasy realm in which the game takes place. You take control of one of those mercenaries (a pyromancer, though there seem to be other characters in development so you may be able to play as all five eventually) to defeat Lady Death, lifting lift both the curse on her and the world. To do this you progress through different kingdoms, each with its own boss. Each of these kingdoms allows you to move about a small map to battle and gain resources before the time limit runs out and you must face the "ruler" in combat. Along the way, you find new card recipes, interact with NPCs in your base camp, and purchase a variety of upgrades with resources you find in the wild.
As noted above, and as the name implies, Deck of Ashes is primarily card driven. Your character begins with a deck of cards representing attacks, spells, potions: all of the usual RPG staples. During battles, which are turn based, you draw a hand of cards from your deck and have a pre-set amount of mana each turn with which to play them. Thus, you end up finding efficient ways to combine spells in a given turn to attack your enemies, take their attacks, and repeat. While this may sound quite standard, Deck of Ashes adds a unique twist in that cards are effectively exhausted once used, not only for the current battle but for future ones. These "burned" cards go to your "deck of ashes" and can only be renewed by a certain NPC or by spending some of your limited rest points after each battle (which can also be used to restore your health). If you run out of cards during a battle you can "strain" yourself, causing your character to take a large chunk of damage in order to randomly renew five cards from your burned ones. This leads to a sense of attrition over the course of a campaign where you are constantly balancing your health and cards in your deck, which also matches the grim atmosphere of the game's world.
That said, being in Early Access, there are a relatively small number of cards and playable characters. I felt exhausted very quickly due to the limited amount of strategies. This can cause the game to drag a bit in the beginning as you slowly acquire new cards and recipes and customize your deck while casting nothing but the same fire attacks for awhile. There were some interesting cards to obtain later in the game, but some seemed like they would fit into niche strategies that may become more relevant as the number of cards and characters increases with further development. The game has a solid core mechanic but may need more robustness and variety to incentivize multiple playthroughs (especially since you will likely die and start over quite a bit: the game can be challenging).
One area where Deck of Ashes outshines other similar games is in its graphical design, especially given its Early Access status. The game utilizes a 2D drawing style that reminds me of successful style combinations like those in games like Darkest Dungeon or Don't Starve. The overworld maps and backgrounds convey the dark fantasy tone of the game perfectly and help supplement the opening cutscene that invokes a sense of a fallen world. Character and enemy designs also have a unique style and are drawn in a nice level of detail. The game also has a smooth and fast interface; when I wanted to play a bunch of cards, I could easily drag them out from my hand in the order I wanted without much delay. This may seem small, but having played other digital card games, this polish is not necessarily a given.
While the graphical design and interface help Deck of Ashes establish its own world and feel, the music fails to leave a strong impression. There is nothing inherently bad about it. In a sense, there may not be an expectation with this type of RPG to have catchy battle tunes you will hum afterwards, but the music is a bit forgettable and generic. It does not particularly add to the sense of excitement or tension the player may be feeling in the same way as the world design.
Overall, I recommend keeping Deck of Ashes on your radar if you are a fan of roguelike games in the vein of Darkest Dungeon or Slay the Spire. If more content (characters and cards, primarily) is continually added to this game, it could be an above average entry into the subgenre. While I did run into a few bugs (to be expected in Early Access), the game also received multiple updates within the month, so the development team seems to be hard at work.