The card game roguelite genre has exploded in popularity over the last few years and has become one of my favorite game styles. Like with any entry in a crowded genre, the challenge when making a new game like Tainted Grail: Conquest is building on the successes of genre titans while remaining unique enough to set yourself apart. When a roguelite hits the sweet spot, you can play them for hundreds of hours. On the other hand, when they miss the mark, it can be painful to get through a single run.
Though it’s inspired by Arthurian legend, you won’t be interacting with knights of the round table or quirky wizards in Tainted Grail: Conquest. Instead, the game is set in a village surrounded by Wyrdness, a creeping fog that hides witches, monsters, and ghosts and threatens to consume the village and the surrounding forest. Fortunately, there’s a way to beat back the Wyrdness. Early in the game, you’ll meet a delightful talking goat that explains that you are the chosen one blessed (or cursed) with the ability to fight the creatures in the Wyrdness and start again every time you fail.
Throughout your runs, you’ll help condescending spellcasters, feed hungry giants, create or destroy new gods, and interact with all sorts of weird but endearing characters. You learn a little more of the mystery of the Wyrdness with each run, whether from the goat letting you in on essential information or NPCs you find in the forest hinting at what’s happening in the forest. Since each run is partly randomized, players will learn the game’s lore in a semi-random order depending on what NPCs show up in their playthroughs.
When you start each attempt at extinguishing the Wyrdness, you choose a class to play. There are nine classes available that neatly divide into three categories: fighters, archers, and summoners. Your class determines your health, the cards available to you, and what special abilities you have. Classes in the same category share cards and have some overlap in their abilities. For example, the Summoner and the Necromancer both use their cards to summon imps, wyrms, and ogres, but the Summoner functions by making their summons strong, while the Necromancer wants to sacrifice theirs.
Once you pick your class, you start in the village with a little bit of money and a few candles. There’s not much to buy at first, but as you complete runs, the village will become populated with helpful NPCs that can upgrade your gear or sell you consumables. Once you finish spending your starting money, you’ll venture past the village limits into the Wyrdness. Several enemies and a boss occupy each section of the area. Most enemies have either an NPC or point of interest behind them, so to advance the story and bring NPCs back to your village, you have to beat the monsters guarding them first.
You have to pick and choose which NPCs you want to talk to and which fights you take because your resources are limited. Every fight is an opportunity to level up and get cards, but exploring the Wyrdness also drains your supply of candles. If you run out of candles, it becomes harder to see the enemies around you, and fights become harder because negative cards are added to your hand every couple of turns. When you do decide to take an enemy on, each encounter is a turn-based affair in which you see what the enemy is planning on doing before you play your cards, so you know when you have to defend or when it’s safe to attack.
The game is at its best when it forces you to make hard decisions on your turn. In a lot of early game fights, it is straightforward to know what cards to play. As you get into the mid-game, though, encounters start introducing buffs and debuffs. Playing defensively comes at a higher cost when enemies get stronger every turn. At the same time, you can’t go all out on offense, or you won’t be able to preserve your health with the game’s limited healing items. It’s tricky to strike the right balance to get through each character’s encounters while leaving yourself enough health and items to take on each area’s boss.
Unfortunately, the game is not always at its best. While most of the combat encounters are interesting or quick, some enemies have simple-to-understand behavior paired with massive health pools. The result is long, drawn out fights that aren’t engaging. Fortunately, these encounters aren’t the norm, but they kill the momentum of a run. When I happened on one near the end of a run, it put me off starting another.
Runs can get very challenging, particularly after the first two bosses. No worries if you end up struggling, though, as you can spend currencies on permanent upgrades that make future runs easier. Permanent upgrades are powerful, ranging from increased damage and defenses to increased card draw per turn. In some ways, the enhancements are a little too powerful. The game can quickly go from challenging to trivial with just a few significant upgrades. Fortunately, each finished run unlocks a new difficulty level for you to take on.
A successful run of Tainted Grail: Conquest took me an average of about 45 minutes. This was just the right length of time for me since you can knock out a few runs in a couple of hours. The game only started to lose steam for me once I had unlocked most of the story and finished most of the quests. At that point, runs usually didn’t offer anything new, so I started new runs repeatedly, hoping that the NPCs I needed to talk to would spawn, which was a bit of a slog. I only ran into this issue after at least ten successful runs and 20 hours of gameplay. There’s plenty of content in Tainted Grail: Conquest, but it doesn’t have the infinite replayability that has led me to play hundreds of runs in other roguelites.
Another issue the game faces is class balance. There are a few easy-to-use, powerful classes, while others feel much more difficult to succeed with. In my playthroughs, I was able to succeed with the necromancer and apostate consistently at high difficulties, sometimes without changing the cards in my deck at all. Meanwhile, succeeding with other classes at high difficulties felt heavily dependent on which additional cards I acquired during each run. There’s no inherent problem with having harder-to-use and easier-to-use classes, but the game doesn’t do a great job of helping players determine which classes are well suited to beginners, so it’s trial and error to find the best fit for yourself. The weaker classes don’t feel more strategically interesting than the more robust classes, just more reliant on powerful loot from enemies.
Tainted Grail: Conquest also exhibits a lack of polish in some areas. NPCs will give you dialog prompts that they don’t have responses to, character models on maps often look nothing like their portrait, and some enemies have significantly better models than others. I also experienced a few freezes and crashes in my 30 hours with the game. The game has auto-save, though, so I barely lost any progress.
On the flip side, I was impressed with the amount of voice acting throughout Tainted Grail: Conquest. Most NPC conversations are voice acted, which adds significant character to the game. I don’t know that I would have fallen in love with the mysterious witch if it weren’t for the voice actor’s hilariously sarcastic performance.
All in all, this title is an uneven experience. The story is more substantial than most roguelites but is hampered by the randomly determined pacing. A few classes are a blast to play, while others feel too weak at high difficulties without good luck. For the first 20 hours or so, you are regularly getting new story content and new upgrades, and it’s easy to sink hours into Tainted Grail: Conquest. I just wish it kept up the pace all the way to the end of the story.