When I fantasize about future projects from Yoko Taro (one of the creative geniuses behind NieR and Drakengard), my mind gravitates to many genres before it settles on card-based RPGs. With Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars, Taro’s latest project, he shatters my expectations once again. Its reveal, which came less than two months before the game’s release, caused a bit of confusion, but I was thrilled with Voice of Cards’s announcement trailer, which showed off its tabletop aesthetic, alluring visuals, and old-school combat.
But does the game meet the high bar Taro and his team set with their prior masterpieces? Sadly, I don’t think so. Though we should applaud Taro for his willingness to experiment outside his comfort zone, Voice of Cards roars with flaws that hold it back from greatness. It’s a beautiful RPG with a memorable soundtrack, but its unoriginal early and mid-game plot and overly simplistic combat may not hold your interest beyond its opening hours.
Unlike Taro’s other works, Voice of Cards centers on a familiar premise: a legendary dragon that once terrorized the land has returned, and you play as a money-hungry adventurer keen on claiming a bounty on its scaly head. Across the game’s seven chapters, you join forces with other adventurers who have similar but slightly more altruistic motivations for defeating the dragon. Much to my dismay, the narrative across the first five chapters consists of pretty predictable RPG fare. What’s more, you learn little about most of the cast over the game’s roughly 15-hour run and, similarly to Octopath Traveler, the ties that bind some of your crew feel thin and unconvincing.
However, the game’s penultimate chapter turns the tale around and sees the narrative soar to the heights you’d expect from Taro and his team. Without veering into spoilers, the sixth chapter subverts expectations the game has built up to that point and takes a gut-wrenching turn reminiscent of NieR: Automata‘s strongest story beats. Whether this makes up for the lackluster hours that precede it depends on how heavily you rely on a solid story to get you through the bulk of most RPGs. I personally lean pretty hard on plot to keep me tuned in, so the absence of a moving one for the game’s first 10 hours left me struggling to stay engaged.
As you’ve probably surmised by just glimpsing at the game, Voice of Cards depicts just about everything through the medium of cards. Combat is no exception. But unlike in Slay the Spire, Hearthstone, and other card games, traditional turn-based RPG mechanics underlie combat here. You and your enemies take turns attacking, buffing, healing, or using items to whittle down each other’s HP. Each card face tells you most of what you need to know about that particular character or enemy, such as their attack, defense, and current and max HP. Enemies are vulnerable to fire, lightning, or one of the other elements at your disposal, and poison, paralysis, and other typical status conditions make appearances.
As a fan of turn-based RPGs, these familiar underpinnings didn’t frustrate me, but they may dash the hopes of players pining for innovative card-based gameplay. The battle system’s failure to incorporate interesting mechanics, however, did frustrate me. Abilities boil down to enhanced damage, healing spells, or other genre mainstays that I can play around with in just about any RPG. Almost all combat mechanics mirror those from RPGs of an earlier era. Simplicity is the name of the game here, to a fault.
The gem system is Voice of Cards‘s only novel combat mechanic. Each time you complete a turn or use a particular item or ability, you earn a gem, and you spend gems to use abilities. Ostensibly, this should encourage you to consider your overall strategy before making your next move. But thanks to the game’s comically low (and unadjustable) difficulty, the gem system demanded minimal thought on my part; I cleared most encounters with brute force and the occasional healing or elemental ability.
If viewed charitably, this simplistic combat system renders Voice of Cards accessible to all players. Anybody can master these mechanics in no time, making this a stellar gateway game for players who want to dip their toes into turn-based RPGs. But for anyone who’s played a few RPGs, this painfully basic battle system results in unengaging and, at times, mindless combat. You rarely need to use most of your skills, and strategy feels largely optional. Given the compelling combat systems in other games under Taro’s belt, this shortcoming feels particularly heavy.
Voice of Cards doesn’t do itself any favors by offering almost nothing to do beyond mediocre combat. Crafting, deep character customization, and sidequests are absent. The world is relatively small, and you won’t find much off the beaten path beyond a smattering of amusing NPCs and treasure chests containing healing items and the occasional weapon or armor piece. An in-game card game rewards you with items, but it borrows too heavily from Uno for my tastes which left me bored after just a few minutes.
After completing the main story, you can stick around for a few hours of post-game content, but there’s little incentive to. Still, Voice of Card‘s streamlined approach isn’t entirely unwelcome in today’s world of 60-hour-long adventures replete with minigames, sidequests, and branching narrative paths. The game’s short length helps keep its pacing even, suits its simplicity, and limits the boredom you may feel with its unchallenging combat.
The gorgeous tabletop aesthetic does help make up for Voice of Cards‘s shortcomings. Intricately detailed hand-drawn NPC, enemy, and item card art immerses you in the tabletop style. The ornate wooden table on which your cards and gems sit radiates charm and continually augments the game’s elegant style. Though Voice of Cards eschews fully realized environments for simplistic ones drawn on cards, your eyes won’t suffer for it. However, the game suffers a few penalty points for its excessive recycling of NPC and monster assets, which becomes conspicuous in its final chapters.
Voice of Cards‘s soundtrack is similarly superb. The background music reminds me of highlights from early Final Fantasy titles. Melodic, relaxing harps and piano songs lull you into a sense of security as you explore countryside towns. Rhythmic tunes of a violin imbue encounters with electric energy. All the tracks accentuate the moods the game evokes, and those that greet you as you explore caves and other dungeons are delightfully memorable. I was concerned when I learned that one actor handled all the voice work, but Todd Haberkorn nails it. As the ever-present Game Master who narrates every conversation and cutscene, Todd continually injects more life and humor into the story than many games with sprawling voice casts can boast.
Still, I hesitate to recommend Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars to anyone other than Yoko Taro enthusiasts or players looking for a streamlined introduction to turn-based RPGs. The game is far too short, simple, and easy to maintain your attention for long, and its plot remains unmoving well beyond the point at which you’re likely to lose interest. Nonetheless, its compelling late-game narrative, charming graphical style, and superb score leave me cautiously optimistic about what a sequel can bring to the table. I just hope that the next time this dragon lands, it has learned lessons from its first, flawed foray.