Across The Obelisk Preview –
A Co-op, Team-Based Deckbuilder
Card battlers have become all the rage ever since Slay the Spire sold about two million copies. In some games, the deckbuilding component is tacked on due to this hype, while in others, it is the core component the game is built upon. Across the Obelisk is the latter, a rogue-like card game at its core with four characters at your disposal, adding the positioning mechanics of Darkest Dungeon to create its own take on the genre.
Players create a team from four of the sixteen playable characters (ten currently available in early access). During battle, gamers control one character at a time in an order based on their speed. Attacks are made with cards that either hit a specific position (i.e. the front monster, the back monster), or that have a customizable or random target.
Controlling four players fighting against four enemies does increase the battle time significantly, however, with some battles taking as long as a short game of Magic: The Gathering. This is due to the enemies’ ability to heal and provide themselves buffs, making the gameplay more interesting while allowing them to survive ten rounds in some cases. Players earn greater bonuses for eliminating them quicker, which does add a certain urgency to offset this.
Each run unlocks additional characters, assuming their side missions are undergone, new cards, permanent town perks, and other advantages. The game never feels unfair, yet the difficulty is high enough to please experienced strategists.
The world map is well designed despite its simplistic art style. Each of the four maps (three currently available in early access) provides multiple, intersecting paths to choose from, providing different events, merchants, healing areas, and side quest opportunities. Unlike most games in the genre, encounters aren’t random, allowing gamers to plan their journey and the enemies they face to maximize strengths, align encounters with their playstyle, and obtain loot. While many rogue-like games would suffer from this predictability, there’s still enough randomness and luck-based events to keep it interesting. This includes story events, where one draws cards and adds up their energy, or mana, value to pass skill checks. These sequences do lack the depth of Griftlands, as the storytelling is simplistic, being more appropriate for gamers aged 5 to 10, which contradicts the complex gameplay and the intended audience.
Variation between runs also emerges with special opportunities to increase the challenge of a battle for better rewards. These challenges provide random buffs to the enemies which are noted beforehand, allowing one to pursue the risk/reward mechanic that made Slay the Spire so well known. For instance, is it worth allowing the enemy to freeze your team every other round to unlock a card that heals as much as it damages?
Combat skills are complex, similar to the intricacy of Gordian Quest, and far beyond Roguebook. Besides attacking and blocking, one can also manipulate the timeline, slowing the enemy and hastening allies’ turns so they can block before the enemy retaliates. Energy can also be conserved between turns, allowing for more powerful cards or combos to be planned ahead. These two mechanics provide the game with a temporal manipulation that Othercide fans will love, and many characters have access to these time-based skills. A range of magic damage types and other status effects, including stacking burning, poison, and bleed damage, round out the skills, along with a stealth mechanic similar to Darkest Dungeon. With enemies sporting melee, ranged, and magic resistances, one has to choose between specializing in a certain damage type, such as mental damage, or taking a more balanced build.
Each battle won allows characters to select a card from a wide enough pool to allow strategy to dictate the cards one chooses instead of just luck. Enemy resistances and status effects vary by map, so strategy must constantly evolve to mitigate this, such as incorporating more poison dispel cards when entering the water map, Aquarfall.
The music varies from the Zeldaesque welcome screen, to the medieval harps of the world map, to The Sims-styled story music. The soundtrack’s good, if somewhat inconsistent in style, and portrays the whimsical element well.
Enemy designs range from standard fantasy tropes, such as dryads, demon lords, and imps, to more quirky fare such as the three pigs and a corn on the cob that pops corn at your allies. The artwork is quite charming, though Tainted Grail and Deck of Ashes players may find the first level childish.
Note that the last update adds enhancements to make characters feel more unique from one another, more customization options, and a new challenge mode that randomizes the game and maps for those who prefer a less predictable experience. Finally, a co-op mode allows one to play with friends, each taking a character, setting it apart from similar games.
Across the Obelisk is one of the better recent releases in the genre, and shows that Dreamsite Games has much promise as an indie developer. Every element is polished, and even in early access I experienced only one bug in twenty-five hours. Multiple characters with various intersecting strategies, combined with a tactical positioning mechanic, and co-op mode, create a world of discovery within the decks. Shuffle your cards, not your feet, when you go pick up this one.
Full disclosure: This preview is based on a retail copy of Across the Obelisk.