Cardaclysm describes itself as a “procedurally generated collectible card game mixed with action RPG elements.” That’s one super sexy sentence that gets my motor running, if you know what I mean. Having been in Early Access since early in 2020, Cardaclysm has now fully launched onto Steam, so it it worth the small asking price of just £11.99? It’s time to D-d-d-d-d-d-DUEL!
As sorcerers are want to do, you’ve gone and meddled in things that probably should have been left alone, or at best only prodded with a stick from a great distance while hiding behind a very thick wall. Having now upset the universe at large, you find yourself pursued by four monsters who will conveniently only come after you one at a time instead of getting together and pummelling your skull into the pavement. To deal with this, you hop into levels with the aim being to collect cards by fighting through encounters and power yourself up, and at the end of each level the monster appears and starts chasing you, giving you a choice: exit through the door to the interdimensional pub (you read that right) or stay and face the threat if you think you’re capable.
That’s it for the story. Nothing is ever explained, least of all the magic, the realms you travel through, the pub or the big baddies chasing you. In fairness, though, Cardaclysm doesn’t feel like it really needs much in the way of explaining. It simply exists in a weird little bubble of narrative nothingness, just like my life. *gentle sobbing*
Each level is a small world that seems to be floating in a white void and is randomly generated from a very limited pool of sections that you’ll quickly become familiar with And graphically it really does look quite striking, but these levels also feel empty and ultimately pointless. The key you need to find to exit the level, the enemies you must fight to leave, the little power-ups you can snag and the artifacts are all placed almost directly on your path. The way forward is linear with no room for exploration. The only choice you have is to fight the monsters you encounter or flee, but fleeing is only actually useful so that you can rebuild your deck since every enemy on the map must be beaten for you to leave. And so it doesn’t take long to start wondering why these levels exist as they do. Without any room for exploration, without much visual variety and without any storytelling elements the levels are nothing more than empty shells you click along. A simple node map would have been just effective and probably would have saved quite a bit of developement time and cash.
The basics of battling monsters is easy: you draw a hand of cards from your deck and proceed to dump them onto the field before launching an offensive. All monsters have an attack value that they dish out as damage, and a health value that represents the punishment they can take before being defeated and removed from play. By default every monster has one attack per turn, and one retaliation attack per turn as well, which is important to remember. More powerful cards also tend to boast one or more special abilities such as Thorns that deal automatic damage to attacks or Ambush which stops them being targeted for the first turn and so on. The deeper you get into Cardaclysm the more these abilities stack to almost insane degrees that lead to obnoxious fights where skill goes out the window entirely in favour of getting the right card at the right time and hurling monsters at the problem.
There are two resources which dictate what you can play; gold coins and soul orbs. You’ll snag some coins on the world map as you amble around, but soul orbs tend to be quite rare. After 20-hours I still only had 12 orbs, and considering the biggest monsters can cost 3 orbs, that’s not a lot. Interestingly, Cardaclysm doesn’t have a lot of ways to generate coins during a match, and even fewer ways to get Orbs. This means battles typically don’t last long, but it also means that experimentation isn’t encouraged because you simply can’t afford it. With resources so tight, wasting them usually means losing. It makes the bigger creatures a scary proposition, too, since early in the game bringing one out can mean using up almost all your coins and orbs. Later on things do get better when you can afford to bring out one or two big cards but have to ponder whether it’s the right call for the situation. It’s a good bit of tactical thinking.
Speaking of which, for a deckbuilding card collecting game, Cardaclysm has a surprisingly tight limit on how big your deck is. You can have exactly 14-cards in your deck of magic spells and magic monsters. Since you start with four cards and draw back up to four at the start of you turn, you have a huge chance of drawing into specific cards unlike games with larger decks where you might not see that cool new card you added any time soon. On the other hand, the small deck size doesn’t leave a lot of room for varied strategies and interesting card combos. It’s also a little odd you can’t build more than one deck and swap between them, something which I’d love.
Because encounters tend to go so quickly, there’s more of a puzzle feel to Cardaclysm than you might initially expect. A lot of the game comes down to calculating the best order to attack enemy monsters in and keeping track of what special abilities will trigger and when. Or at least, this is what Cardaclysm’s encounters are like when they work correctly, but as we’ll discuss later, that’s not quite how the reality plays out.
For me, Cardaclysm’s problems start showing up after you beat the first of the four bosses. A new tier of cards gets unlocked, but it takes a long time to actually get any of them yourself, it feels. That problem worsens the more you play, and by time I had beaten the third boss it was getting more and more frustrating. The game became a dull grind as each battle awarded one crap card that I had gotten dozens and dozens of times and as I hunted down a few more coins so that I could spam enough monsters to beat the big baddie. The act of gaining the new cards and resources needed to advance wasn’t fun and satisfying, it was tedious. The innkeeper and the hunter back at the pub only ever handed out common cards, and the trader only very occasional offered up a worthwhile swap. Indeed, the only consistent method of getting anything exciting was a special character from whom you can buy cards using tokens. This, though, opens up a whole new slew of issues because to get tokens you have to destroy cards you’ve earned, which later on can leave you struggling to adjust to a new enemy type that has shown up. Furthermore, the cards you get are typically only worth 2-8 tokens (rarer ones are worth more) and cards you can buy start at 50 tokens and go up to a 100. A run through a level will usually net you six cards, I’d say, so earning enough tokens to grab anything takes a bit of time. On top of that, you only get offered three random cards and must spend five tokens to refresh the cards being offered.
There is a way of earning rarer cards more consistently and that’s to turn on Challenge mode (or later, Insane mode) and battle tougher enemies. However, Challenge mode’s difficulty is frustrating at best, often matching you up against batches of enemies that have insane mixes of powers. And unlike regular mode where dying means restarting the level but being able to regain the cards you lost, all the cards you’ve earned in that Challenge mode run dissapear. In other words, if you manage to earn a great card there’s a good chance you’ll lose it via an unlucky or downright unfair fight. I ultimately found Challenge and Insane modes to only be viable much later where my own deck was so stacked with ludicrous powers that even Insane fights became a piece of cake.
By far the biggest problem of Cardaclysm is how it continuously struggles to find the right balance in almost every area. The slog to get new or more powerful cards is already an example of this, but the fights are the prime example; every encounter is either a pushover where you slap down your entire hand of cards and thrash the enemy in a round or two, or a frustrating experience because of the mix of enemy types and abilities. It never seems able to find a happy middle-ground which is such a shame because the few times encounters managed hit the sweet spot they were quite fun. That puzzle-like element I mentioned earlier disappears when fights are so easy that you just play every card and smash them straight into the enemy, using nothing but brute force to win.
I’ve been fairly negative toward Cardaclysm, so let’s try to balance the scales with some positivity as well. First, the game’s made by Elder Games which only actually has one person behind it: Ede Tarsoly. Ede works with freelancers to help bring his games to life, but for the most part he seems to do most of the work and has released quite a few games prior to this. That’s damn impressive, and while Cardaclysm might not click with me I have full respect for Ede Tarsoly.
I also really like the various monster designs on show. There’s over 200 cards to choose from with some really striking beasts to play around with. Since Ede Tarsoly is listed on his own site as handling game design and music I’m not sure who was responsible for the graphics and art on Cardaclysm, but whoever it was can give themselves a pat on the back – you did good.
So, let’s try to wrap all this up in a neat little booster pack, shall we? On paper, Cardaclysm is so far up my street it’s practically knocking over my rubbish bins and trying to pet my dog. I bloody love collectible card games of all sort, having first started with Yu-Gi-Oh! before expanding into Magic the Gathering and various board games about building up a deck of cards and then grinning like an idiot at how well all those cards are working together. Yet Cardaclysm never matches to achieve that satisfying feeling of tinkering that a good card game manage. The small deck size doesn’t leave a lot of room for building much of anything and card synergy is obvious. It’s always easy to see what works well, and to see that a lot of cards are just plain better than anything else. And the card collecting is a drag because of how damn slow it all feels, constantly feeding you crappy cards that will never make it into your deck. It’s not until much late when Challenge and Insane modes are a breeze that the pace actually feels good.
All of that feeds into the encounters which never manage to get the difficulty right or that feel satisfying to get through. With the limited resources and speed of the fights there’s very little room for tactical thinking or setting up interesting card combos because you’re essentially going to end up doing everything with your first hand of cards, and maybe a second hand unless you’re like me and build your deck around drawing cards like crazy. And so, I can’t really recommend Cardaclysm, even though I would love to.