February 10th, 2012 | By Gerrard Winter
As much as I’d love to call Cardinal Quest a roguelike, that’s a bit of a loaded term for those who know it well. It conjures up memories of arcane mechanics, hundred page instruction manuals and my 8 year old self desperately trying to get past the 3rd floor when he *should* have been studying for that important English test. Ok, so maybe that last bit might be exclusive to those of a certain age, but, without a doubt, it’s still a somewhat dubious moniker that I’m not surprised the developer is keen to shake off.
But don’t get me wrong, Cardinal Quest is still “like Rogue” in a lot of the ways that count: lo-fi graphics, no narrative to speak of, turn-based combat, randomly generated dungeons and all that jazz. But there’s one key difference that sets it apart from the mob: it’s not hard. Well, it is HARD, as in “you start the game surrounded by bloodthirsty fiends with nothing but some tatty rags and a stick to your name“ hard. But what isn’t difficult about it, this’ll come as a bit of shock to Rogue fans, is actually figuring out how to play the damn thing.
Everything’s been streamlined to such an extent that it becomes a masterclass in minimalist design. Within seconds of booting up Cardinal Quest, you can be exploring, looting, slaying and all that other good, juicy stuff, all without the need for a “d”irectory of “k”eybindings “t”ied to “p”oorly “c”hosen “v”erbs. You simply pick one of three classes (either the ubiquitous fighter, wizard or thief) to determine you starting stats, and then you just jump right into the action.
There’s no numerical mana system system to worry yourself silly about as everything just works off of cooldown timers. Obtaining actual spells is even easier; they simply drop as randomised loot! Even inventory management – the bane of RPG gamers worldwide – is barely even a factor. Simply walking up to a piece of loot will cause the game to auto-equip it if it’s a decent find, or auto-sell it on the spot if it’s a hunk o’ junk. Now if only Skyrim was so accommodating…..
And no, before you ask, Cardinal Quest is not a dumbed down Roguelike-lite aimed at simpletons. On the contrary, it’s got the depth of many of its competitors; the only difference is it’s not actively trying to drown you in it. Much of the game’s strategy element comes from the fact you can only equip up to five abilities at any given time, which is far fewer than you’re likely to obtain, even in a short play session. This limitation obliges you to assemble a small “deck” of spells that’ll act as your lifeline against the unrelenting hordes, with a small handful of potions working as emergency backups should the dragon drops hit the fan.
Once you’ve assembled your repertoire, Cardinal Quest suddenly becomes a game of asset management, one where every button press is a calculated balance of risk and reward. A single missed opportunity can spell doom for your valiant hero, while a well executed spell combo can lead to Beelzebub himself cowering beneath your fancy +1 Dire Footwear of the Wolf. In essence, its got a helluva lot more in common with Advance Wars than it does its direct competitors like Dungeons of Dredmor.
I know the whole “It’s a different game every time!” rhetoric is a little overused, but, to some extent, it’s actually true in Cardinal Quest. Your total lack of control over what skills your avatar acquires will demand from you a certain level of versatility. Maybe your stalwart fighter only finds pansy debuff spells, forcing you to adopt a mage’s mindset. Maybe your wise and might wizard acquires nothing but stealth skills and a collection of sharp pointy things, turning him down the path of a shadowy backstabber. Maybe your devilish rogue finds…nothing of use whatsoever, and thus doesn’t last very long in a cesspit full of demonic hellspawn. I think if Cardinal Quest had a tagline, it would be “adapt to survive” or, more specifically, “adapt to survive ever so slightly longer than you did last time.”
Easier said than done, though, especially since it sometimes feels like the UI isn’t quite up to the task of keeping you informed of your situation. With half a dozen or so spells being thrown around like confetti at any one moment, the speed at which information flies across the screen and the distinct lack of a combat log makes it fairly difficult to tell what on Earth happened on your previous turn. It’s an issue that only gets worse once the difficulty ramps up and enemies start wielding ever more varied abilities of their own.
“That Kobold over there, did he teleport just now? Or was he invisible last turn? Did I remember to cast enfeeble on him? Did he remember to cast enfeeble on ME? Is he Charmed? Confused? Constipated? WHAT’S HIS DEXTERITY SCORE? IS HE ATTACKING ME? WHO EVEN AM I??? AAAAHHHHHHH!!!”
But beyond that little headache, gotta be honest here; I’m struggling to find much fault with Cardinal Quest. Not because it’s perfect, you understand, but because I’m not sure you can really add much to it without compromising the simplicity that makes it so endearing in the first place. Sure, some extra mechanics would be totally rad, but wouldn’t that just defeat the whole point of it? Would extra classes, more music, a bigger variety of skills and flashy graphics really add more to the experience than they detract?
It’s a conundrum I don’t really feel fit to answer. All I can say with any confidence is that you should go give Cardinal Quest a look…maybe. When it comes down to it, it’s still very much a Roguelike at heart. It’s still gonna kick your ass and expect you to ask for more. It’s still going to conform to D&D tropes that’ll be indecipherable to the uninitiated. It’s still going to plant you in ludicrously unfair scenarios just for giggles. But, most of all, it’s still gonna be a total turn-off for an awful lot of gamers out there. If it sounds like something you can handle, then by all means give it a whirl. For me at the very least, it was something special. It made me think long and hard about whether simply adding more and more layers of mechanics really equates to a better game. What’s more, it was actually fun.
That last bit tends to score a few points in my book.