Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Cardaclysm: Shards of the Four is an interesting mixture of roguelike, deck builder and turn-based RPG. I am a huge fan of collectible card games, which this at its heart, but balance issues and a less-than-optimized transition to consoles hurts the overall package.
The game starts off simply enough, with your wizard getting in way over his head and summoning a skeletal Wretched that is way more than he can handle. What follows is a series of procedurally generated dungeons where you battle monsters and pick up items to try and increase your ability to eventually stand your ground and deal with the Wretched.
There is a bit of a grind built into the need to get the cards you want, which is heavily based on luck and happenstance. There’s no experience point earning, no levels to be gained, no new skills for your character. He can acquire pieces of gear that might give certain types of creatures bonuses or in some cases, putting together sets of gear give even better perks to your creatures, but he doesn’t actually impact the combat himself.
The cards represent creatures and spells – pretty familiar territory for anyone who has played a collectible card game. When combat occurs, your opponent starts with creatures already in play, and you need to get yours down next. If a single creature ‘breaks through’ and hits your wizard – you die. Death is not terribly punitive, thankfully. You restart the level, sometimes with fewer cards in your library (but I never had them pulled from my active deck). As you play the stage, instead of getting one card from a victory, you now get two – a new card and one of yours back – until your library is restored. As far as roguelikes go, it’s not too rough.
Where I do find myself getting annoyed is how the cards have two sets of resources. There really should just be one. You have golden runes which are the ‘cost’ of spells and creatures, and really – that should have been the only resource. The other are spirit orbs, which after about seven hours of play and two of the four bosses later I only had nine of. Creature and spell cards come in three levels. You can merge duplicate cards to level them up. Top level cards have a higher cost in both golden runes and spell orbs. But when you have 120 golden runes versus eight or nine spell orbs, it forces you to use weaker creatures or spells, but spells don’t do much to protect your wizard and weaker level one creatures are easy fodder later in the game. So you may only get to cast three or four creatures who are higher level before your orbs are spent and you can’t do anything else to protect yourself. I got very frustrated with my inability to continue growing creatures because it was too cost prohibitive on the orb side and actually make me second guess leveling up my creatures.
The randomized nature of the levels makes things a bit dicey as well. You just never quite know what is going to drop, whether it’s gear or golden runes or enemy placement. Sometimes you can cruise right through a level. Sometimes there is a lot of weird backtracking. One of the more interesting aspects to how levels play out, is once you best all of the preset enemies on a stage, the Wretched (or after you beat him, one of the other Big Bads) will then chase you through the stage, forcing you to either face them down (not recommended until your deck has grown mightily) or grabbing the key that opens the door to the portal out of the stage.
Between stages, you have a pub where you can get quests, have some trades, things of that nature. It’s a solid if unspectacular little hub that also highlights one of my biggest issues with Cardaclysm: Shards of the Four: the controls. It is quite clear that this game was optimized for point-and-click interface. Every time a trade is proposed, it starts on ‘accept’. It really should start on decline, because while I get that these trades are randomized, they are usually absolutely terrible. No, I will not give you my max level dragon for a first level goblin. Oh wait, I just did, because it defaulted to accept and I thought I pressed over (I did) to select decline before hitting the button and the trade was accepted.
In general, these controls are just finicky. Clicking on enemies in the battlefield does not always work. The cursor sometimes just is hard to see / almost invisible. Sometimes playing the card you want from your hand doesn’t work. This wasn’t a thing that happened once or twice. Dozens of times I just had the starting hand of cards that triggered commands to get ‘stuck’. It would not let me play a creature – clicking the button (repeatedly) would only have the info box come up over the top of the card but it would not play it on the field. At least not until I played the spell card in my hand, whether I was planning to play it or not. It’s just not a clean interface and really hurts the momentum of gameplay. Even moving around the stage is a little awkward at times, given its isometric view. Most of the time, it’s fine as the only time there is a sense of urgency is when one of the bosses is in hot pursuit, but during these chase scenes? It’s rather annoying to get hung up on a piece of scenery. It’s still not as big of a concern as the lack of optimization during combat.
Another mild quibble I have with the game’s various combat modifiers (frostbite, poison, etc) is that things just ‘happen’. Maybe a text box to explain what is taking place in combat would have been too spammy, but there were definitely times (especially earlier in the game before I had found my footing) that combat was resolving a bunch of effects and I had no idea what had just transpired.
For me, Cardaclysm: Shards of the Four is a mixed bag with a ton of potential, but too many small issues that are impossible to completely overlook. I really liked the card evolution and deck building systems, I appreciated the quests, equipment and randomized nature of the stages, and the turn-based combat is generally satisfying. I just don’t like the difficulty spikes that are largely due to the uneven resource requirements and the rough control optimization. I have a feeling this would play better on PC with a mouse and a keyboard, but appreciate seeing games like this make their way to consoles, where I tend to play more. A bit of UI / control cleanup and better balance of resources would make Cardaclysm: Shards of the Four a much better overall title that is still worth a look – but be ready for a bit of frustration.Score: 5.5 / 10