Trials of Fire, a game developed by the independent team Whatboy Games, is one part roguelike, strategy RPG, and deck builder. Though it is still in its infant stages, what's available in early access impresses. An official release date is unknown, but what's available now warrants a purchase, especially considering the road it's on.
Those familiar with FTL-esque roguelike storytelling will find a dull home here. The protagonists are after a special power to restore their elven homeland, which requires a three-part quest with a gatekeeper battle at each point. World building takes place by entering blue question marks on a simplistic overworld map. Each story gives the heroes an opportunity to do well, steal, partake in the local culture, and so on. Through these snippets, players learn that this is a barren wasteland with little good left. Highlighted words dump lore about species, locations, weather patterns, and other encyclopedic nuggets. Not my preferred form of storytelling, but like I almost always say with roguelikes, we're here for the game design.
When combat occurs through a randomly decided outcome in one of the few events available, the player enters a top-down hex-based grid. Here, the party of three and enemies are each represented as a sort of token, like in a board game. Melee, spell casters, and ranged units are the standard fare, and each battle is essentially kill or be killed. Side A goes, then side B, then side A, in perpetuity. What makes Trials of Fire exceptional is how combat takes place.
Like Card Hunter, a game I reviewed many years ago, a character's class and equipment determine what cards fall into each deck. The hunter has his own deck, for example, while the warrior has another. Each turn, every character draws three cards from their deck. In order to play cards, a willpower cost is normally required. To accumulate willpower, some cards need to be discarded. So each turn becomes a constant valuation of positioning, what can be tossed, what can be saved, and how much damage one can afford to take. Similar to most modern games, damage carries over, which means even a seemingly pointless scuffle can make or break the next important battle.
When a character levels up after battle, a new card can be selected from among three or four options and added to the class's pool of nine, replacing an existing card. This keeps the deck from becoming cumbersome and offers a sense that the character really is getting stronger. Better equipment similarly offers better cards, and legendary equipment can be outstanding but often comes with a significant drawback that you have to play around. Unfortunately, by the time legendary equipment appears, you have already dedicated to a deck type.
Those with a hunger for deck building and efficiency will be engrossed. Of course, the only downside right now is that Trials of Fire is still in development, meaning once the bug bites, players may find little else to pursue. Fortunately, what's provided here is promising and gives faith that the developers know how to balance exciting combat and create an engaging experience — at least on the battlefield.