Play killer cards in Ash of Gods: The Way.
Deck-building games are a dime a dozen these days. I don’t mind this too much as it’s a genre I have a certain fondness for, but it does mean that you tend to see a lot of the same mechanics. Thankfully there are the occasional ones with a creative flare, with the likes of Fights in Tight Spaces and Inscryption mixing up the formula. Ash of Gods: The Way also has a good go at changing the basics, with smaller decks and a unit-based approach to combat, combined with a great art style and interesting story.
Whilst Ash of Gods: The Way is a follow up of sorts to Ash of Gods: Redemption, no knowledge of the prior game is required. The only link they seem to have is references to an old war and the occasional familiar character. This is a good thing as I didn’t play the previous game and went into this one fairly blind. You play as Finn, a young man who survived the previous war as a child. His adoptive father Eik is concerned that war between your home of Berkana and the vicious Frisians is brewing, and he intends to train you to prevent this from happening.
In this world, commanders are trained in tactical acumen by playing a card game called The Way, in which units are placed, enhanced, and moved in order to defeat the opposing commander. In Frisia, a tournament for this game will soon be underway to determine who will lead their empire’s armies and Eik plans to have Finn infiltrate and win this tournament in a bid to bring tensions between the nations down. It’s a bold strategy Cotton, let’s see if it pays off.
The story itself is quite interesting, with a number of well-rounded characters who develop over the course of the narrative. Whilst Finn is fairly milquetoast and quite whiney, his friends and foes feel much more interesting. I loved how the relationship between the gruff Kleta and aristocratic Raylo started out with spiteful jibes and resulted in them becoming close. The tale can take some dark and quite emotional turns depending on how you progress. There are choices along the way that will determine who lives and who dies, but also your performance in the game itself will dictate the progression. A loss to an opponent doesn’t end the game, and instead might lead you down a different path, whilst a huge success may not result in the outcome you had hoped for. You might sometimes want to actively think about losing a match.
When you’re not having conversations and making choices, you’re taking part in battles. The gameplay itself is predominantly a card based game. Your deck of twenty cards contains ten units and ten support cards. You play units to the grid-based battlefield and enhance them using support cards. Only one of each can be played per turn, so you won’t burn through your cards all that quickly, and once you’ve finished placement, all units move forward and attack whatever’s in front of you. Most of the time, your goal is to kill the opposing commander whilst keeping yours alive, sometimes whilst fulfilling additional objectives.
This is theoretically quite simple, as the small deck and limited number of different units and support cards mean there’s not a huge amount of surface level variety. But there’s so much more going on under the bonnet. Units have all sorts of different abilities that can be enhanced with your support cards. Armour blocks damage, but piercing attacks ignore armour. Poison weapons instantly kill a target it damages, but a charm negates any incoming damage. Guards stop moving after a certain number of steps, but they get enhanced health and prevent opponents from moving forward. You can even select commanders with special abilities to shut down your opponent.
There are so many moves and countermoves that you really need to think about your deck before each battle. Brilliantly, you are told what you should expect before a battle, meaning you can tailor your deck to exactly what you need it to be, eliminating the issue of going in blind and gives you a fighting chance each time you confront a foe. To keep things interesting, each battle tends to have additional factors to consider beyond your opponent. Sometimes you’ll need to have units stand on certain points on the map, other times your commanders will directly attack each other, and sometimes you’ll be banned from using certain types of card.
All this variety is great, and it removes that issue you sometimes get with deck builders where you keep having the same type of fight over and over again. Each battle has additional objectives too, encouraging you to play in a certain fashion with greater rewards offered for successful completion of them. I did slightly object to one stage in the game where you had to go back and complete fights you’d already won but with even more stipulations, but the gameplay in general was so enjoyable that playing more battles wasn’t something to be too upset about.
Your decks can be built in a variety of ways, but it’s often a good idea to construct it around one of the factions in the game. Bandits tend to have large numbers of weak units with poison weapons, whilst Frisians are high on defence as an ally attacks the opposing commander. I liked being able to mix and match with different unit and commander combinations, and you can take part in practice games to test a deck’s viability before taking to the field.
It’s honestly hard to fault the gameplay, and I tended to find myself wanting the story sections to be over faster so I could get to more of the battles thanks to the always changing challenges you’d face. Challenge is a good word to use here, as on the normal difficulty this is pretty tricky in places. Experienced strategy gamers will be right at home, but less experienced players will absolutely want to switch down to easy. No one should try hard mode. It’s insane.
One of the first things that caught my attention with Ash of Gods: The Way was, unsurprisingly, the art direction. It’s utterly gorgeous, with that heavily animated movement style and bright, block-colour look that you might have seen in the likes of The Banner Saga. It’s striking and absolutely beautiful both in cutscenes and during gameplay. The sound design is great too. The whole game is fully voice acted, with excellent performances put in by all the actors, with chunky sound effects during the fights themselves. The music too, is on point and fits the scenes well, from clandestine meetings to celebratory moments.
There’s little to complain about in Ash of Gods: The Way beyond the occasional repeated battle and the slightly irritating character traits of Finn. Solid and engaging gameplay that encourages experimentation, a story with multiple endings shaped by your choices, successes, and failures, and a wonderful art and animation style combine into an excellent deck builder that can easily stand out from the crowd. I highly recommend you give this one a try.
Ash of Gods: The Way is available now on PC via Steam.