As a professional tarot reader, there are two different questions that usually get thrown my way when someone finds out that I partake in this particular form of hustle: The first is, “When did you get started?” and the second is “Is it real?”. The former I usually answer with some sort of tale of travelling from town to town and trying to trick drunk, wealthy college students out of their money, which eventually turned into an honest to god form of therapy in helping other queer folks unwrap and untangle their personal trauma that they can find empowerment and the strength to overcome them on their own terms. However, the question of “Is it real?” is more difficult. Fortune-499, an indie RPG by AP Thompson, does a good job of answering the question through its game mechanics and worldbuilding.
In Fortune-499 you take on the role of Cassandra, a witch working a shit job in an office building as its resident oracle and helping the magickal company foresee bad scams and HR disasters in time to avoid them. The writing in this game is simple, honest, and incredibly real. Despite Fortune-499’s setting being a soul-crushing company/office building based in magic, it still communicates succinctly the feeling of what it’s like to live in a liminal space where you are some weird fairy creature that can do the impossible — but only sometimes, and even then, at the end of the day, it’s hard to prove that you actually did it.
The game follows the familiar RPG formula of top-down exploration with battle screens when you come across enemies and monsters. You then take part in a “rock paper scissors” challenge until you win enough times to deplete your enemies HP. I enjoy that the designers literally went with using rock paper scissors instead of coming up with stand-ins for those options, because, why not? Sometimes there’s just no need to reinvent the wheel.
The big cool mechanic that ties the writing and the battle sequences together, however, is the inclusion of fate cards. Every round in a battle you can draw some cards from a deck to help you predict what an enemy is going to do. It is actually correct the majority of the time, but sometimes it is just wrong. That aspect of the game mechanics is the most “Tarot Mood” I have ever seen. As you play the game you will wonder: “Was it right? Did I just guess correctly? Is it my confidence that is giving me good results?” This is an ever-present set of questions for tarot readers who read for clients in today’s world, where the friction between fate and free will leaves a maelstrom of uncertainty. Often times in my life, I will draw a card that is completely meaningless to me currently but sometime in the future will make complete sense. Fortune-499 is written in such a way that I trust in completely, and thus I get the same response just by playing it. The game even explains this in character, by having characters ask why Cassandra can’t predict things 100% of the time, or having her boss question her position because some of her successes look like “coincidences”.
There is pure gold in the writing here! Whoever made this game, and crafted the dialogue, obviously has — at the very least — a working knowledge of how tarot works, and the meaning behind the cards. As someone who has been doing card spreads for a decade, I even found some really nice gems that will improve my ability to do divination using the symbology and metaphors. There are tons of little details tucked in all the way through the game, that doesn’t really bog down the narrative for folks who don’t really have any info on tarot, but give little nods to someone who makes witchcraft a big part of their life. There are other little narratives peppered in throughout the game that make for great worldbuilding without getting in the way of the main story: all the monsters have little descriptor boxes which, without outright saying it, describe toxic masculinity and mansplaining to a T, and I am excited to see where a few hints of queer identity might lead to. Even if it’s unintentional or doesn’t lead anywhere, the little bits add so much depth to the experience.
I would say that graphically and sound wise, it is a very simple game, but that wouldn’t be quite right? In the first hour or so it kind of tricks you into thinking that, but as Fortune-499 continues on it keeps adding to the music and art just as the mechanics keep building on new ideas. The whole game just continues to fold in on itself and build forever upwards, almost as tall as the impossible capitalist skyscraper where it takes place. The visuals are very uncomplicated pixel art (although the character portraits are very cool and show a lot of character) but the atmosphere of how everything fits together creates such a cool experience which fits the world and story very well.
This is a great example of how “polish” is way more important than technology expanding AAA graphics because sometimes it is more important how a game makes you feel, rather than how lifelike it looks. And this game makes you feel. I have just barely scratched the surface before running to write this review to let the world know you all should play it, but it certainly hits the home run on my own personal experience of being someone witchy who finds themselves stuck in a capitalist society — all while your friends tell you to quit your soul-sucking job, but you can’t for some reason. I actually feel like a lot of folks could relate to that, regardless of how close you are to the fairy realm.