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RPG Codex Review: Trials of Fire

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RPG Codex Review: Trials of Fire

Codex Review - posted by Infinitron on Sun 22 August 2021, 23:32:08

Tags: Trials of Fire; Whatboy Games

[Review by Lacrymas]

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1. Preludium

So, what is Trials of Fire? It's a game you should be playing right now. If that doesn't satisfy you, then it's an indie party-based roguelike with cards and tactical turn-based battles on a hex grid developed by Whatboy Games, a UK-based developer. Go play it. In this review, I'll just be extolling its virtues and generating free publicity, but maybe that will be therapeutic for all of us, so stick around and find out.

Firstly, I'd like to explain the various terms I used to describe this game in more detail. It is indeed a party-based game. You control three individual heroes with their own unique cards and special abilities. Even though the roguelike part might sound self-explanatory, it actually comes with one caveat. Some people might argue it's a roguelite because you gain bonuses in a run for future runs, but I'd say the bonus (one bonus) actually hurts sometimes, so roguelike is the term I prefer. It's a deck-building game in which each hero has their own unique (kind of, put a pin in it) cards and roles in battle. These tactical turn-based battles on a hex grid are however self-explanatory - they represent the meat and potatoes of this game - and there is a strategic layer present as well.

I'm writing this review with the assumption the reader is someone who hasn't played the game (which is most of you unfortunately) and will be going through the gears and bolts that make up this game, just like a real review. Exciting. I'd like to start off with the presentation and story because those are the most easily digested.

2. Trials of Looking Good

As I mentioned previously, this is an indie game. This should hopefully grant it a bit of leeway when it comes to graphics, but I honestly think they did an amazing job with the limited budget they had. The main menu is a huge tome which flips its pages to reveal the different parts of the game, like the strategic map. The strategic map is a randomly-generated region of a post-apocalyptic world in which you see your party from an "isometric" perspective and can move it in eight directions. If there is a single con I can think of in regards to this whole game is this map is a bit bland and monotonous. It consists of a brownish desert, with some seas of molten glass and blackened forests, and not much else. I'd have liked to see at least some distinct landmarks if dissimilar biomes are haram in this world.

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Once you are given your starting quest, which depends on the adventure you are doing, you can start exploring and stumbling upon different events, mostly described through text. These texts usually contextualize the moment, but some build up the lore and the bigger picture. These events range from narrative-driven vignettes in which you get to choose what your party does leading to a range of outcomes; to side quests; to caches of crafting materials, food, or equippable items; to straight-up unavoidable fights with the various scary denizens and overgrown wildlife.

Those battles in return take place within well-visualized battlefields you zoom into. These have pretty backgrounds and randomly-placed obstacles that block line-of-sight. Sometimes there are events like Aurora Storms that force you to keep moving unless you want to take damage. Your party and the enemies are represented by round tokens you can hover over with your mouse to display professionally made full-body paintings of whatever you are hovering over. It's very endearing and clever. All cards have unique artwork and all spells have unique and not-overdone SFX, which has slowly turned into a must-have for me over the years. I really have nothing bad to say about the visual presentation. It's great. There's also a day-night cycle. The sound design is serviceable. Melee attacks have a nice punch to them. It's nothing extraordinary, though. The music is there and fills the silence. Unfortunately, not all soundtracks can be Might & Magic-level.

All of this comes with the amazing bonus of no loading screens. Everything is snappy and responsive. There isn't a single loading screen to be found even on an HDD. Scenes seamlessly transition into one another, including from the main menu to the game proper.

2.5 Interludium

Although I originally planned to have a section dedicated to the story of this game, I've decided to include the story in this one because there is not much to say. The world has ended and you are trying to survive in this harsh and inhospitable wasteland. It's populated by at least five distinct races - humans, ratlings, hybrids (minotaurs), charred (burnt to a crisp humans), and elves. You can play as each of them, but the classes are gender- and race-locked, so there are no bonuses for race. The game features five unique quests, each with their own main story, but they are simply an excuse to get you moving and to give you some kind of motivation. Don't get me wrong however. I always appreciate having a goal in games and these stories work marvelously at that. With all of that said, I propose we move onto what we are all here for - the gameplay.

3. Trials of Combat Design

The game part consists of two connected strategic and tactical layers. As mentioned previously, you move your party on the strategic map and explore areas with a hovering question mark on top. The most important aspect to keep track of here is your food. The more your party wanders about, the more the members get exhausted and need to rest, for which you use food. There are five levels of exhaustion, each of them putting an ever-increasing number of Exhausted cards into your deck, which clog up your precious card space and are only good for recycling (more on that later). On top of that, there is a morale system which governs bonuses and maluses to armor and redraws (ditto). Your morale is dependent on how far you are straying from the main quest and whether you are traveling while tired. You cannot die of overexertion, but you can give in to despair and lose the game that way.

On your journeys, you will come across various events that give you food, currency, mystic herbs, items, and crafting materials (some events might also hurt you). I've already covered food; obsidian coins can be spent in settlements across the map to acquire anything you can think of, to hire companions, or in narrative events for specific outcomes. Mystic herbs are used for upgrading cards and healing persistent wounds (represented by harmful cards in your deck). The items give you armor (bonus health) and cards. This is a particularly genius move. It raises the value of equipment tremendously and pulls them up from the mire of being only stat sticks. There are no randomly-generated items. They are all unique and each item will give you the exact same card in every playthrough. Which items you get however is random, and not every class can equip every type. This is where the most impactful RNG lies. You can not pre-plan your builds because you don't know which items you will get.

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I'd argue this is a right way to provoke "item fever". Hear that, Swen? There's a place and time for everything. You may take notes. Getting certain items can dramatically change your playstyle in unexpected ways, and this is the norm, not the exception. Items are technically classified in five tiers and are MMO color-coded for your convenience. Grey, green, blue, purple, and orange. Guess which color corresponds to which tier. Grey items are only the starting armor of the classes. You will never find them while adventuring. The higher the tier, the more cards (up to three at purple) and armor an item gives. Orange items, being legendaries, also grant you unique passive traits that are triggered in battle under certain circumstances. The most straightforward example is +2 damage on the first magical attack each turn. It gets wild after that. But wait! There's a twist. An item of a more prestigious color doesn't automatically mean it's better than the one below it, even if they give the same cards + the extra one(s). I'll explain why momentarily. Which brings me to the last strategic resource - crafting materials.

They are used to upgrade and "hone" equipment, or to permanently add a card granted by an item to a character's deck (i.e. you don't need to have it equipped anymore). Upgrading an item only improves the card(s) it gives, not armor or any traits (if legendary). Cards can only be upgraded once and each one has a unique way it improves. Sometimes it's very plain, like +1 damage or -1 willpower cost, but other times it even acquires additional effects. Honing is where it gets interesting. Remember how I said higher tier items aren't automatically better? The reason is you don't always want to fill your deck with junk cards which waste space in your hand and don't contribute to a build or tactic you are conceptualizing. The deadliest killer in this game in my opinion is having too many cards in your deck. This is where honing comes into play. Honing uses the crafting materials to remove a single card from an item. This allows you to keep cards you want and discard cards that uselessly take up space. This is not to say some cards are always garbage and unusable. I've found all cards have utility in some situations. It depends on your build and what other cards you have. There is one more thing in the strategic portion - followers. These are characters which you hire or get from quests that come along with you and provide you with passive non-combat buffs, like more health while resting or reducing the amount of crafting materials you need. There isn't much to say about these. They are a nice bonus, but nothing game-changing.

I can't get through a strategic overview without mentioning the classes. There are nine, but you start out being able to select just three (the Warrior, the Hunter, and the Elementalist) and you have to unlock the others through play. This is something I've always been fond of in roguelikes harking back to Tales of Maj'Eyal. It gives you very significant rewards for playing the game without lowering the difficulty of subsequent runs. These classes are much easier to unlock than in something like ToME however, and you are given an option to just unlock everything from the start (which I advise against). I suspect this is for players who once unlocked everything, but have long lost the save files and have no way to get them back. ToF's optional online feature doesn't track this kind of progress like ToME's does (but I digress). Each class has its own starting set of cards and special ability. The Warrior, for example, gives +2 defense to all heroes after playing a card while adjacent to an enemy. Even though this may seem abysmal, there are ways to make these abilities very powerful and the cornerstone of your build. The starting set is always very basic and mostly consists of universal cards like a melee attack or movement, but every class has some unique cards in the starting arsenal and is always given unique cards when leveling up, up to four you can choose at each level. You can opt to either replace a card you already know (cards from items don't count) or upgrade an existing one. This keeps the decks from growing exponentially and wards off power creep.

Outside of character levels in the current adventure, there's also a soul level that persists through runs. This is where the roguelite element (one element) appears. When you win or lose a run, each character individually gains soul experience which contributes to the soul level. Each soul level up to 10 grants you a unique class card which you can choose while leveling your characters in an adventure. I didn't get a card at soul level 11, so it either stops at 10 or granting cards gets more infrequent the higher level you are. As far as I can tell, this is something the developers implemented fairly recently. I was able to find forum threads in which people ask what the soul level does (during Early Access) and a developer responds with "nothing right now". Here's the kicker however. This can potentially make subsequent runs harder and not easier. I argued in the beginning that the roguelite element is a wolf in sheep's clothing and the reason is that it could oversaturate your class pool and make it harder to get the class card you want while leveling up. It's quite paradoxical and I'm not sure whether this is a con or simply neutral. For now, I'm going to say it's neutral because adapting to what RNGesus gives you is half the game. I haven't yet lost a run because I couldn't get the class card I want, but I also haven't played on a higher difficulty than hard (which is the third out of 13 difficulty levels). As a bouncing off point to talking about the battles, it's worth mentioning that some classes have mechanics and resources that others don't. Combined with the uniqueness of the classes themselves, this makes every party composition surprisingly diverse in terms of playstyle.

Now I want to turn my attention to the actual fights and how they play out, which is where I think Trials of Fire excels. As I wrote earlier, these battles always take place on a hex-based battlefield of the same size, but with randomly-placed obstacles that block most abilities which require line-of-sight.

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Your characters start with 10 health + armor and three cards in hand. There are six types of cards - basic, action, power, summon, heroic, and weakness. Most cards require the universal mana-like resource willpower. You gain willpower either through recycling cards or through the effects of the cards themselves. Recycling cards is done by right clicking on a card. It goes back to the deck ready to be drawn again and gives you one of three options. It either allows you to move two hexes, gives you 1 willpower, or if you don't do anything with it, 2 defense (extra HP) at the end of your turn. This is not random. You choose what to use the recycled card for. Each card can be used only once unless there are other circumstances at play. To further mitigate the RNG of drawing cards, you have a redraw mechanic (how many times you can redraw is dependent on the morale level) which allows you to draw new cards when you recycle. You draw an amount equal to the number of cards you recycled this turn. This is very useful, as it strengthens the feeling the RNG is not there in order to screw you over.

Basic cards are much like grey items. You start out with them. They include things like a melee or ranged attack for 2 damage, movement, but also cards with unique mechanics that shape the playstyle of a given class, like the Alchemist's Unstable Elixir. It creates other random basic cards taken from the entire pool. Action cards are everything else which has to do with active abilities. They are just better and/or more complicated versions of the basic cards. One impressive thing is how many and how varied these action cards can be. I don't know where to even begin recounting the cornucopia of creative effects at your disposal. The marketing for this game says it features 345 skill cards, and I believe it. As an example, I'll recount a very fun but basic build I used for the Elementalist in a run. I found a potion which grants me the ability to fly (it allows you to move everywhere on the battlefield at the cast of 1 willpower). This got me thinking, since most AoE abilities require specific positioning relative to the targets, I could use my Warrior to lure them into conga lines or blobs, fly behind them and wreak havoc with the many AoE abilities of the Elementalist. It was surprisingly effective, and best of all fun.

Power cards are passive buffs that you can apply to any hero (although there are some you can apply to enemies as well and are a debuff), regardless of who is holding the card. I've read people are surprised when they learn they can target any hero with them, so that's why I'm specifically mentioning it. These cards have resilience which is depleted when a character is taking health damage (not when they have defense on top). These cards also have an assortment of triggers and effects. For example, the Alchemist has the Experiments power card which gives 1 willpower for every random card the buffed character creates, which obviously synergizes well with his own playstyle. These power cards can be a cornerstone of builds as well. With the right combination of power cards, a character can do ridiculous amounts of damage. I've gotten 65+ damage on a single attack and I'm sure even more is possible. I'll talk more about damage when I get to the enemies.

Summon cards are what it says on the tin. They summon creatures to help you in battle. There are entire builds based on summoning. Like with all other cards, these also offer a staggering amount of variety, not only in terms of stats but special abilities as well.

Heroic cards are granted by an item of at least epic (purple) quality. They are very powerful ones that can only ever be used once in a battle.

Weakness cards are purely negative ones you get from either dying in battle or from narrative events. They usually give you a debuff once drawn, but some of them simply take up valuable space in your hand and can only be recycled. You can get rid of these by completing the main quest or through expenditure of mystic herbs.

Really, I could go on all day describing the cards and how diverse they are, how they interact differently with the different classes and their unique abilities. I didn't even mention some types of cards because I don't want to spoil everything and I think I've made my point. With the inclusion of “named effects” (another type of buff and debuff), it gets very wild and exciting. Most 'traditional' RPGs can only ever dream of possessing such wealth of spells and abilities offering so many tactical choices. The examples I gave are the most rudimentary possible, there are tons of opportunities to create your own builds, tactics, and strategies. The RNG of drawing cards means the game rarely if ever falls into the trap of having one tactic work for every encounter, unlike a lot of other RPGs I can name. You might think the complexity of so many cards and builds trips up the AI, but you'd be wrong. The AI is relentless and uses its cards to cause maximum carnage. The enemies attack the most vulnerable party member, often targeting ones with active powers in order to strip them of all buffs. Bosses are the most dangerous types of enemies, as they should be. They have unique traits and often have huge health pools with very well-balanced and focused decks which complement their aforementioned traits. Most players will find themselves losing a run to the last boss because they are such a massive bump in difficulty compared to other things you can stumble across in the lonely, level sands that stretch far away.

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I think it's time to address the elephant in the room - Gloomhaven. Yes, this game's combat systems are very reminiscent of Gloomhaven's. You have your "resources-as-movement", unique cards across many unlockable race-locked classes, party-based card combat on a hex grid, (de)buffs that work similarly, etc. However, I think Trials of Fire does its own thing very well and isn't a direct copy of Gloomhaven. The biggest difference is how cards are drawn. In Gloomhaven, you choose which two cards to use each turn, whereas in Trials of Fire you draw them randomly. It might not seem like a lot, but in practice it is. You also feel less screwed by the RNG in ToF. Gloomhaven felt the need to add RNG to the damage you deal each time because there's no randomness when you draw cards, but that often leads to frustrating results, like rolling a Ø (you inflict no damage) on the last mob with 1 HP and losing because you are out of cards. There are no such things in ToF. You are in control of the RNG. In Gloomhaven RNG has control over you. Don't get me wrong, I also really like Gloomhaven, but that's neither here nor there. Both games are also challenging in their own unique way and I love them for it.

4. Coda

With all of that said, I hope I have convinced some of you to give this game a try. It obviously doesn't have the biggest budget in the world, but when has that stopped a real grognard? There's much to appreciate in ToF and I've seen players with hundreds of hours clocked. It's unique, deep, and an obvious labor of love and focused, disciplined creativity. If we don't support these games, then what else? It's obviously not perfect, but nothing is or needs to be perfect, it only needs to be excellent. Good art creates the taste with which it is to be appreciated and this is what I see before me. Nothing more, nothing less.

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