It seems that 2019 is becoming the year of deck-building RPGs. We’ve already had the excellent SteamWorld Quest and Slay the Spire, while the conversation-themed deck-builder Griftlands has entered early access. And today is the release date for Nowhere Prophet, an apocalypse-set, Mad Max-style card game that’s been in development for around five years. And I’m happy to say that those years of dev time have paid off in a superbly polished and wonderfully balanced RPG.
But perhaps Mad Max isn’t the right reference here – the plot reminds me more of the wonderful 1980s graphic novel The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), which merged technical marvels with deep spiritualism. Here, you play a ‘technopath’ prophet who can communicate with machines, and the opening sees a mysterious satellite fall to the surface of your home planet of Soma. The dying machine sends you on a quest to find a mysterious Crypt that may or may not provide salvation for the ravaged planet, and quickly you gather a band of followers to help you on your search across the desert.
But, cleverly, your followers are represented by cards, each with different costs, attack powers, health and, if you’re lucky, special abilities. And as with any deck-building game, your task is to craft these cards into a deck that balances attack and defence, card costs and complementary abilities to defeat the many foes you run into. Only these cards actually have individual, procedurally generated names, and they’ll come to you with requests on your journey, as well as providing help in some of the scenarios you stumble across. It makes deck-building just that little bit more personal when the cards have names attached – and all the more devastating when one of your cards/followers dies.
And that’s another clever thing – if you play a card and it’s defeated in battle, that card gains a wound. That means both the card’s health and the cost to play it are reduced by one, with the latter providing a distinct advantage in battle, since it gives you access to potentially more powerful cards at a reduced price.
You start the first round of a fight with three points of energy, and every round this is increased by one to a maximum of ten. So if a card that normally costs four energy points is wounded and now costs only three energy points, you could potentially play that card straight off and have an advantage over the enemy’s three-point cards with lower attack. BUT, if a wounded follower is defeated, then they’re dead – and gone for good. Do you dare take the risk?
It’s a smart system that constantly keeps you balancing risk with reward – especially as the chances to heal followers are few and far between, not to mention expensive, so you’ll often find yourself with at least one or two wounded followers in your deck. But which ones do you take into battle? The common cards that you don’t mind losing so much? Or the rare, legendary or even mythic ones that could potentially turn the battle quickly in your favour, but would also be devastating to lose?
In addition to this risk/reward mechanic, the battles themselves provide huge scope for varied tactics and intense decisions. You have two decks to draw from: the convoy deck, which is made up of your followers, and the leader deck, which is made of unique cards owned by your character (you start off playing as The Firebrand, but you unlock other characters with unique decks as you go, like The Echo and The Banshee). These leader cards generally provide buffs and debuffs, although some can be used to attack the enemy directly. So your first decision in any round is whether to play a convoy card or a leader card – and if you do choose a convoy card, there follows the all important decision of where to place your new follower.
Battles take place on a symmetrical grid, and only followers in the ‘front line’ can attack: that is, they can’t have any other followers or obstacles in front of them on their side of the grid. So one strategy might be to hide your followers behind obstacles, or hide stronger followers behind weaker, expendable ones to give you time to build up your force ready for all-out attack. But the danger in doing this is that your leader might be left open to attack by the enemy – and if your leader dies, then it’s game over and back to the start. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a rogue-like. But surprisingly, I don’t hate it. In fact, I think I’m in love with Nowhere Prophet.
There’s just SO MUCH DEPTH HERE. There are gazillions of different strategies you can adopt, and often you’ll be forced to develop new ones on the fly as your followers die or you receive new convoy or leader cards on your journey. You might find a legendary card that spawns several minions when brought into play, for example, and that might pair well with a piece of equipment that multiplies the number of these creatures by two. And that reminds me, I haven’t even talked about the equipment yet – your character can initially hold one weapon and one other item, but you can open up more slots as you gain experience. And these pieces of equipment can really affect how you play: for instance, one item grants any follower that costs three or fewer energy points with the sniper ability, which means you can attack the enemy while safely sheltering behind obstacles, radically opening up your options.
Combining these bits of equipment with complementary abilities in your convoy and leader decks is Nowhere Prophet‘s bread and butter – and the reason why I found myself playing the game until 1am without realising the time at least twice. The game invites constant tinkering and adaptation as you gain and lose cards. And you’ll need to adapt, because Nowhere Prophet can be incredibly harsh – although in a good way.
For a start, it’s reminiscent of Sunless Skies in that you’ll encounter many text-based random events on your journey, and most of them are Very Bad Things. It is the apocalypse after all, so it’s fair to accept that a lot of nastiness might happen, especially in this desert wasteland of Beasts, Shiram Monks, Technopaths and all manner of other nutters, each driven to a feral existence by some unknown event called The Crash, which seems to have wiped out much of the planet’s technology. In short, surviving is HARD. You’ll constantly be short of something or other, whether that’s followers, food or hope (the latter two being the two essential measures that deplete and must be constantly topped up as you travel from place to place). It feels like you’re always up against it, which makes your tactical decisions all the more meaningful – especially when you know that making the wrong move could end up sending you right back to the start of the game.
But funnily enough, I didn’t actually mind being dumped back to the beginning. Sure, there may have been some howls of frustration on occasion when my battle plan backfired and my character snuffed it – but importantly, every time it happened I knew it was my own fault. I knew what I’d done wrong, I knew what to do next time to fix it – and I couldn’t wait to dive back in.
For example, for one game I worked on a strategy of using beast followers to quickly wear down the enemy leader before they could retaliate properly. Beast cards are generally very cheap and have high attack but low health, and some of them also have the ‘Charge’ special ability, which lets you attack with them straight after you’ve placed them rather than having to wait until the next round. Using this strategy, I tore through most of the enemies with ease – until I got to the first boss, that is. I could only knock off about half of the boss’s health before my followers were wiped out, and my deck lacked stronger, more expensive cards. While the nasty man was deploying more and more powerful enemies as the rounds went on, I was fielding weak beasts that quickly got killed, and I was rapidly running out of cards. He wiped the floor with me.
But I knew what I’d done wrong, and the next time, with a more balanced deck, I beat him comfortably. And there are dozens more tales I could tell like this, where I tried out a new strategy, saw some success, but then ultimately had to rethink it to overcome a new threat. Playing Nowhere Prophet is a constant learning experience, a rolling lesson in adaptation and decision-making as you’re dealt new cards and situations – and the procedurally generated nature of the map means that this happens frequently. Not only that, you can unlock different starting decks and leaders as you play more and more, with each one requiring very different play styles.
And despite its procedurally generated nature, Nowhere Prophet does have a story and an ending – and a damn good one at that. But even after completing it (admittedly on easy), I just want to keep going and going, trying new strategies on different difficulty levels and dipping into the ‘daily challenges’, bespoke maps that see your score posted on an online leaderboard. What I’m trying to say is that it’s a flippin’ excellent game and you should probably buy it.
It’s not quite perfect, however. Probably the biggest issue is with the AI, which seems to have an obsession with destroying obstacles. More than once I’ve found myself making bad tactical decisions that have left my leader and weakened followers wide open to attack, but rather than going in for the kill, the enemy leader decided to attack some rocks instead. There was even one time when my opponent destroyed a special plant that caused four damage to their own leader, which makes no sense whatsoever.
It would be also nice to have a few more convoys and characters to choose from at the start. In the build I’m playing, there are four playable characters, only one of which is unlocked at the start – and there really should be more to give the game a bit more long-term playability. Still, there’s plenty of space on the starting screen where new characters and convoys could be added, so I’m certain that more will come along at some point. My only other gripe is that inevitably you stumble across the same random encounters from time to time with the same flavour text – but I’m not really sure how the developers could get around this, aside from writing literally hundreds of thousands of different scenarios – and I obviously don’t expect them to do that. After all, this game is – remarkably – the work of just a handful of people. Yet, despite that, it has a level of polish that’s worthy of a major studio.
I’ve already banged on about Nowhere Prophet for far too long, but I love this game so much that I could probably keep going all day. So I’ll stop here, albeit with one final paeon of praise for the wonderful artwork, which no doubt you’ll have admired already thanks to the screenshots on this page. All these good looks, and brains, too – definitely a keeper.
Nowhere Prophet was developed by Sharkbomb Studios and is published by No More Robots. It’s available on PC (through Steam), Mac and Linux. We reviewed the PC version.
Disclosure statement: review code for Nowhere Prophet was provided by No More Robots. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.
Follow A Most Agreeable Pastime on Twitter: @MostAgreeable