“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is perhaps the most well recognised idiom in the English language. It’s immediately understandable, and applicable to anything, from people and places to video games and movies. Oh, and books. Tainted Grail: Conquest, much like every game which attempts this deckbuilding rogue-lite hybrid style is bound to draw comparisons to one title in particular: Slay the Spire. It’s the most popular in the niche, and arguably the best two, combining the mechanics of games before it of Dream Quest and Monster Slayers and making it not look like it was made entirely in Flash.
For that reason, the whole genre seems impenetrable. New entries are immediately compared to the king, fall short, and the cycle repeats. Tainted Grail: Conquest doesn’t set itself up as a renegade from the offset, a iconoclast here to bring the market to its knees with fresh mechanics and modes. Instead, judging a book by its cover, I thought it was another Slay the Spire assassin, armed with an imitation Darkest Dungeon light mechanic and a suitably grim world, which against the hallowed armour of a champion do nothing but mere surface scratches. This is true, ten or so hours in, that Tainted Grail: Conquest is very much like the game’s that came before it, including that minor comparison to Darkest Dungeon too, but it’s that lack of sheer innovation which gives the game solid ground to stand on, and with its dingy, unforgiving world and time-based shenanigan of a plot conceit, Tainted Grail: Conquest by the end didn’t feel like just another copy and paste jobby, it was something which vies for the top spot admirably, if unsuccessfully, yet ultimately thoroughly compelling regardless.
To remove any preconceptions that I actually know what I’m talking about, I’m not familiar with Tainted Grail as an IP. Its origins in the physical board game sphere automatically exclude me on the grounds of never having played a proper board game outside of Monopoly, itself on the grounds of not having friends. Sorrow aside, I point this out because I’m not totally sure how unique of a property Tainted Grail truly is. Its video game iteration, Tainted Grail: Conquest tells me a few things: King Arthur is somehow involved, both the past and future are happening at once, and everything is bloody awful. We’re a mere pawn in Death themselves game, playing the role of a hero exploring the land of the Wrydness where people from both the past and future exist, acting out their lives with purpose yet somewhat unconsciously. The prior war in these lands has made it a hostile one, filled with undulating pusssacks, self-reproducing slugs, and perhaps most sane of them all, witches. We travel through the Wrydness, fighting back the darkness with a scarce supply of torches, fight beasties in the Slay the Spire system we’ve come to love and uncover our true purpose in the gods’ ultimate game of chess.
The Wrydness, pronounced “weird-ness”, is weird. It’s demented, grim, and incomprehensible, half of which a result of war, the other an ongoing consequence of time existing in all dimensions. It’s easy for time travel plots to become bogged down in the very logic they elucidate so fluently, and oftentimes even with stringent attention to detail they don’t actually make sense. Whether or not Tainted Grail’s time-bending universe is logical seems beside the point, as what is explained makes sense to some fantastical degree and makes for a world worth digging into. And you do actively explore it from a third person angle. Unlike most others in the niche, there is a small 3D element where we traverse the absurdity of the Wrydness with direct action, as if the game has slipped into a tactical RPG. It’s more important than you may think, even with the knowledge that all the game’s combat is done through the traditional turn-based Slay the Spire-style card mechanics. We move through the murky lakes, under withered and bent trees and find ourselves met with choices. The map is made up of a multitude of encounters, each one involving different enemies guarding different rewards, from merchants and story characters to treasure chests and lootable locales.
It’s not all that different from other similar games, only by accomplishing it through this fully modelled perspective do we get a greater look at the horrors of the world its denizens so glibly talk about. And it is pretty nightmarish, rarely escaping the deep blacks and muddy browns of a stereotypical graveyard. Even our nascent village, the only place of respite from the insanity inducing Wyrdness, has but a few sources of orange-tinged light. Exiting the village we’re met with all manner of monstrosities, limbs dangling off every square inch of a creature’s body, wielding pincers and axes, or sometimes just utilising their god-given maw. To be frank, Tainted Grail: Conquest doesn’t look as pristine as most even relatively budgeted games of 2021. The stilted animations and jagged textures aren’t going to win any awards, but I think the design trumps any rough edges. In fact I found the lacking animation to be quite charming, evoking the style of a physical board game using pieces of limited movement, all in keeping with the franchise’s origins.
And as I’ve said, Tainted Grail’s universe is enticing in a morbid way, the same way a despondent, cold world like those found in a Souls-bourne game encourages you to dig beneath the surface. In truth I don’t think the Wyrdness is that deep of a world, and the motivation to absorb the environment or read item descriptions in a Dark Souls game isn’t really there, in part due to the world lacking intricacy and detail, successfully building a general morose atmosphere but lacking the resources to fully flesh out a grander narrative. Much of our non-combat encounters are dialogue-heavy interactions of those that wander the swamps, most unconscious to their surroundings and motives, yet fully engaged with their supposed journeys. It’s part of the game’s time concept, where all tenses are occurring at once. You find people marching as if heading for war, others suffering with the mental anguish of the same bloody battle which has both happened and not happened. As a result, bumping into new characters is often quite entertaining. They’re mostly unhinged, although some you can invite back to your village in service to the rogue-lite meta game. Either way, their fully voice acted and wholly British performances are something to look forward to, even if their quest lines may run a short course or one that isn’t all that interesting. There is a half-illusion of choice in these encounters, responding to choices which often don’t seem to have an effect, and a lot of quests boil down to running into the same pool of characters a few times. There is an element of choice in these matters however, as you can physically see who these characters are in the overworld, and plotting a course which sends you towards those you want to talk to while managing your Wyrdcandle resource is a game in itself.
Wyrdcandles are where the game’s Darkest Dungeon inspiration shines through, having the player light scarce torches to keep away ill effects of the Wyrdness. Unlike Darkest Dungeon, I actually came to tolerate this mechanic, as it’s nowhere near as nuanced or punishing this time round. In Darkest Dungeon, choosing when to light a torch and at what level of light you wanted was a balancing act, walking a tightrope where falling either side leads to negative consequences. In Tainted Grail, the metaphorical war between light and dark is black and white (or white and black). Maintaining high light rewards the player with more powerful bonus cards, and as your level of light dims, the extra cards you receive drop in value, eventually serving as major negatives if let sit in your deck, requiring the player to use them for a small hindrance or suffer great drawbacks. It’s alright, and as the metagame progresses, it becomes less of a salient mechanic as Wyrdcandles become abundant and you can typically maintain high light with ease. That said, compared to Darkest Dungeon, a game I’ve repeatedly tried to enjoy, it’s overwhelmingly clear Tainting Grail is offering a neutered version of an otherwise delicate system. I’m absolutely fine with that, as someone who found that mechanic overbearing and soul crushing, but it is one which evidently resonated with many, and the diluted solution here might come off as a bit vapid to those who enjoyed its original iteration.
Either way, all of this is secondary to the core experience, a card battler which gradually amps up as cards are accumulated through battle and exploration, hinging off the archetypes of nine playable classes. There’s more like three classes, the prototypical warrior, mage and ranged models, and under each three exist three varying styles of play. They unlock pretty quickly through regular play, and most of my time was spent with the warrior classes, much to my inner wizards chagrin. Warriors excel in bruteforce, plain damage, one subclasses conceit has them increase their damage in increments for as many turns as they don’t take damage, meaning it’s often a game of surviving a few rounds to become insanely overpowered in the long run. Another lives life on the edge, excelling only when at low health, incorporating an element of life steal to make up for their perpetual proximity to death. The battling itself does very little in the way of innovation, however, and where it diverges from other games in the niche is often in how the playable classes force you to play. You build a deck in the overworld, and in battle draw them, cards ranging from simple “deal x damage” to “”block an attack” to “stun an enemy”.
It’s comfort food gaming at this point. My extended experience with the genre has made playing one which deviates so little from the formula almost therapeutic in how easy it is to lose time on them. The natural takeaway is that the game is good, and it is, even if unbalanced and lacking revolutionary mechanics. The unrefined animations and less-than-pristine visuals translate here too mildly with it sometimes being finicky to direct a cards effect towards the correct target, or how drawing too many cards turns your hand into a fumbling mess; nothing gamebreaking, or even disruptive to my core enjoyment, but highlights how bog standard the whole affair feels. The lack of balance shines through with the aforementioned class diversity, as in my experience, my predilection for the warrior set of characters was forced due to their overwhelming power and scalability in the late game, whereas both the mage and ranged classes suffer from overly complex or luck based systems which in my experience couldn’t hold a candle to the sheer domination possible with my block-heavy haymaker of a fighter deck. The mage classes in particular have a highly divergent style, relying on summoning and indirect commands to whittle the enemy down. It’s also a broader smear against the game’s lacking feedback, as turns – for better or for worse – occur at a breakneck speed and it’s often hard to tell, mage or not, what the enemy has actually just done. Some enemies utilise buffs and debuffs, but it’s borderline impossible to ascertain what modifier they’ve just employed. In the case of mages, the absence of transparent feedback is almost doubled, as identifying what your summons have done while trying to juggle the reality of a truly baffling playstyle is just as hard as reading your enemies play.
Slay the Spire, Monster Train or Guild of Dungeoneering depict perfectly where Tainted Grail: Conquest fails, particularly the former, an example of diversifying the few classes it had in a way which makes them all play disparately and at the same time feel just as viable as each other. Even in Guild of Dungeoneering’s case, several early game classes don’t quite meet the brawn of later game classes, but they also don’t make use of confusing systems and instead often have a laugh with an easily understood gimmick. That’s not to say Tainted Grail: Conquest is overall a bad game, and when examining the game’s I’ve played in the genre, I think it’ll rank quite high up there, but it also lacks that spur to play it again, mostly down the dearth of fun and viable options. It’s a game which doesn’t reinvent the wheel mechanically, but utilises the systems of video games such as 3D exploration and graphics to create a world which perhaps emanates more life than one stuck on a 2D plane. While you can look at Tainted Grail’s cover – the deck building, the rogue-lite meta game, the turn based combat – and accurately read it’s purpose, what’s not readily recognisable is a peculiar world stuck in time, entrenched in muck and immorality, and built upon the foundations of the games which preceded it forms a game well worth a fan of the genres time.