My love of card-based video games started when a friend told me I had to check out “Slay the Spire,” which combines the creative thinking of complex collectible card games with the just-one-more-try-before-bed allure of a challenging video game.
“Slay the Spire” launched a load of spinoffs that borrow the basic formula of a challenging gauntlet of ever-tougher enemies that requires you to craft powerful card combos from an ever-growing collection. Your luck run out and you fall to the boss? Then back to the beginning for a new try, but you might have unlocked a new character or more cards to find in your next playthrough.
Those spinoffs bring some really neat twists on the formula like the twin-character “Monster Train” (which is maybe even better than “Slay the Spire”) to the story-driven “SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech.” For the most part, I’ve found something to like in every one of them.
I can’t say that about “Banners of Ruin,” the latest twist that brings a dreary medieval setting and some light tactical positioning to the otherwise colorful and interesting formula. That it took me four paragraphs to even get to this week’s game ought to really tell you how lukewarm I am on it.
In “Banners of Ruin,” you’ll be building a small band of humanoid animal warriors together (think “Redwall” series with mice, ferrets, rabbits and wolves) to battle through a bunch of overly tough humanoid animal warriors through some generic cobblestone streets and alleyways. Though I’m being critical here, the art, sounds and character design is actually pretty good, but just not enough to prop up the game.
As for the gameplay, each side of the battle is divided into two columns with three slots in each that sometimes have a bearing on how abilities work and who gets attacked, but more frequently it feels like it boxes you into losing situations. That’s because every single action in the game — from attacking and defending to moving and other ploys — requires you to not only draw the right card but also have enough stamina points and/or will points for one of your characters to use. While that’s pretty much the formula for other games, a lot of the cards in “Banners of Ruin” simply lack much punch.
Enemies almost across the board are incredibly tough, too, leaving little room for error in the strategy of how you play your cards. You’ll frequently need to maximize your damage to take an opponent out or maximize your block to weather a hit because the ability to move or force your opponents to move — thereby dodging or interrupting an attack — are far and few between.
What really bothers me about “Banners of Ruin” is that many of the changes you’ll find throughout the game like armor, weapons, abilities and other upgrades just don’t change the gameplay all that much. Every run through “Slay the Spire” and “Monster Train” can be wildly different from the next through your choice of starting character and decisions along the way. Sometimes it’ll flop but other times you’ll stumble onto the perfect combination of cards that make you incredibly powerful.
Meanwhile, every “Banners of Ruin” playthrough feels a bit like a slog as your characters and their abilities struggle to even keep up with the increasing difficulty of the enemies. Few upgrades are meaningful and most seem like a waste of time rather than an interesting rabbit hole.
I’m sure you could find some satisfaction in overcoming the challenge, but more often than not it feels like a chore to play. Compared to the bombastic and colorful alternatives, there’s just not a lot of fun here.
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer and gamer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.