Deck of Ashes is Slay the Spire’s pyromaniac brother

It takes two to tango. When Mega Crit Games burst onto Early Access back in 2017 with Slay the Spire, people took notice. The game deftly combined the best parts of roguelikes and CCGs, bringing a unique take on deckbuilding along with it. Now fully released, it stands as an incredible achievement, but no king stands alone. Mechanics this innovative always spawn successors, and Steam is awash with similar deckbuilding roguelikes going through their own Early Access. One of those games is Deck of Ashes, an upcoming entry that definitely stands out from the pack. While most games of this type (and indeed, most cards games) focus on cards in your hand, Deck of Ashes cleverly narrows in on the graveyard to great effect even if it doesn’t always turn out well.

Deck of Ashes Preview | Opening Pandora’s box

If you’ve played Slay the Spire then you know the setup. You pick one of several characters and set out with a starter deck. You traverse a map filled with opportunities, be they randomized battles with creatures or FTL-style asides. As you clear events, you add to that deck and start building one of several strategies built into the collection. You either survive long enough to create a winning deck or die and start over from the beginning.

In the demo build of Deck of Ashes, there’s only one to choose from named Lucia. She’s a sorceress with the power of a phoenix, constantly tortured by the pain of being burned at the stake. Almost all her spells focus on fire and burning resources, so you’ll be clearing out your hand to discard scrolls. Once in the graveyard (the titular “Deck of Ashes”), this brand of spell gives you abilities that last through multiple encounters. You can also focus on inflicting burns on creatures or just overwhelming them with fireballs.

Deck of Ashes Preview | Shuffling the deck

deck of ashes preview

This first character and how she plays is the perfect way to highlight what makes Deck of Ashes stand out from the crowd. Unlike Slay the Spire, the discard pile is a resource, so your deck doesn’t automatically refill at every turn. You need to spend resources you acquire or your own health in the heat of combat to reclaim your cards. Those same cards will often burn through the hand you’re recovering. It’s a tight balancing act that Deck of Ashes doesn’t get exactly right on this first pass, but there’s certainly a lot there to play with in terms of balance.

Currently, it’s easy to find yourself in a tough spot and unable to gain power. The best thing about roguelikes is consistently building up your characters, and it feels like there are just one too many steps to doing that in Deck of Ashes. There’s a mess of currencies that you have to mine for on the world map, each one linking back to a different upgrade tree. You have to deal with four different types of merchants as well, and it’s hard to know exactly where players should be investing their time right off the bat.

Deck of Ashes Preview | The long road ahead

While building your deck can be convoluted, Ashes has some great ideas in terms of this style of game. Instead of just choosing to add a card after every fight, you gain blueprints with the option to craft cards. This lets you sell off blueprints you don’t want to craft and pump those resources into your overall strategy. There’s also a unique rest system where you can choose to heal yourself after a battle, recover cards from your graveyard, or craft new ones. You only get a certain amount of points each time, adding in risk and reward to straying far from your home base on the map.

Speaking of, you’re not marching down a linear path in Deck of Ashes. Instead, you’ve got a grid of locations to clear out and multiple paths forward. Events open new paths and make random rewards appear as you progress. You’ll need resources that you’ll find in certain spots, and it takes a turn to mine them. The farther you get away from safety in the center, the more resources you can earn. However, by the same token, the battles get that much harder to conquer. It’s a great strategic layer that hopefully survives the numerous balance changes that are sure to come in the future.

Deck of Ashes Preview | Demonic foes

While gameplay seems to still be a work in progress, Deck of Ashes has some amazing art put into it. Slay the Spire has a distinctive minimalist style, and Ashes wisely goes in the opposite direction. Reminiscent of Darkest Dungeon just a bit with its horror vibe, everything is highly detailed and a bit nasty. Enemies have a distinctive character and there’s a good variety even in the limited demo version I was playing. There isn’t art as of now in the randomized events, which is a shame. However, there’s great art everywhere else you’d expect it to be. It all sells this dark fantasy world the studio is trying to build.

Spell effects, however, are one area where the game needs to improve because they currently don’t exist. It’d be nice to see a fireball when you throw one. Instead, each spell just sees Lucia clawing at the air. You also get a lot of unvoiced text popups when you’re outside of battle. It’s sometimes on the level of something like Simon’s Quest and the eternal “horrible night to have a curse.” These can definitely be toned down with some refinement or, at the very least, configured so they don’t grind everything to a halt whenever they show up.

Deck of Ashes Preview | Gathering around the fire

Deck of Ashes

When it launches in Early Access, Deck of Ashes is not going to compete with the big names in this new subgenre. It has an unrefined gameplay system right off the bat that really needs tweaking to reach the addictive heights that most procedural games strive for. What it does have going for it is a great sense of style and unique mechanics that are worth looking into. Here’s hoping that the small team at AYGames can refine these ideas into something special.

GameRevolution previewed Deck of Ashes on PC via Steam with a copy provided by the developer. The game launches into Early Access on April 11.