Deckbuilding and dungeon crawlers: two great tastes that go well together. Cards, it turns out, are a great tool for abstracting the collection of vaguely synergistic loot from monster corpses, and then seeing how far the resultant combinations will get you through fast-paced, sudden-death runs through a gauntlet of further monsters. Slay The Spire is arguably the defining masterpiece of the card crawler subgenre, and both I and former staff writer Matt Cox (RPS in peace) were impressed by the multi-storey devil fights of this year's Monster Train.
But there's still plenty of room for invention in the format, and the upcoming Ring Of Pain (out on October 15th, and showcased in the ongoing PAX X EGX extravaganza) demonstrates what it was missing all along: massively disconcerting owl people.
Yeah, I know Slay The Spire had those bird cultists. But the... I want to say antagonist?... of Ring Of Pain makes them look cute. Just look at that eerie bastard in the title image, who our own Alice Bell described as "a sort of eldritch Tweetie Pie". Speaking entirely in unsettling rhyming couplets ("I've many names from which to choose. 'Owl' might be the best to use"), and crawling about on grim, grim nearly-human limbs, this abomination has - I think - imprisoned you in its nest, which is a sort of gloomy hell of filthy debris, surrounded on all sides by impenetrable darkness. As the name of the game suggests, you trudge round this vile place in circles, in a pseudo-first-person perspective.
Each "level" of this dungeon is indeed a ring, comprising cards which can be either loots, brutes, or chutes to other rings of cards. You can cycle left or right through the cards (although monsters must either be fought or riskily stealthed past), introducing some superb decision-making as you try to plan a survivable path to the next level around the metadungeon... which is also a ring.
You don't strictly have a deck of cards to draw from. Loot items get popped into slots along the bottom of the screen, with a couple of slots free for spells as well, and confer various penalties or buffs to your stats. Like most good roguelikes, the key skill involved is the improvisation of effective builds from the random crap you pick up. And also like most good roguelikes, the monster power curve is steep enough to mean that "effective" means "overpowered". I found a Chugging Mask in the demo, which increased my health stat every time I drank a healing potion on full health, and then focused on piling on armour so I could wade through smaller encounters unscathed, and chug my way into tankhood so I could survive harder-hitting foes.
Mechanically, it's dead solid. But there's a lot of these sorts of things around these days, many of them aiming for the same, unsettling aesthetic, so I'm glad to say Ring Of Pain stands out on that front, too. From Owl themselves, to the anxiety-inducing environs of its nest, and the roughly-painted grotesques that assault you in it, the mood is perfectly pitched. There's something of Slay The Spire's creepy whimsy to the narrative, and a fair slice of Darkest Dungeon's pitch-black, festering unpleasantness in the art direction.
But most of all, there's that fucking owl. It is with great foreboding that I must admit I can't wait to meet them again. You can meet them yourself in the free demo on Steam, right now.
This is part of PAX X EGX, a coming together of your favourite physical gaming events to create a nine day digital event. Starting on Saturday the 12th and running through to Sunday the 20th, PAX Online and EGX Digital are putting on loads of livestreams, panels, let's plays, and a big digital show floor for you to explore. Check out the official PAX X EGX site for more, and follow along with Rock Paper Shotgun's coverage with our dedicated PAX-EGX tag.