Diablo has, for good reasons, become a shorthand for describing the flavour of gothic, grimdark fantasy setting in games, where pus-filled demonic hordes and rotting, undead corpses scour a hellish cathedral looking for unwitting adventurers. For all its wretched decay, however, the series still feels like an indulgence to be savoured. Its clickiness and abhorrent sights make the games endlessly gratifying, and masterful butchery of fiends eases most players into a comfortable rhythm. And part of that appeal lies in the macabre yet captivating fantasy it so deftly peddles — all that blood, gore and guts really make for a grisly setting that’s nearly impossible to look away from.
Tainted Grail: Conquest conveys the same sense of blight and doom in its dark fantasy universe — one that’s a reimagining of Arthurian legends — but also ups the ante with a huge wallop of Slay The Spire’s roguelike, deck-building elements.
You’re an undead warrior who is trapped in a purgatory state of unrest and suffering, and pretty much the only way to be freed of this is to slay a lot of unholy demons and animated corpses. After meeting a goat dude that vaguely resembles the occult deity Baphomet, you’re then tossed into a deserted, spectral version of your old village, which has almost been consumed by a supernatural miasma called the Wyrdness. Within the confines of this village you’re largely safe, but you’ll need to step beyond the gates to fulfill your objectives, most of which revolve around slaughtering the monsters that lurk in your path.
If you’re familiar with the Slay The Spire formula, you’ll know that combat is turn-based, and moves are made via a deck of cards, made up of mostly offensive attacks and defensive stances. Of course, there are also a finite number of moves you can make, limited by the amount of energy you possess every round. Energy is expended when you play a card, and each comes with its own energy costs. The trick, as you duke it out against these infernal beasts, is that you can anticipate what moves they’ll make. Every detail you need to defeat them is laid bare: this twitching corpse will make two attempts to attack with light damage, and the satanic necromancer next to it will launch a heavy attack. The good news is that information will let you strategise, so you can play your cards effectively. The bad news, then, is that your mistakes are largely your own, and much less of a stroke of luck.
Once you’re done with one encounter, you’ll move on and look for the next enemy horde to strike down in this death-laden land. An astute reflection of the hopeless depravity of this world, you’ll just have to keep trudging on, hoarding what scant resources you are rewarded upon every victory, until you inevitably perish. But that won’t be the end of it. As with most roguelikes, in Tainted Grail you’ll unlock additional abilities and even runes you can use for subsequent rounds, the latter of which you can augment your armour and weapons, so as to imbue your attacks with additional effects.
And yet, all that merely skims the surface of the sheer depth of Tainted Grail: Conquest, and so often you struggle against seemingly impossible odds. But its charm lies in living with the gnawing dread that every battle might be your last, and rising above the constant peril that’s threatening to engulf you. In the end, it speaks one truth in dungeon crawling: that the specter of consistent death can only invigorate you.