Gwent: Rogue Mage Review in progress
I never spent much time in my Witchering career playing the head-to-head card game Gwent in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but the Gwent-based single-player role-playing game Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales was one of my favorite games in the entire Witcher series . And likewise, the new stand-alone spin-off Gwent: Rogue Mage has got its hooks in me with its roguelike elements, difficult boss fights and light but exciting history. I have not quite reached the end of that story yet, but I have completed many races and am excited to see how it is really meant to end even after around 25 hours.
If you’ve never played Thonebreaker, both it and Rogue Mage basically use Gwent as an RPG combat system, fighting AI enemies and giving you some cards that would be fun unbalanced in the PvP match. See, part of the reason I’ve always found the standard Gwent a bit dull is that there are a handful of meta-strategies that are very powerful, and putting together a deck without restrictions can be tedious and intimidating. Thronebreaker and Rogue Mage work so well because their restrictions on deck building, weird cards and unorthodox battle rules actually make them a lot more fun.
There’s not as much focus in Rogue Mage on a sweeping epic of war and betrayal as in Thronebreaker, as the story is largely centered on a single character: the obsessive magician Alzur, responsible for creating the first Witchers centuries before Geralt’s heyday. And that’s exactly what you’re going to do: hunt down powerful boss beasts for their mutagens and randomly inject them into human subjects until you can invent a brooding anti-hero to kill ghouls for fun and profit. Narrative tastes are delivered in small snippets and animated film sequences along the way, and the writing and voice acting are as sharp as you expect from a Witcher game, even if they are not really in focus.
Instead of sending you on a linear, wild-growing mission, Rogue Mage consists of many roguelike races across the monster- and bandit-infested hinterland that usually take a couple of hours or so if you get all the way to the end. As you plot a path, you will encounter over 30 different normal, elite and boss enemies, each with their own distinct deck of cards and a potent leaderboard that gives them a very unique style of play. Some are relatively simple, like a bandit who can dish out a little damage each turn. Others are far more insidious, like a spy master who can turn your devices into spies and make copies of them on his side of the field.
This variant really keeps things interesting early on, but when I first got a couple of dozen runs in, I started to feel that some of these opponents I had met many times were starting to get a little outdated. I had figured out what their thing was and how to counter it so that the fighting itself could feel like a formality. Maybe something like a random mutation that can change these encounters from time to time would be nice.
The randomness built into the player deck, however, ensures that I could never really fall into a boring routine. There are three base cards that all have a strong theme, from polishing your own devices to sacrificing them for more power (as well as a fourth “Chaos” deck that can hold any of the cards you have unlocked). You will always start a run with the same cards based on the deck you chose, but can pick up more as loot along the way by defeating enemies, opening treasure chests and completing events. And I think this unpredictability is amazing.
Gwent: Rogue Mage screenshots
Randomized card slips and opponents that have weird mechanics that make you think anew about every single hand, Gwent is at his very best. And even though I was a little annoyed at first that I had to throw away the amazing tire I had put together at the end of each race and start over with a regular one, it also prevented me from becoming too addicted to the same overwhelming combinations and forced me thinking of new synergies every time. However, I missed the clever thinking required by some of the more creative puzzle games from Thronebreaker. There is less variation overall, and even the more elaborate boss battles in Rogue Mage are relatively simple compared to some of the predecessor’s strangest and most memorable battles.
I still have not completed the story and given birth to my own Witcher yet, which requires many, many races to kill various tough bosses for their mutagens. But I’ve played enough to say that I enjoy my time with Rogue Mage and it has not lost its luster yet. Going up in level after each race adds new cards to the loot and unlocks new spells for Alzur, so I always discover combinations and mix my playing style with each of the three decks. The decks themselves are clear enough that I can replace them when I start to get tired of one of them and have a completely different experience. I wish it was a little more linear progression, since almost everything you unlock is just another option, rather than something that increases your base power permanently.
I want my full review of Rogue Mage ready next week, so check back when I find out how to deal with the little problem where all my test subjects seem to die screaming instead of becoming hot monster hunters.