The best games you missed in 2021: Tainted Grail: Conquest

Diablo has, for good reason, become a shorthand to describe the taste of gothic, ugly fantasy environments in games, where pus-filled demonic hordes and rotting, undead corpses search a hellish cathedral looking for ignorant adventurers. Despite all its miserable decay, the series still feels like an indulgence to be enjoyed. Its clickiness and abominable sight make the games infinitely satisfying, and masterful slaughter of devils facilitates most players into a pleasant rhythm. And part of this appeal lies in the macabre yet captivating imagination with which it so deftly acts – all that blood, mutilation and entrails creates an eerie setting from which it is almost impossible to look away.

Tainted Grail: Conquest conveys the same sense of depravity and doom in its dark fantasy universe – a universe that is a re-creation of Arthur’s legends – but also increases the ante with a huge wave of Slay The Spiers’ whimsical, deck-building elements.

You’re an undead warrior trapped in a state of purgatory of unrest and suffering, and pretty much the only way to get rid of this is to kill a bunch of unholy demons and animated corpses. After encountering a goat that vaguely resembles the occult deity Baphomet, you are then thrown into a desolate, spectral version of your ancient village, which has almost been devoured by a supernatural miasma called Wyrdness. Within the confines of this village you are pretty much safe, but you will have to step outside the gates to meet your goals, most of which are about slaughtering the monsters lurking in your path.

If you are familiar with the Slay The Spire formula, you will know that combat is turn-based and moves are made via a set of cards that mostly consist of offensive attacks and defensive attitudes. Of course, there are also a limited number of moves you can make, limited by the amount of energy you possess each round. Energy is used when you play a card, and each comes with its own energy costs. The trick when fighting these infernal beasts is that you can predict what moves they will make. Every detail you need to defeat them is exposed: this jerking corpse will make two attempts to attack with light damage, and the satanic necromancer next door will launch a heavy attack. The good news is that information allows you to plan so you can play your cards effectively. The bad news, then, is that your mistakes are largely your own, much less a stroke of luck.

When you finish one encounter, you will move on and look for the next enemy horde to strike in this mortal land. A shrewd reflection of this world’s hopeless depravity, you just have to keep trudging on and gathering the meager resources you will be rewarded with each victory until you inevitably perish. But it will not be the end of it. As with most roguelikes, in Tainted Grail you will unlock additional abilities and even runes you can use for subsequent rounds, the latter of which you can reinforce your armor and weapons, to imprint your attacks with additional effects.

And yet, all of that just shimmers the surface of the sheer depth of Tainted Grail: Conquest, and so often you struggle with seemingly impossible odds. But its charm lies in living with the gnawing fear that every fight can be your last, and rising above the constant danger that threatens to engulf you. In the end, it speaks to one truth in dungeon crawling: that the ghost of consistent death can only inflate you.

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