In addition to our most important Game of the Year Awards 2021, every member of the PC Gamer team sheds spotlight on a game they loved this year. We are announcing new employee choices along with our main prices for the rest of the month.
The rogue-like deckbuilder genre is almost comically exaggerated in the wake of Slay the Spire. I think the abundance led to the Trials of Fire flying a bit under the radar when it came out of Early Access earlier this year, but it deserves to stand out – it’s perhaps the most compelling strategy game to come out in 2021.
If Trials of Fire is chasing trends, they are not from video games – it carries the influence of table games with pride on its sleeve. In addition to the use of cards for actions, the turn-based battle also plays out over a board game-like hex grid. Between battles, it feels like an old-fashioned way to explore its unique post-apocalyptic fantasy environment D&D hex-crawl, with small narrative events unfolding as you enter each location.
On the map, characters move like little cardboard stands. Stories are revealed like the pages of a creaking book. In battle, your heroes translate into round tokens that clap and slide as you move them. The cards fly back and forth while playing attack. Spells explode from their caster to send an enemy to jump and clap at the collision, as if someone has hit the table in all the excitement. It feels wonderfully tactile in a way that games rarely do outside of Tabletop Simulator.
Spark of genius
What really stands out, though, is the fight. Matches in Trials of Fire are wonderfully layered, each turn a network of interesting and interconnected decisions. Your three characters each get their hand on cards – you draw a total of 12 fresh cards each turn – and between them they can perform actions in the order you want, whether it’s attacks, moves, spells, ongoing forces or whatever other tricks you have added to your tires.
These actions cost willpower, a resource that you generate by discarding cards – so any opportunity you take means not just giving up on others, but actively sacrificing them to nurture your strategy. To complicate matters further, willpower can also be used without cards to move your characters or raise their defenses, actions that are crucial to keeping them alive in a game that is brutal, even at its standard level of difficulty. Unleash a costly attack, and you could leave the operator dead.
Your hand of cards is an exciting array of powerful but mutually exclusive options. Opportunities to trade for – you can only hold on to a few cards for the next round, and with willpower so precious, you will rarely be able to afford it yourself, instead of sacrificing every single reserve for your moment to moment survival. Each trip therefore requires its own careful new plan.
Plans with teams. The cards are full of synergies and interactions, and they offer huge benefits if you can just fit the pieces together. Placement on the board is key and being surrounded is death, forcing smart maneuvering. Each hero has their own talent that affects each turn they take and which provides different options based on who they are paired with. Status effects ask you to combine them in different configurations. Whether you’re just scraping with bandits over a skin of water or defending a city against a huge, raucous dragon, all these different elements combine in a wonderful, intricate jigsaw puzzle of moving parts.
Above all, another layer – the adventures between the battles, where your choices shape the decisive decks. Each hero has their own set of class cards, which can be changed as the levels of adding, subtracting and upgrading, and you can also add cards to their pile of equipment – an alchemical flask that gives an acid bomb attack, or a staff, crackling with lightning trolls. , even if you have to be careful not to dilute your core synergies. In the harsh wilderness, you also have to maintain health, hunger and morale and seek safe places to camp before significant battles to avoid punishment. Narrative decisions, such as whether you want to help a wounded man or deprive him of his supplies, shape both your abilities further, as well as how you see your heroes in this desperate world.
That’s a lot, especially for a roguelike. A huge amount of strategy stuff, all stacked. It can certainly be too much sometimes – quests are long and it can be discouraging to strike out due to the contagious effects of a few bad decisions (although a generous undo button at least means you will never be judged by a mistake click). But all that is stacked so elegantly, every piece is perfectly connected with those around it, and all to give you truly compelling decisions to make in every single moment. If it sometimes makes you feel like an idiot, it’s just so it can give you countless chances to feel like a genius.
No matter how crowded the genre is, Trials of Fire is an absolute breath of fresh air. If you love strategy and the sound of tokens on a board, then this cleverly designed challenge is a must play.