AYGames' Deck of Ashes is looking to break into what's quickly becoming an attractive, albeit niche, corner of online gaming. Deckbuilding games have made a resurgence in the wake of the unexpected success of Slay The Spire, and they've met with varying levels of success. Hearthstone currently employs a single-player deckbuilding mode every two expansions or so, and they're well-received, generally occupying players for about one or two weeks. That's not what games like Deck of Ashes want, though. To sustain themselves, they need to present a better, more in-depth offering.
Luckily for fans of the genre, Deck of Ashes offers a lot of that in a relatively short hands-on experience that lasts one prologue and one champion's story. While the main game will have to do more than what's being previewed currently in the demo of the game's Early Access build, what's there is a more than serviceable foundation for a quality deckbuilding title. Champion variety will be crucial, but at this stage, it's hard not to be excited about what Deck of Ashes is doing, operating as a sort of cross between Slay The Spire and Darkest Dungeon.
Deck of Ashes functions a lot like its compatriots in the deckbuilding game genre. Players start with a decent but uninspiring deck and then complete a series of objectives to acquire better cards, sometimes removing weak ones from their deck as well. It's a lot of micromanagement that doesn't appeal to everyone, but it's also a hallmark of the budding variation on card games. Deck of Ashes does it well, offering players crafting recipes for cards that are easily accessible and can be used at the end of every battle or at camp. Cards feel unique, pretty well balanced, and generally offer players a few different directions for their champion - will this run center around a discard-heavy build, or one that immolates enemies and exploits the status debuffs to great effect? Concessions to playstyle are a must with any game that wants to iterate hundreds of times on the same conceit, and Deck of Ashes makes those concessions without sacrificing fun.
Fun is relative, though. The battles in Deck of Ashes can be pretty brutal. While the game successfully warns players which spots on the map house the hardest battles, even the easy ones aren't gimmes, especially after a few adventures on the same trip. Health recovery is a resource, as is the deck. Players will have to reforge the cards they use in each battle at the end of it, and if they don't, they'll be without them for the next one unless they find someone who can fix them along the way. It's deck management inside of deck management, and it creates an interesting sub-game. Building a strong deck helps mitigate these factors, and in the hands-on, it seems the earlier game is actually a bit harder than the late. If players lose, that's it: it's a fresh reset or, more likely, a quick five minute breather before returning for more. The game has ways of mitigating this a little bit, but it really does have the same kind of punishing system that those familiar with Slay The Spire already know and loathe (but also love, weirdly enough).
The game does a good job of employing its environment in-game, too. Deck of Ashes is about a post-apocalyptic world where Pandora's Box (in this case, filled with a lot of ash) is opened and the world goes to hell quickly. What remains are survivors, demons, and resources that need to be gathered to try to put the world back together. Those resources can give players abilities in battle, new deck strengths, cards, and items, among other things. It's a lot more like an RPG than other iterations of deckbuilding games have been recently, which is nice. Deck of Ashes feels like it could be the natural progression of the genre though, again, it's too early to say without seeing if each champion has enough variation to them to make them worthwhile.
One of the best parts of Deck of Ashes, though, is that it is trying to do new things, and most of them are interesting enough that they work. The central hub of characters that aid the player is a refreshing take on deckbuilding, which can often feel pretty solitary overall. The art is pretty, too, somehow making a world filled with ash appealing aesthetically. The game's bosses don't just lurk at the end of the map, but they progress as the player takes their turns moving from tile to tile, sometimes affecting the environment. Eventually, time runs out and the player must face them. The sense of dread really makes building a deck feel more intense than it should be.
There are a few things that could be cleaned up in Deck of Ashes, but most of them aren't related to its core gameplay, which is the most exciting part of the game so far. The mechanics are fun, the cards are unique, and the battles are brutal and tactical. The voice acting needs work, the UI could use a few tweaks, and the starter decks could be a little more complex, as a player's sixth or seventh time starting with them can begin to feel monotonous, which is probably a little too early. Overall, though, Deck of Ashes is promising and if most of its issues exist adjacent to its actual card slinging, then they can be fixed prior to a full launch. Deck of Ashes is well worth your time if you're interested in deckbuilding games, even if it can be a little punishing at times, and we're sure it'll be one to watch as the game continues its development cycle ahead of a full release.