My Top 10 Games of 2021: Part One
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Developer: Alim Co., Ltd. Publisher: Square Enix Format: PC (Reviewed), Switch, PS4 Released: 28th of October, 2021 Time Played: 16 hours, 19 minutes Time Played including Prologue demo: 17 hours, 41 minutes Copy purchased via pre-order for £24.99
Recently I had the pleasure of playing through Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars, a traditional Japanese Role-Playing Game developed by several of the staff members behind both the Drakengard franchise and its spin-off series: Nier. Whilst I’ve never had an opportunity to get hands-on with the former, I’ve adored the Nier series since it first started, just over eleven years ago. Nier Gestalt —alternatively titled Nier Replicant in Japan— is one of my favorite gaming experiences of all time, so to say that I was ecstatic when I first learned of Voice of Cards, would be an extreme understatement.
Ask any Nier fan what’s so special about the series and they’re likely to state the exact same thing: There’s just something so wholly original and immersive about the emotional, humorous, and often meta ideas of Yoko Taro, the director and scenario writer for the franchise. Now I’m not the sort of woman who would attribute an entire game’s success to just one individual person, but I’d certainly say that Yoko Taro’s involvement always seems to add an unconventional and unique touch, which tends to set his games aside from other titles in the JRPG genre.
That’s to say nothing of the unique nature of his public persona, however. If you ever need proof of Yoko Taro’s unconventional ways, just Google him and take a look at his wonderful, outlandish, gigantic orb-headed look. He’s always been somewhat contemptuous of being photographed, (a stance that I completely understand), but his decision to remedy this by wearing such a bizarre and eye-catching mask, (modeled after one of the most iconic characters in Nier), should tell you everything you need to know about his eccentric and peculiar style, which usually seeps into his games in more ways than one.
Without further ado, let’s get back to the game at hand. This unique Yoko Taro touch is the exact reason that Voice of Cards piqued my interest. I may love JRPGs but I’ve never been a fan of card games to any major extent. Hence: I’ll be the first to admit that upon seeing the game’s announcement trailer at Nintendo’s September Direct live, I didn’t pay much attention until Yoko’s name appeared on the screen. Perhaps a tad superficial of me, certainly, but Voice of Cards’ marketing had a heavy emphasis on its card-based presentation. This presentation is something that didn’t initially appeal to me, but that I must address before we dive into talking about the actual gameplay, so let’s get this review underway.
Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars is NOT a card game. I really can’t stress this enough, but Voice of Cards is, in fact, a traditional Role-Playing Game that utilizes a card-based format purely for the sake of having a distinct visual style. To say it is a card game would be to fundamentally misrepresent the game and its mechanics, along with its target audience. It contains a card-based mini-game within each of its explorable towns and villages, sure, but if you are misled into playing this with the hopes of experiencing something akin to a narrative-driven Magic the Gathering, then you’ll only find yourself disappointed and confused.
Voice of Cards’ art style is just that: An art style. Characters and monsters, playable or otherwise, are usually portrayed with just an individual piece of artwork, with which their health, attack, and defense stats are placed just beneath their portrait. Other cards, such as attacks, abilities, environments, items, and equipment are all portrayed in exactly the same way, with a singular piece of art and either their associated stats or a small text box that explains exactly what they do when they are used.
This is both a blessing and a curse for Voice of Cards, as it demonstrates both the game’s gorgeous visuals and its graphical limitations in one fell swoop. All of the art has been beautifully rendered by Alim, based on early illustrations by the ever-inventive artist Kimihiko Fujisaka, who created the unique character designs in the Drakengard series and the Remastered version of the original Nier. As a matter of fact: The premise of the story was only created after Fujisaka’s illustrations had been finished, with them serving as the stylistic inspiration for how the tale would be told! Fascinating, right?
Thus: A lot of time has been spent on getting the artwork just right. The visuals on each card may be static but they never feel it, thanks to the tireless effort that has been put into each and every expression, costume design, and location. When paired with the game’s simple yet mesmerizing table-top aesthetic, it all culminates in an experience that is reminiscent of playing through a fleshed-out one-shot Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Your imagination certainly does a lot of the heavy lifting, but the graphical style certainly makes the game feel more riveting, especially when you take its gallery mechanic into account, which allows you to zoom in and appreciate all of the details you may otherwise miss.
Unfortunately, this presentation also leads to the aforementioned graphical limitations, primarily found within the game’s combat. Each attack and ability results in an animation being played, specific to the card you have used. Some of these animations see you unleashing various special effects of lightning pillars or dark portals onto your enemy’s cards as a representation of magic. Meanwhile, others see your character’s card float back and forth above your opponents with fast-paced swooshing and slashing sound effects playing alongside, in an attempt to recreate the visceral feeling of melee combat. It’s not a bad way of handling things per se, but it’s not particularly exciting either, as these lengthy animations can start to drag in the latter half of the game, with several of them feeling rather silly and hard to adjust to early on.
Limitations of the graphical style can also be found outside of combat, though I assume that these examples are primarily due to budgetary restrictions above all else. The issue here is that several of the side characters, (standard filler characters such as villager man, villager woman, innkeeper, blacksmith, etc..), can be encountered repeatedly throughout the game, at a frequency that can really damage the immersion. There’s nothing particularly wrong with character model re-use in games, but when you encounter a villager near your starting point and can find the exact same artwork used for different characters in every other village in the game —sometimes more than once per village— it’s hard not to yearn for just a little bit more variety.
Moving on to the main dish of this meal, let’s talk about the gameplay. Voice of Cards is an extremely traditional and formulaic JRPG, but it’s honestly rather refreshing to play something that doesn’t rely on any major gameplay gimmicks for a change. If you’ve ever played a classic Final Fantasy game with turn-based combat, or even a Pokémon game, then you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into, as this is a directly comparable experience. Combat occurs either for story purposes or via random encounters when exploring the overworld, (or a small selection of dungeons), and sees three of your characters fighting between one and three enemies at a time. You take it in turns to play your abilities or use items based on a standard D&D initiative system, which determines the order in which your characters and your enemies take their turns.
Up to four combat abilities are equipped to each party member, which are used by paying their cost in gems. Gems function as an alternative mana system, within which you gain a gem every time you perform a standard attack, use an item or defend. At the same time: You lose a number of gems equal to the cost of an ability card, every time you choose to use one. Regardless of how complicated it may sound in theory, it is thankfully straightforward in execution; Easy to learn, and not all that hard to master.
Of course, there are some intricacies to the combat system such as learning which elemental abilities certain enemy types are weak or resistant to. Determining which abilities are useful in any given fight adds a nice extra layer of depth, as there are a wide array of skills to be unlocked —both elemental and otherwise— as you level up each of your characters. AoE attacks, buffs, debuffs, attack multipliers, and ability cards that require the satisfying roll of a dice in order to inflict status effects can all be found here, so it’s safe to say that the combat never lacks variety. With that said, it’s worth noting that there’s never too much of a challenge here, particularly if you’re willing to keep your characters’ equipment up to date in order to raise their basic attack and defense stats. The difficulty curve is good, but if you’re hoping to face any distinct challenge in Voice of Cards then you may be disappointed…
Outside of the combat, overworld exploration has plenty to offer too, albeit in a fairly linear manner. There are several areas to explore here by moving a player token from card to card, revealing more of your surroundings as you progress through each of the self-contained environments. Each region features the aforementioned random encounters, but each one also contains a selection of random events to be discovered, featuring minor choices to be made that always result in simple yet entertaining experiences. Furthermore, these regions encompass several towns and dungeons which, (whilst usually mandatory in one way or another), contain several hidden chests and ten short side quests that can drastically affect the outcome of the main story. It may not be the longest RPG in the world, but it’s certainly not lacking in content!
Not much else can be said regarding the core gameplay though. There’s plenty of equipment to be found and purchased for each character, along with a gamekeeper in each town who can be battled through a surprisingly fun card-based mini-game, but that’s the long and short of it really. I found playing it to be a very enjoyable experience, but there’s nothing here to really shock or surprise any potential players… Still: That’s certainly not a bad thing by any means, provided you’re interested in the conventional and well-established JRPG gameplay of days past.
Story, Voice Acting and Soundtrack
After all that, it’s about time I cycled back to the core point that I started from: Yoko Taro. How exactly does his and Yuki Matsuo’s story hold up? Is it every bit as unique and compelling as I was expecting? Well, compelling, yes, but unique? Not particularly, to be completely honest…
Voice of Cards has a fairly typical high fantasy story. A dragon has been causing harm to the peaceful citizens of this world and vast treasures are being offered to anybody who can put a stop to it. Your main character, alongside his monster companion named Marr, set out on this epic quest to slay the dragon and claim the riches, encountering several allies, foes, and obstacles along the way. There are a handful of twists and turns throughout the journey that do shake things up from time to time, but there’s never anything particularly groundbreaking and it all wraps up in a fairly timely manner, all things considered.
I’ll be the first to admit that although I thoroughly enjoyed Voice of Cards, I was expecting a little bit more from the story. Yoko Taro’s unusual style does shine through on occasion, but it usually only occurs within the unlockable lore entries that you can receive, each detailing the backstories of your party and the characters and enemies around you. This unique writing, however, is not particularly prominent in any of the game’s core scenes, leading to a slight lack of depth in the world around you.
Thankfully, the main characters are extremely likable and each has an interesting personality that subverts your expectations and makes the adventure far more engaging. Your main character, for example, is actually a bit of an ass! His narrow-minded focus on the money that awaits at the end of his quest often causes him to completely disregard other people’s feelings, which isn’t something you’d expect from your main protagonist! Another key character, Bruno, is an exceptionally buff strongman who clashes with the fantasy theme completely. He joins the quest feeling determined to prove that power grants more personal strength than knowledge; Fighting against the beliefs of his even more muscular —nutritionist— father. Then there’s the pesky Ivory Order; Another trio of aloof heroes who you are constantly competing with, in a race to slay the dragon first.
Once again though, the most distinctive aspect of the story-telling comes from its presentation, and with it: Its voice acting. I mentioned before that the game is like a Dungeons and Dragons one-shot campaign, but that comparison actually goes much further than the game’s tabletop aesthetic… The entirety of Voice of Cards is narrated and voiced by a single person. Todd Haberkorn, (Danganronpa, Fairy Tail, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV), or Hiroki Yasumoto when playing with Japanese voice acting, (Danganronpa, Nier: Replicant, Bleach), voice a mysterious Dungeon Master who narrates every action you undertake and reads the lines of every single character you encounter.
As veterans of the industry, both Haberkorn and Yasumoto take to this role with utter perfection. Their readings will absolutely enchant you and will make every aspect of the story far more gripping than it otherwise would be. They are the unexpected heart and soul of Voice of Cards, and I sincerely hope that they return to this role if a sequel ever comes to light, as it wouldn’t be the same without them. The style that they bring to the game makes all of the unusual presentation aspects, (the generic story framework, the card-based visuals, the tabletop aesthetic, the traditional gameplay), come together and work in a way that none of these features could manage individually.
Less significant, (but still very enthralling), is the soundtrack. Whilst the music was primarily composed by Oliver Good, additional work was done by another veteran of the Drakengard and Nier franchises in the form of Keiichi Okabe. Between the two of them, these composers have managed to create a mellifluous duel arrangement that ebbs and flows between classic high fantasy tracks and the iconic poignant tones that Okabe is renowned for. It may not be quite as prevalent as the voice acting, but it’s certainly a lovely touch that adds gravitas to the story whenever it’s needed.
So there we have it. All in all, Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars is a stylish, albeit formulaic game with a handful of limitations and immersion-breaking moments. The gorgeous soundtrack and outstanding narration lead it to be overwhelmingly enchanting the vast majority of the time, whilst the slightly silly nature of its long-winded ability animations, along with the fairly generic story framework, occasionally break that well-crafted immersion.
When you also factor in the repeated use of certain side character art, it’s easy to view Voice of Cards as a game that is constantly battling with its own presentation style, for better or for worse. Due to the self-contained nature of the story, I can’t help but hope for a slightly higher budget sequel that can learn from the issues in this otherwise “refreshingly” enjoyable tale. It may not be a completely original game, but the way that it leans into genre nostalgia in order to create a traditional old-school adventure is delightful, especially when paired with its wonderful Dungeons and Dragons-theming.
Still unsure of whether it’s for you or not? Well, why not try out the demo, as it’s not only a good representation of what the full game is like, but it also functions as a self-contained prologue for the story! Another stand-alone narrative set in the same universe that evolves on the format and creates a more interesting story framework would honestly be a dream come true for me.