Deck-building games have been heavily trending in recent years off the back of trailblazers like Rio Grande's board game Dominion from 2008, Blizzard's Hearthstone from 2013 and 2017's Slay the Spire by MegaCrit. One of the most common denominators is how the exchange of blows is turn-by-turn, with nothing interrupting each player's ongoing deliberations. This is where Dual Wield Software's first title, The Land of Glass, skips the trodden path by refusing the luxury of thinking time, thus infusing the card combat with pounding adrenaline, and shirts with so many manly excretions. Let me tell you why I think it was a success beyond the testimony of evidently meager sales figures!
After you've entered one of the four parallel campaigns, all starring a different pair of fighter and mage protagonists but taking place in the same begrudgingly cohabited world of Vitrerran, you find your deck comprises only straightforward attack and defend cards. After a brief introductory dialogue, you're quickly walked along the game's linear pathways into the inexorable fray. Therein, the attack cards you place somewhere in the attack grid, which causes that part of the opponent's defenses to temporarily weaken; all damage that surpasses the defense value of the targeted tile penetrates armor and causes the enemy to be knocked back and towards an ignominious plunge off the other end of the arena. All the while, you're not safe from a death drop yourself unless you keep repairing your own dented armor with your defense cards placed in the defense grid that's largely a mirror for the attack grid but from your opponent's perspective.
Not long in, you'll start encountering an increasing variety of utility cards (magic) that typically affect only a small circular portion of the battlefield and thus must be carefully aimed. The cards are not really fleshed out with lore or fancy illustrations, giving function the focus. This is just as well, seeing as you'll definitely want to know your deck inside and out. While on-the-fly thinking during the fights is still necessary, at least equally so is carefully rehearsing the battle plan ahead of time so you'll know what you're after especially in fights that initially thwart you. While most enemies' loot is set, you're given more cards to buy from vendors or ask the blacksmith to craft from whatever you feel you can sacrifice, thus adding to the depth and replayability as you can't really hope to gain every card on every playthrough. Beyond that, each campaign even seems to have a somewhat different set of cards available – my experience is based on playing Tylek and Kvalt's campaign through on the middle difficulty and Caud and Pakasoph's some ways in on the hard setting – and so the exact same deck might not even be possible to assemble. Even if it were, you'll always have more experiments to make since it's far from obvious what the limits of each type of build might be. There are as many as nine schools of magic, each with their idioms and synergies, which I was wondering if it wasn't too much in favor of more depth to each.
Meanwhile, aside from the rings, the equippables you find in this game are a very mechanical contrivance for raising the player's stats in lieu of leveling up, since each of them is almost always a no-brain improvement on what you've found before. The rings, on the other hand, mutate the gameplay in ways that are probably meaningful but more difficult to grasp since no specific formulae are given, only a vague verbal description, e.g. "increases hand size" or "allows you to attack more often". This is a shame since well-informed decisions are the bread and butter of this kind of game.
The many creatures that antagonize you differ mainly on two things: their stats and their spells. They're both the same ones to those present for the player, which is fun to realize. You can easily get lost in the veritable jungle of different attributes. There's one for each of: how far an enemy's attack will knock you back; how much your stamina will be reduced; how often they can attack the same grid tile; three defensive stats that reduce the same effects for the player's offense; and finally how fast they regain ground plodding back towards the safety of the center of the battlefield. The player, in addition, has the "strength" stat that acts as a cap on how many cards you can have in your deck. I can't say I've developed any sort of mastery over all of this but I have a feeling there will certainly be ample returns for those keen on min-maxing and theory-crafting. It's the mystery of this novel kind of combat that I find the most alluring and keeping me returning to the game.
By now, in case you scooted over to Steam or itch.io to see what my hubbub is about, you wouldn't have missed the game's unique and attractive looks. When you enter a new area, you see it being put together out of colorful blocks akin to Bastion. This is complemented with artistic lighting effects which bring the rather expansive world to the kind of vitreous life you'd expect of a game about glass. What is obviously a painstakingly fleshed-out Vitrerron is even more so than it initially appears since despite the characters all visiting the same general areas on their quests, they take different paths through them, and so I was surprised that there was more to every area than what was betrayed on my first sojourn. The dialogue even changes a little based on which order you visit each area, which the game does offer freedom about.
The music I was worried would prove grating, since some of it sounds a little chaotic at first, and some people thought it got repetitive. I personally seemed to get used to it and I couldn't tell what was fundamentally wrong with it, other than perhaps the usage of a flat SoundFont in lieu of better free alternatives I believe to exist. For some reason, I wasn't quite pulled deep enough into the stories to take any extra time to cherish the writing, on the other hand. Again, it's difficult to pinpoint what's at fault here, and not everyone seems to find fault to begin with. In principle, the narratives look to aptly avoid tropes and cliches, offering a subtle take on how the characters would, believably, experience the cataclysm they've been stricken with and are blaming each other for. I think it's all... adequate certainly, but for me I feel it won't ever captivate me the way the gameplay does. Again, I can't explain why. It may also come down to all the clicking it's forcing me through, or maybe it does violate some tacit rule of game design by jamming in all too much exposition everywhere, despite chopping it up into short and digestible dialogues. It's not unintelligent, by any means. Meanwhile, there are clear-cut little niggles such as saving being limited to whenever you're moving between screens, meaning you'll probably want to reserve at least 20 minutes for each session or risk losing some progress. You also lose all progress in an area if you leave ahead of time, including all cards you thought you could smuggle out. It might be a little too difficult to make informed decisions about purchases, especially before you've played the campaign through in its entirety, since you don't really have any idea which cards will become available later for synergizing with them, and once you've moved past a vendor, the same opportunities may never arise again. Also it's too easy to accidentally click and drag the wrong card as your deck is being filled back up. This type of interface stumble does nettle in fights where you are driven to your absolute limits, which are otherwise the best time you'll have. I should mention this may not be an issue if playing with a controller, which someone was recommending over the mouse wielded by me. Finally, I think it's not clear enough what spells the enemy is casting without their names popping up anywhere. It would be an epic quest of its own right to become able to intelligently react to them in the heat of battle as well as keeping up your own ABC attack and defense game.
So all in all, I can sincerely recommend this game to anyone at all fond of the deck-building genre and without a great aversion towards relentless real-time gameplay. What you lack in one part, you can make up in the other. Furthermore, I recommend playing at as high a difficulty setting as you think you can muster, since that forces you to really think about the nuances of each encounter, and it's possible to lower it later anyway. All in all, I think this game needs to be judged as one might have a first-generation Magic the Gathering. I can't guarantee the best strategies don't converge on a few select builds, but again, no-one's telling you you can't challenge yourself with something different. Two thumbs up for this eye-opening innovator!
TIWIKs = Things I Wish I'd Known
- Click on the enemies before a fight to see their stats.
- If it's not clear, the blueprint cards are cheaper than plain buying the card they're for, but cost a bunch of other cards to have the blacksmith construct; the end result is the same.
- You can take random fights on the overworld map but if you lose (the enemies range from pushovers to steamrollers), it costs you 100 gold. If you want to try to bag cards from a certain school, look for enemies that spawn in the corresponding region.
- Remember that you don't always have to stack your deck as full as it can get; leaving cards out means you get the cards you want more consistently.
- This game was part of the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality on itch.io in case you got your hands on it.
Reviewed by: LotBlind