Date: October 28, 2021
I would wager that most people reading this review have probably never heard of Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars. The game was quietly announced in early September, and was released just as quietly on October 28, as a digital-only title for PC, Nintendo Switch and Playstation 4.
Its release was so quiet that one would probably be surprised to hear that it was published by Square Enix, and made by the geniuses behind 2017’s massively successful Nier: Automata, including superstar director Yoko Taro.
A poorly kept secret about Taro is that he is very eccentric. His games usually feature mind-blowing twists (think Sixth Sense) or very unique storylines that explore the very nature of humanity. The man just doesn’t do conventional stories or game design, and there’s usually a lot of expectations from fans going into a Yoko Taro game.
After playing through Voice of Cards and getting every achievement for it, I have to say that he really outdid himself with this one. The man created a tabletop RPG… video game?
Everything in Voice of Cards is made of cards, as the title makes plainly obvious — the player characters, monsters, spells and actions, and the world itself. It is a lot like Dungeons & Dragons board games that feature cards, such as Tomb of Annihilation and Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage, for anyone who has played those.
Rather obviously, as a tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons is probably the biggest inspiration for this game. All of the cards are placed on a virtual table, and the game features a game master, who represents the “voice” in “Voice of Cards” and narrates everything that is happening, controls the enemies, etc.
Voice of Cards can thus be summed up as a mini D&D campaign in the form of a video game, made up entirely of cards, with the backbone of traditional RPGs and some hints of “Choose Your Own Adventure” type books.
The Characters & Story
In Voice of Cards you play as a money-hungry bounty hunter (named Ash by default) who sets out to kill the dragon that has been terrorizing the world at the behest of the queen. But you’re not going alone: you are joined by your loyal monster companion Mar and the witch Melanie, who harbours a personal grudge against the dragon.
And so you go from town to town, seeking information on the dragon’s whereabouts and the strength to defeat him. Other colorful characters join your party along the way, and you keep encountering your rivals, the Ivory Order trio — who were the playable characters of the demo version of the game, which is effectively a prequel.
The story starts off very simple and sticks to RPG tropes for the first half, but becomes increasingly more complex during its second half. If I had to be frank, the story is not really the game’s strongest point overall, and Yoko Taro fans who are going in expecting a mind-blowing twist will likely be disappointed.
Nonetheless, I largely enjoyed the story anyway, specially after an interesting turn it takes during the mid-point. While there is no massive twist, in typical Taro writing fashion you will end up questioning your actions and their morality, though it never gets quite as dark as Nier: Automata.
The main thing that carried my enjoyment of the story and the world in general, is the humour. The player characters have some hilarious moments and quips, particularly after a certain muscular character joins your party. You have locations like “Nexton”, the next town you visit after the first city, and “Whatchacallit Extract” used for healing a sick party member. The writing manages to be light-hearted without compromising its dark moments.
One small but interesting thing in this game is that, generally, you do not know what outcome your in-game decisions will bring about. However, you can occasionally “cheat” by taking a peak at your decision cards to see a small part of their outcome. That reminded me of “Choose Your Own Adventure” type books, in which you’d hastily flip to the next page to take a peak at your decision’s outcome, and go back should you be unhappy with it. It’s not a big thing in the grander scope, but it’s definitely a nice touch in making the game feel more authentic to the medium it is trying to emulate.
The game’s art style draws inspiration from many sources. It features artwork that ranges from typical western fantasy illustrations (that strongly reminded me of various board games I’ve played), to some wildcard characters that remind me of old-school JRPGs. At times I was very nostalgic, while sometimes I was slightly confused — the contrast was massive, which actually enhanced the writing’s light-heartedness somewhat.
“Everything is cards? That’s kinda boring,” some of you might think. However, the wonderful illustrations on each card really help make Voice of Cards a visually appealing game. And it all comes together thanks to some very creative special effects and animations, particularly during battles.
The various cards move around to represent their actions, such as a character spinning and moving during a sword attack. The slash effect and sword prop are beautiful to look at, but crucially, they are simplistic enough that it’s still your imagination filling in the gaps between the cards and the concept they represent. In tandem, they really enhance the immersion necessary for a tabletop RPG.
The issue I’d really point out on the graphics side is that the game’s resolution is capped at 1920×1080, which is honestly bizarre. The cards were likely drawn at significantly higher resolutions and are very simple textures with minimal shading and very simple geometry. It is probably not too resource intensive to let them be rendered at a higher native resolution, and I cannot imagine it being capped for UI reasons.
Beyond its tabletop aesthetic and narration style, Voice of Cards plays a lot like a typical RPG. You freely move around the overworld, interacting with NPCs, purchasing items and exploring the world. Then you have dungeons, an RPG staple, which are typically part of a quest in the main story (though generally quite small). Oh, and there are random enemy encounters, which I know can be very polarizing — I thought they were okay in this game.
Combat has its own unique sequence. A special board will be placed atop the table, holding things you’ll need for combat, such as your dice. It’s typical RPG stuff for the most part, being turn-based, with attack, defense and speed stats. Speed dictates turn order, similar to initiative in Dungeons & Dragons. There’s also elemental weaknesses and resistances, a staple that us RPG veterans could not live without.
Your main resource during combat is called “gems”. It has similarities to mana in card games like Hearthstone, in that you generate 1 gem per turn and each action has a different gem cost based on how powerful it is. Your gems are shared between each party member and you can generate more gems per turn by using support spells and items. It is a surprisingly deep system, with correct usage of your gems making a huge difference.
For example, you can opt to generate gems with your first character in order to set up your damage dealer for a massive attack on his turn, depleting all of your gems in the process. Your last character will then only have the 1 gem he generated on his turn to work with, so he may only be able to use a 0-gem cost basic attack or pass. You may be unable to respond to an enemy’s action that way, so you want to make sure the gamble was worth it.
While the combat in Voice of Cards is fairly simple, it can be surprisingly fun. You see, the characters in this game aren’t your cliche RPG archetypes of fighter, mage, thief and cleric. They do not have a definitive role in the party, which was very refreshing to see in an RPG. For example, you would assume that Melanie the witch is just your typical mage-type damage dealer, but she works just as well as a support or crowd control type character — there is no clear-cut best choice, it’s up to you to decide how you want to use her.
The other characters are even more flexible, as they break free from trope cliches in both story and combat. I never really relied on just one or two strategies, and I used different roles for each party member depending on the situation. Combat felt very dynamic as a result, with each encounter being unique.
But while the combat itself is fun, there’s one pretty glaring issue with it: the difficulty, or rather the lack thereof. The game starts off easy and stays that way. By doing just a few side activities, my party was so strong I could stomp my way through most encounters, with only the last dungeon and post-game activities offering any semblance of challenge.
As a long-time (J)RPG veteran, I was thoroughly disappointed by this. The depth of combat was there, the monsters were just too weak. The game begs for a “Hard” difficulty setting that beefs them up slightly, such that you can’t win by merely overpowering them. The New Game+ mode could have been a solution, but alas, the game is even easier there as you start with all of your overpowered equipment while enemies remain the same.
There’s also a mini-game that uses real life playing cards, which is just meta. The best way to describe it is “Poker with Mario Kart power-ups” — it is as whacky as it sounds. It has a Poker-esque ruleset, but the cards themselves have abilities, and there are random events to spice things up. And I mean really random, to an infuriating degree sometimes.
You can play the minigame against the AI or against your friends in local multiplayer, which I’m assuming is an easier way of ending friendships than Mario Kart itself, so single player it is. It kind of grew on me, to be honest, as it makes for a nice break from all the action when you finally reach the next town. But if I were you, I’d avoid the “Include All” ruleset, as it has far too much randomness — you can be 1 round away from winning and then end up in last place.
The game’s soundtrack was composed by none other than Keiichi Okabe. To fans of Nier: Automata, that’s probably all I need to say, as that game’s soundtrack won a few dozen awards for good reason, with Okabe widely being credited for that success.
Voice of Cards probably won’t be winning similar awards, as its music was pretty modest by comparison. It was still very enjoyable, and helped convey the emotions it was supposed to. But just like in any D&D campaign, the music is merely there for immersion, the main selling point is the game master.
Speaking of which, I was frankly disappointed with the English game master. His performance was overly dramatic and lacked a personal flair — he was a lot more “typical video game narrator” than “homebrew campaign game master.”
For that reason, I switched to the Japanese narrator and never regretted it — his performance was simply fantastic. He came off as a friendly game master at a local fantasy game shop, which really helped Voice of Cards feel like a real tabletop RPG experience. I sincerely recommend that you pick the Japanese narrator even if you don’t speak Japanese — the bulk of the game is visual-based anyway.
As a huge fan of RPGs — by far my favourite genre, in fact — I thoroughly enjoyed Voice of Cards. What it lacked in difficulty, it more than made up for with its unrestrictive combat, its likeable characters and its immersive tabletop RPG cards & game master gimmicks.
But there is one thing that truly disappointed me as an RPG fan: the game is just too small. The level cap is too low, characters only has about 10 abilities each, and there are only about 5-6 items of each type per character, etc. I beat the game in just over 14 hours, and it took me roughly 4 more to complete it 100% — altogether too short.
Don’t get me wrong, the story had a nice conclusion and I enjoyed my time — I just wanted more, more of this genre in general. I said Voice of Cards can be summed up as a mini D&D campaign, and that’s the thing: it feels like a mini-campaign, and it was a decent one at that, but the framework it was built on — now that was truly great, and worthy of being expanded on.
After beating the game, I kept thinking of all the different ways this formula could be extended. For instance, adding a multiplayer mode, with each player controlling a different character. You could add more abilities, more characters, more items, more enemies. You don’t even really need more assets, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
Beyond that, you could simply have more campaigns. You could also let players design their own campaigns — I imagine there’s modders out there doing exactly that as I type this. The engine for it is already there, and it is so incredibly well polished that it feels like a shame more wasn’t done with it. In fact, it makes Tabletop Simulator and other board game engines feel absolutely archaic by comparison.
Of course, the very fact that I feel that way is proof that Voice of Cards is a good game. Yoko Taro somehow managed to digitize the concept of a tabletop RPG campaign, while still retaining the feeling of being there, talking to an actual game master. And that is absolutely brilliant in its own way, which is typical Yoko Taro. I can only hope that eventually we get Voice of Cards 2, or ideally, a Voice of Cards Campaign Designer type game.