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Tainted Grail: Conquest PC Review

I was a little upset to have missed out on the Tainted Grail: Fall of Avalon board game Kickstarter from back in 2018. It was one of those big, expensive productions that I just couldn’t commit to at the time. Then, a few years later when people started to receive the game and gave it glowing reviews, then I was really jealous. It’s so hard to get your hands on those games that don’t get general releases and damn if I didn’t want to play it. The problem is, now, after getting to play Tainted Grail: Conquest (a rogue-lite deck-building spin-off of their originally proposed full-on Tainted Grail:Fall of Avalon video game rework), I want to get my hands on a copy even more! Because, wow, have I had a fantastic time with Conquest. I can only imagine what the full experience of being in the dark world of Avalon is really like. Not only is the card play excellent but the cruel mythos of the world, the characters, and the meta-narrative is one I’ve seriously enjoyed.

Everything has gone to Hell. What little remains of the world at all is encompassed in a strange blurry fog that warps those within it and hides an abundance of powerful abominations. They call it Wyrdness. There are a few ways to hold it back but, in the grand scheme of things, they are ineffective and all too temporary. It is up to you, the eternal Hero, to keep the monsters at bay and try to put back together that which has been lost since the army of King Arthur arrived on the cursed island and set these horrors in motion. It’s only through playing the first couple of runs, and that first sweet alternate victory, that the story really starts to unfold – the true story. What is going on and how it can be solved once and for all. I found it to be a wonderful twist and a great take on how to make sense of an infinitely replayable game. Much like last year’s perfect Hades, there’s a reason the protagonist keeps coming back in different forms and there’s a reason why victory is so bittersweet. I’ve got to say I love that trope, of justifying the unrealistic nature of the video game mechanics within the story.

A run consists of making your way through three sadly almost identical areas, each culminating in a boss fight, and then a final challenge. As you explore these otherworldly areas, interacting with scattered events and members of the large cast of recurring characters, unravelling their connected tales, you’ll also be fighting for your life at every turn. And of course your weapon is a mighty customisable deck of cards through which you’ll cycle, triggering attacks and blocks, summoning creatures to fight by your side, and pulling off legendary combos with your limited energy and stack of passive abilities. The core of your deck is determined by the faction your choice of hero comes from. There are nine classes in all, broken into three parts. The first lot is akin to the classic rogue, using their agility they take advantage of many smaller strikes that you’re trying to power-up and run through endlessly; then there are the warriors, the standard hard hitters that can build up blocks and smash through defences; and finally the mages, these magic-users have different strategies of calling upon creatures to protect them and fight in their stead. And although these houses are the foundation of your loadout, the real spice of the game are the individual classes with their unique ultimate abilities, tweaked starting passives, and personal cards.

Naturally some are bound to be better than others, both in terms of brute strength and level of complexity. Some will instantly click with you and others might take a while to fully understand before you can make any decent progress. Others I’m sure you’ll just enjoy playing more, too. Everyone has a style and I definitely felt more comfortable tackling some decks over others but it’s not going to stop me from going back again and again to obtain ever-increasingly difficult victories at least once with each of them. As mentioned above, it’s also a stream of passive abilities that can really drive a build to victory. These are obtained through levelling up via battles and the occasional xp-gifting event. It tops out at twenty and there are special ‘mastery’ passives to choose from every tenth level. The trick is that you don’t have to go through every single monster in an area. In fact, it’s possible to go to the boss right away if the procedurally generated zone doesn’t decide to block your route(s), and if you think you can handle it. Walking around and burning the limited supply of Wyrd candles you have in order to dissipate the foul mist (which will also affect you positively or negatively in combat depending on the brightness level), it’s possible to see the combat encounters available and the interactions they’re blocking. See that an NPC character you’re working on a quest for is blocked by a particularly nasty enemy type? You can always make your way back around after upgrading your deck a little.

Personally I’m a big believer in long-term success over winning a run. If there’s a character or event I need to trigger to push the narrative forward permanently, potentially even unlocking new options for upgrades, etc, I’ll jump on that no matter the risk. One of my favourite parts of Conquest is how many of these types of unlocks and enhancements there are. There are straight-up unlocks of classes and shop types. There are a ton of cards and abilities to be found for each class and faction. Then, on top of that, each of these ‘shops’, that come in the form of different NPCs joining your village, all require a unique currency to be boosted. If you need to buy more Wyrd candles for a run it’s going to cost you gold. Need to increase the duration of Wyrd candles forever? That’ll cost you ‘tallow’, earned by simply burning out candles. Want to upgrade your base stats? Then you’ll need to pay a special someone in monster blood. How about removing a card from your deck? First you’ll need to go through a specific story beat to find the person who can help with that and then purchase that specific skill. Nothing comes easy.

It feels great to always be working towards several upgrades at once – there’s never a playthrough that doesn’t reward you with at least a little something. Plus it adds incentive to tackle the more powerful or tricky terrors that lurk in the rough. Chipping away at these improvements and saving the NPCs by making sense of their stories is all extra on top of a great deck-builder. The haunting story and troubling theme only furthered my own interest. If you like deck-builders, you should try this one. If you like the twisted style or the sound of the aberrant mythology, you should try this one. It’s going to satisfy on both counts. The only thing that I’m not particularly fond of is that a run can easily take over two hours, just like Fights in Tight Spaces. It’s a large time investment. There’s no quick ‘jumping in’. There’s also a glaring lack of theme between the different locations you’ll be traversing through, which is a little disappointing from an aesthetics point of view. Still, nothing is going to keep me from saving every last salvageable character, from pulling a ‘W’ with every deck, and from getting to the bottom of the meta-story and (hopefully) beating death at his own game. Now if only I could get my hands on a copy of Fall of Avalon, too…

9 out of 10