The past few years have proven that cards can be used in far more ways than the strategy of games like Yu-Gi-Oh! or Pokémon. Slay the Spire and Inscription used them for yet radically different takes on roguelikes, while I Was a Teenage Exocolonist and Voice of Cards weaved them into narrative-based RPGs. Even my more card-averse friends are enjoying these without a tap-for-mana or scree-one.
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To add to this new, card-based renaissance is Fortales, which takes deck-based shenanigans and turns it into a compelling adventure game that channels Monkey Island more than Magic: The Gathering.
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Set in the anthropomorphic animal world, Fortales follows the adventures of a young, evil hornbill called Volpain. Plagued by dark visions of the future, it’s up to him and his ragtag group of nerd-do-wells to try and stop the impending apocalypse. To overcome this, you must work your way through various location cards for clues, resources and objectives, while fighting off zombies, bandits and guards who come your way.
As much emphasis as Fortales puts into these confrontations, it isn’t particularly compelling. Combat usually depends on who can heal the fastest, or whether the Karst Hawking Gorilla can do enough damage to give you protection. While the game does a great deal of being able to work around these conflicts nonlinearly, it just feels like combat with more stages. If the enemy has gone out of my way, does it matter whether I stabbed them or bribed them? While the rewards you get for sparing people are different, they are used in similar ways – paying off the next enemy. Contrary to all of Leo the Tiger Ranger’s comments, Fortales doesn’t do a great job of making people’s lives meaningful.
Instead, Fortales is at its best when it goes out of its way and leans into the engaging elements in its adventure game. For example, an orphan needs to raise enough cash to help carry weapons from a smuggler’s troop, or to buy a scalper’s boat while fleeing an overpopulated town. After a few missions, I became afraid of encountering enemies, as it broke the flow of exploring environments and observing how each card interacts with each location. I don’t care about the billions of ways I can cripple a zombie; I’d like to know about all the smuggling places the karst could be found, or whether Volpan might be hiding some juicy little secrets for use elsewhere.
One particular highlight comes about halfway through the game, while trying to get a pirate off the hook for murder. By talking to witnesses and taking alibis as a resource card, it transforms from a battle-heavy slog to a gripping courtroom drama filled with hilarious writing that seems straight out of a LucasArts adventure. Instead of daggers and smoke bombs, your weapons are arrogant Nobels you’ve forced to testify on your behalf and you have a plethora of evidence at your disposal.
When Fortales hits his stride like this, he shines. The writing is funny, the puzzles are involved, and cracking problems-solving cards with your hand is much less hassle than estimating stats or shuffling through your discard pile as you do in battle. The cards seem to melt away, becoming just a vehicle for delivering the gorgeous world on offer. I can’t tell you the name of a single card that I played, but I vividly remember my trip to Cap Ybara, or my journey to escape mines from a rabid infected with Volpen’s sick father.
Collaborating on this is a wonderful presentation. While it’s easy to look at any anthropomorphic animal and immediately declare that it looks like Disney’s Robin Hood, Fortales earns the most in comparison. Clean character designs and whimsical locations offset a seedy, dark edge to it, just as Robin Hood’s beloved animal world is subject to poverty and corruption. It’s colorful and often entertaining without feeling overly sacrosanct.
Card games can be a tough sell, especially in video games. The threat of mechanical complexity may put some off, while to others it just seems a boring option when fully animated adventures are readily available. Sometimes, Foretales doesn’t do the best job of countering this argument, as it can make itself disappear through endless, monotonous battles. And yet, when it lays down the dagger and lets you explore the world to work for yourself, it shows that we’re nowhere close to engaging new ways to use little slabs of art.
Score: 3.5/5. Review code provided by the publisher.