If you told me in 2020 that a deckbuilder would become my favourite indie game of all time, I’d have shown you the door. But then Dicey Dungeons came my way, and I was sold. Since then, every new deckbuilder that releases peaks my curiosity. Few of them seem to stand out enough for me to give them a shot, but occasionally one will intrigue me enough to try it.
Neurodeck was one of those games.
Many thanks to Forever Entertainment for the review code
FRIEND OR PHOBIA?
Before I begin the review, I’d like the preface it by reiterating how new the genre is to me. I know that Slay the Spire is the benchmark game many use for the genre, but I have only played a small handful of deckbuilders, including: Dicey Dungeons, Rise of the Slime, and One Step From Eden. As such, this review is from the perspective of a casual deckbuilder player rather than a seasoned veteran.
Regardless, the game plays out as you would expect from the genre. You start out with a single character and only one playstyle (emotions in this game) to choose from. Your objective is to challenge your fears, which is achieved by meditating and finding the best way to overcome your phobias using a deck of emotionally themed cards.
Being a roguelite, expect failures to be more common that victories as you work out a deck that works well. As you win, you’ll unlock more emotions, more phobias, an extra character, and even ‘chunks’ of an additional game mode. There’s certainly a fair amount here to keep you plugging away, even after securing your first victory. Each unlockable emotion offers slightly different loadouts that add a little bit more variety to each playthrough, and there’s even a difficulty modifier to make the game more challenging for the hardcore gamers.
AN EMOTIONAL JOURNEY
So, how does the game actually play? Each playthrough follows a similar format each time, with the standard roguelike randomisation resulting in relatively minor differences each time. You’re initially given a choice between two opponents to face off against, each of which are physical representations of common phobias. The obvious Arachnophobia is obviously here in the manifestation of a giant spider, but then there are more obscure phobias such as Tokophobia – which is the fear of pregnancy: this one takes the form of a howling banshee-like lady with a demonic overgrown belly. Despite all the designs being monochrome, they’re mostly quite unsettling in their own way. It doesn’t just stop at their designs, as their attacks fit perfectly for the phobias they represent: expect the shark to snap at your cards, whereas the clown will pop balloons and honk horns to increase your anxiety. They’re not all perfect, however, as there are one or two derpy designs, but overall the art direction is extremely charming and a high point of the game.
In between fights, you’ll be given various options that can improve either your deck or your stats. Meditating can alter one of your cards and transform it into another; surveys help you identify your traits, which then grant additional bonuses; cooking can provide temporary boosts to aid you in the next fight; and so on. The cards you select and the abilities you receive can really help you further down the line, but like in most deckbuilders, you are best off with a leaner deck built around a particular strategy.
The cards that comprise your deck are effectively different emotions or well-being techniques, which can be used to attack or defend against your phobias. The goal is to drain your opponents HP, whilst retaining your sanity (effectively your own HP). Each turn you are granted three action points that can be used to select cards; each card will drain your stamina meter, so you’re not able to just pound your hardest moves and brute force your way to victory. Item cards are available that cost an action point to equip the item, but then can be used later for free – useful for when you want to have a handy HP recovery on standby. Should you run out of stamina, you can end your turn earlier for increased stamina recovery; and if you don’t like the cards you drew, you can use an action point to use ‘mind focus’ and draw another.
It’s a simple setup that’s relatively easy to grasp, but there’s some added complexity too that can help with building different strategies. Modifiers are beneficial or detrimental status effects that can vastly change the flow of battle. The Wrath modifier, a particular favourite of mine, allows you to channel your fury in order to deal additional damage; whereas something like Sorrow will lock one of the cards at the end of the turn. Modifiers are able to be stacked too, so it’s worth capitalising on them in order to cripple or overwhelm your foe. My main gripe is that in order to see the effects, you have to navigate your cursor onto them – which is often easier said than done. I’m not sure whether or not a bug in the game can affect your navigation, but there were times when I literally couldn’t get the cursor to hover on the effect I was suffering from. One Phobia applies certain ‘rules’ each turn, and it can be frustrating when you’re trying to fight the cursor in order for it to show you what rule is in effect. It spoils what is probably my favourite Phobia fight. Thankfully, the game does have touchscreen support, making it the ideal way to play as selecting cards and navigation is an absolute breeze when you can simply just touch anything you want.
It’s a pretty fun gameplay loop when all is said and done, and I always feel invested in it whilst playing. What it does lack though is much incentive to keep going. Different difficulties and emotions do change things up a bit, but it only feels like marginal changes rather than anything particularly game changing. At the end of the day, the way you decide to build your deck is what will vary your playthroughs. The unlockables definitely give you reason to come back, but I never felt the incentive to do more than a couple of runs in one play session. The similarity of playthroughs coupled with the same music each time (as fantastic and catchy as it is), doesn’t help matters either. As such, don’t expect this to be a deckbuilder that will capture your attention for endless hours…
… but that’s also fine. At the end of the day, Neurodeck is very charming and not particularly expensive either. The developers did a good job at translating phobias into a deckbuilder, and there are loads of little details that show a lot of love has been poured into this game. It may not steal your life, but it will capture your heart – at least for a little while.