One of the things that has excited me most about Voice of Cards was the potential that it had to deliver a true “Dungeons & Dragons,” tabletop-like experience. Those who have been playing Dungeons & Dragons for long enough will know how the adventure modules work. You have the base game platform and system (i.e. the Dungeons & Dragons ruleset), and then you would buy individual adventures as they appealed to you, to take your gaming group through. As you finish one campaign, you pick up another module and start playing again, and though the rules would stay consistent, the storytelling was wildly different each time. The Forsaken Maiden proves that the developers seem to have had the same idea.
This game uses the same basic system as its predecessor. This isn’t always for the better – most noteworthily, The Forsaken Maiden is, like the first Voice of Cards “module,” far, far too easy. I’m not sure if the developers aren’t able to increase the difficulty without causing frustration (which is possible, as the combat is so simple that there’s no way to overcome difficulty spikes through skilled play). It’s also possible that they just want to keep the experience consistent, and figure that a low difficulty level makes for some accessible play. This time around there was one boss battle that stumped me briefly (you’ll know the one I’m talking about when you get up to it. It is a stand-out), but otherwise I would be right as long as I went though with each battle (especially since the encounter rate is ridiculously high). Whatever the reasons for designing the game this way, though, the difficulty – and much of the rest of the experience – is in a lockstep marriage with the first Voice of Cards, and if we get any more of these down the track, it would be safe to assume they will be at parity as well.
What is different is the characters and adventure. The Forsaken Maiden is a more seafaring, swashbuckling-like campaign, as our heroes race against time to save an island nation from falling into ruin. The problem is that each island in the archipelago where the game takes place needs a shrine maiden to protect the island and its people… and this particular island doesn’t seem to have one. Or, they do, but she’s mute and therefore can’t fulfil her duties. So the team go island hopping to look for a solution to this, and make some new allies and enemies along the way.
The Forsaken Maiden is pulp fantasy stuff, and the twists and turns that you’ll come across are in service of that. What sells it with this game is the way that it’s being presented as though you’re at a tabletop, with a narrator explaining what happens just as a dungeon master would. I don’t know about you all, but when I play Dungeons & Dragons I’m most certainly not looking for Tolkien-level plots and Shakespearean performances. Dungeons & Dragons was always designed to be accessible fantasy adventuring, and so you want it to be kitsch. That’s the appropriate aesthetic and tone for it. The Forsaken Maiden nails it as a particularly well-written example of just this kind of narrative.
Of course, the thing most people talk about with this emerging series is the card-like aesthetic, where absolutely everything in the game is represented by cards. Your party jumps from one card to the next to travel around the world, towns and dungeons and, when combat is joined, both your side and the enemy monsters are represented by cards. To use a special ability or item, you pull up the relevant card, and when you level up, a card with your stats pops up and is updated.
The amount of animation and the ability for information on these cards to be written and overwritten prevents Voice of Cards from being a true analogue game, and you wouldn’t be able to precisely recreate this using a deck of cards, but the effect is there and it does come across as authentic. This is further supported by the sheer quality of the art on these cards – the monsters are stunning in design and your party includes Hatsune Miku (there’s no way any of you are convincing me that that design is not a direct riff on Miku). She was, unsurprisingly, my favourite.
Jokes and thirst aside, what Voice of Cards demonstrates is the power and potential of imagination in video games. So often we work on the assumption that we’re going to have everything shown to us in the video games that we play, with no work on our part. The graphics will be so realistic we can all but feel the grass as we touch it. Detailed cut scenes will convey every emotion and we’ll see the incredible feats of heroism with our own two eyes. Voice of Cards dares to be different. It uses richly evocative (largely still) art and a narrator that deliberately leaves gaps for us to fill in ourselves. The experience is modelled after a good book, in other words, and just like a good book Voice of Cards draws us into its world in a way that is far more captivating than those hyper-real blockbusters. Those games are passive, which might sound odd given that we’re talking about video games here, but in spelling everything out for you, you’re just sitting there consuming the content as it is packaged up for you. Voice of Cards, however, is active. It demands that you do some of the legwork yourself, and the experience is all the more rich and vibrant for it. Truly, this game is your own adventure.
The Forsaken Maiden is not really a sequel or successor to the first Voice of Cards. There’s no effort to build on the previous game. Instead, The Forsaken Maiden exists in parallel to the first Voice of Cards, as another module to sit on the virtual bookshelf of adventures. I only hope that Square Enix is being rewarded for these and the plan is to fill many shelves with many more parallel modules like this. I will forever find the time to more Voice of Cards if it’s going to keep being like this.