To any passive eye, the card-based/tabletop-strewn aesthetic has seen a resurgence in popularity as of late. To the more focused eye, this brand of RPG hasn’t so much waned as it’s found itself an even grander audience and a greater number of platforms to market itself across. While it may be more a fresh take than an entirely new concept, there’s no denying that this particular brand of role-playing and strategy (whether it’s turn-based or not) has its appeal — be it planning multiple steps ahead or simply the presence of a deck of cards, physical or otherwise. Even for one relatively outside this particular bubble, it’s hard not to recognize the love and admiration for a fond return to a past form of presentation.
Perhaps it’s this very reason why Rezrog, developer Soaphog’s own entrant in this most spry of gaming trends, attracted me initially and why even now its charm seldom wanes even after numerous dungeons tackled, many chop-and-changes of attributes and indeed the frustration of losing units at the most critical of moments. Because for all its streamlined, mobile-like simplicity in visuals — juxtaposed, oddly enough, by its barrage of options and its difficulty above all else — Rezrog may well be one of this year’s most charming and inviting titles for players both inside and out the RPG bubble. A game that is as much surprising in its execution, given the abundance of statistics and possible routes to take, as it is visually striking. Pitting its tabletop-styled aesthetic centre-stage sure, yet happily allowing other systems put in place, to shine just as brightly. And just as sinisterly.
Of course, you can’t begin the specific critiques of a game like Rezrog without taking note — and perhaps notable issue — with how quickly the game forces its player on the back-foot. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with stating with immediacy your gameplay’s challenging intent, the lack of any real tutorials not to mention the overwhelming slew of stats thrust upon the player from the get-go, will undoubtedly put some off without a single dungeon tackled. Rezrog‘s biggest gripe then is in its overly-ambitious start; flinging stats, RNGs, customizeable abilities and the very controls/mechanics that govern them all in one go rather than slowly drip-feeding or otherwise letting the player sink into the natural flow of its moment-to-moment gameplay at their own pace. A false assumption to start sure, but one that could have benefited from a bit more leniency. But should you trudge through the inevitable harsh lessons in the first few dungeons — not to mention the odd swing in difficulty from time to time — what you’ll find is an RPG, as noted, that while isn’t ashamed of flaunting its aesthetic, ultimately doesn’t let it dominate what is still an experience made and/or broken by player choice.
Despite its simple premise narratively about a fantasy land in turmoil and the need for a band of heroes to conquer the very many dungeons that litter the World of Rezrog’s contrasted locales, the real joy to be garnered and subsequently unravelled, fortunately, is on the gameplay; the “reality” if you will of the game’s setting almost immediately tossed aside by the miniaturised, overhead scale of its environments — wonderfully evolving from some novel art-style into something with a bit more quirk and personality. Blocky, procedurally-generated rooms built with cubes and paper-thin character models conflicting with the ocassional presence of a giant pencil or can of cola. Enemies too, rather than disappearing or dying upon defeat, simply plucked from off the dungeon floor and placed outside its confines to indicate their being “out” of the game. Because of this, Rezrog‘s visual cues run far deeper than the initial presentation might offer — similarly to games like Brut@l (an RPG too, oddly enough) in that its chosen art-style is not simply cosmetic, but one that reasserts the rules and boundaries of its gameplay.
The fact that such things as tackling an enemy from the side/behind to inflict greater damage or the notion that unexplored rooms aren’t yet revealed until one chooses to open a connected door — rooms assembling on mass in the same humorous plotting of miniature, textured cubes but more importantly finding a way to tempt while still maintaining a degree of risk — shows developer Soaphog have, even with the vibrant color palettes and simplified user-interface, made sure to consider even the lesser quirks and characteristics of the game World. Both the imagined World of Rezrog‘s fantasy setting and indeed the “real” (for lack of a better term) World that these tabletop games take place in. The tavern, your hub of sorts outside of dungeons where you go about preparing yourselves for the next challenge, is essentially an up-standing piece of board-game furniture — itself never letting slip the concept of a game thematically portrayed as just that…a game.
Thankfully, Rezrog is about more than just its looks and its through the gameplay where it really sinks its teeth into the player’s mood but more promisingly, the longevity with which one is pulled back into the game’s [eventually] easy-to-manage form of interaction. Upon deciding which of your seven characters will tackle a dungeon, conquering a dungeon splits itself into two forms: real-time exploration whereby players can move their paper-thin character around the dungeon any amount of spaces (keeping in mind of course that hostile creatures/enemies will also move that same amount of spaces) and turn-based battles that occur only once you and an enemy are close enough in proximity. Surviving an encounter — combining special moves as well as strategically placing one’s self on the grid-based floor, not to mention the aforementioned preparation beforehand — will allow you to complete the objective initially dictated upon when entering the dungeon.
This can be anything from rescuing a prisoner deep within the dungeon’s confines, activating a set number of levers scattered about, even gathering parts of a weapon by defeating enemies which then must be forged to unlock a specific door. While the objectives on the surface don’t deviate that broadly from the regular notion of “find/collect/gather x”, there still lies an undercurrent of RPG’s most pinnacle of mind-sets: think before you act. Not all enemies need to be engaged; hypothetically, certain objectives can be attained without ever putting yourself in harm’s way.
The catch to all of this however, is that should your character be defeated, they become imprisoned in that dungeon until another selected character returns and subsequently frees them, halting your all-round progress through the game’s one hundred dungeons by extension. Lose and have all your characters die/captured and it’s game over. While this does admittedly require one to return/re-run previously conquered dungeons — so as to build up other characters to a suitable level, thus offering a faint whiff of grinding out the acquisition of both higher levels and new equipment/crafting items — Rezrog is smart in that it uses that oldest of RPG tropes to require the player to consider the likely possibility of defeat. Thus losing what may be the only valuable character in your band of heroes — one you’ve blissfully devoted too much time to at the cost of the other heroes available.
And given this happened to me on more than one occasion, by way of overconfidence in tackling a later dungeon, Rezrog’s motive as much its hidden agenda/message is not only clearly felt, but delivered in a way that feels uniquely organic but most of all, fair. An unpredictable difficulty spike here and there may question that authenticity, but even so it’s imperative that one takes careful strides about allotting heroes’ particular items and when and it’s where Soaphog manage to tap into a style of play that, no matter the difficulty or challenge put before you, will keep you coming back for more. Be it to regain a character you’ve put so many dungeons worth of experience into, or not.
Rezrog will no doubt stand as one of the lesser-talked releases of the year, yet one that poses a quite resonant and important question on the principle of planning/thinking before one acts. All this, after the most baffling and head-scratching of introductory openings — an opening that immediately places all its potential systems on the player’s shoulders, coming off initially as an uphill struggle with little leniency. It’s a testament then to how well Soaphog manage to marry the charm of its art-style to the sophisticated yet inevitably accessible delivery of its mechanics. Look past the out-of-character presence of difficulty at the start or perhaps the limitation of its procedural dungeon design and what you’ll find is a strategy RPG with as much charm, personality and character to carry through the same manner of grand adventure any fellow RPG might invoke. Reflecting more so the best and perhaps worst in a player’s ambition for all-round victory — that in itself, perhaps, Rezrog‘s true lasting appeal.