Mega Crit games really struck a nerve back in 2017 when Slay the Spire hit Early Access on Steam. This January it would finally release in full (and port to Switch this July). Those two years were all that were necessary to see that deck-builder, roguelike RPG genre get filled to the brim with offerings clearly inspired by it. It was not the first game of its type, like Modern Warfare wasn’t the first FPS ever made. Yet, also like Call of Duty 4, it sparked something in that creative space that changed everything for it.
We’re in a land where small genre innovations get co-opted to oblivion. MOBA’s and Battle Royales are examples of novel concepts that become overexposed in the blink of an eye. It only takes one mega hit for all of the top players in the industry to dramatically shift towards the siren’s song of social media interactions and massive profits from micro-transactions. It’s hard not to see the deck builder as another potential pie for Activision or Tencent to attempt to divvy up.
Sharkbomb Studio’s Nowhere Prophet is obviously a product of the Slay wave. But to call it “derivative” would be an incredible mistake. This isn’t what Lords of the Fallen is to Dark Souls – a hollow, sometimes cynical copy of another game’s brilliance. This is Uncharted 2 to the third person action game; a game that wears its inspiration clearly on it’s sleeves, and aims to perfect the execution of the genre’s best strengths before attempting to create brand new ones.
It’s core pillar is the card drawing and deck shuffling that serves as the functional heart of all these games. Nowhere Prophet borrows some concepts popular with card games, like creatures with health and damage stats, cards with special ability tags, and deck cultivation in order to create your own personal lean, mean drawing machine. It borrows some specific concepts from it’s contemporaries too. For example, equipment can be assigned to your leader – the eponymous Prophet – to give them an edge in combat, but it also adds gear-specific cards to your deck. When Deep Sky Derelicts did it last year, it was creative twist to the formula, and it remains so in Nowhere.
Where Sharkbomb flourishes is the cards’ connection to the narrative pillar of the game. Each card is also a member of your convoy. Your Scout or Raider also might have a proper name, role, and personality within your group of wanderers. This often means that each individual member could be someone who is at risk at all times.
For instance, when traveling on the map to a node, you often run into The Banner Saga-esque scenarios. They call for a decision to ultimately be made by you, but could have been catalyzed by a party member’s unique interactions with a thing. Maybe you see a cave, and one of your tribesmen steps up and volunteers to check it out. If you let them go, they might come back with riches that you couldn’t have found without them. Them could also get ambushed by the wildlife that lives inside it, and never come back at all.
Banner Saga shared this approach to risk and loss in some ways, but it didn’t fully carry over to the battles in the way that Nowhere Prophet does. Allies who are knocked out in battle become wounded. In this state, they have reduced health, but are cheaper to play. If you play a wounded convoy member in battle and they are knocked out again, they are killed. This produces some real anime sweat moments when you have to choose if one of your favorite units should attempt to parley with the enemy or not. Should something go bad here, it could affect your play for the rest of the run.
Back on the battlefield, Nowhere Prophet takes some more cues from turn-based tactical games by incorporating grid combat and positional elements to the standard card flop. Duelyst took a stab at this in 2016, and really carved out a niche for itself in the genre. Prophet takes it a step further.
Rows have multiple positions, and only units in the right-most row (the “front line”) can do any attacking. If you have three units in a row, only one can attack. On the flip side, if you only have one unit in a row, then they are automatically the “front line,” and can attack. Obstacles and cover can appear or be dropped onto the field to spice combat up, and positional tricks like pushing people into other rows adds a layer of depth you just don’t see in other games in the space.
Something else you don’t see in the genre: this depth of color and diversity of environments. There are more games set in dire, desperate worlds than you can even count. Very few of them embrace the entire color wheel like Nowhere Prophet. Dusty deserts still have a wide range of hues and shades that make it pop. Verdant jungles can look lush, and aggressive, and intrusive as it grows over the long abandoned robot scrap beneath it. The world of Soma is foreign and dangerous place, but it almost feels brave that Sharkbomb didn’t use that as an excuse for it to also drench it in the same old dark dungeon palette that we get too often.
The attention put into making the setting look different is also heavily evident in the character designs. All shapes and sizes of people are rendered in this beautiful, almost watercolor scheme. The various different cultures of people that inhabit the world are well realized and look impressively unique from one another. They may fall into the sort of tropes we’ve come to expect in this sort of sci-fi – the dominant religious cult, the wild barbarian tribe, the technophiles, etc. – but they all feel like they exist in the world that runs with or without me trudging through it.
This isn’t “just another deck-builder.” If we can un-ironically believe that iteration is the mother of true innovation, than let Sharkbomb Studios latest be evidence of that. It’s easy to identify the games of before that come together to make a game like this. But it takes true vision and imagination to make it happen gracefully. Something Nowhere Prophet has in spades.
This game was played on a PC with a Steam code provided by the publisher.