In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2021, each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We'll post new staff picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.
The roguelike deckbuilder genre is almost comically overserved in the wake of Slay the Spire. I think that glut led to Trials of Fire flying a little under the radar when it came out of Early Access early this year, but it deserves to stand out—it’s perhaps the most compelling strategy game to come out in 2021.
If Trials of Fire is chasing trends, they’re not from videogames—it wears the influence of tabletop gaming proudly on its sleeve. Beyond the use of cards for actions, the turn-based combat also plays out over a boardgame-like hex grid. Between fights, exploring its unique postapocalyptic fantasy setting feels like an old-fashioned D&D hex crawl, with little narrative events playing out as you enter each location.
On the map, characters move like little cardboard standees. Stories are revealed as the pages of a creaking book. In battle, your heroes translate to round tokens that clack and slide as you move them. Cards fly back and forth as you play attacks. Spells burst from their caster to send an enemy jumping and clattering on impact, like someone’s bumped the table in all the excitement. It feels wonderfully tactile in a way games rarely do outside of Tabletop Simulator.
Spark of genius
What really stands out, however, is the combat. Fights in Trials of Fire are wonderfully layered, every turn a web of interesting and interconnected decisions. Your three characters each get their own hand of cards—you’ll draw 12 fresh cards total each turn—and between them they can perform actions in whatever order you like, whether they’re attacks, moves, spells, ongoing powers, or whatever other tricks you’ve added to your decks.
These actions cost Willpower, a resource that you generate by discarding cards—so every option you take means not just forgoing others, but actively sacrificing them to fuel your strategy. To complicate things further, Willpower can also be spent without cards to move your characters or raise their defence, actions vital to keeping them alive in a game that’s brutal even on its default difficulty. Let loose a costly attack, and you may be leaving the wielder exposed to a swift death.
Your hand of cards is a tantalising array of powerful, but mutually exclusive, possibilities. Possibilities that you must act on—you can hold on to only a few cards for the next round, and with Willpower so precious, you’ll rarely even be able to afford that, instead sacrificing every last spare for your moment-to-moment survival. Each turn, then, demands its own careful new plan.
Plans with layers. Cards are full of synergies and interactions, offering huge boons if you can just fit the pieces together. Positioning on the board is key, and being surrounded is death, forcing clever manoeuvring. Each hero has their own talent that affects every turn they take, and that offers different possibilities based on who they’re paired with. Status effects beg you to combo them in different configurations. Whether you’re just scrapping with bandits over a waterskin or defending a town from an enormous, rampaging dragon, all these different elements combine into a marvellous, intricate puzzle of moving parts.
Above all that, another layer—the adventures between battles, in which your choices shape those crucial decks. Each hero has their own set of class cards, modifiable as they level by adding, subtracting, and upgrading, and you can also add cards to their deck with equipment—an alchemical flask granting an acid bomb attack, or a staff crackling with lightning spells, though you must take care not to dilute your core synergies. In the harsh wasteland, you also need to maintain health, hunger, and morale, seeking out safe places to camp before momentous battles to avoid penalties. Narrative decisions, such as whether to help a wounded man or rob him of his supplies, further shape both your abilities, as well as how you see your heroes in this desperate world.
It’s a lot, especially for a roguelike. A huge amount of strategy stuff, all stacked up. It can definitely be too much sometimes—quests are long, and crashing out because of the knock-on effects of a few bad decisions can be disheartening (though a generous undo button at least means you’ll never be doomed by a misclick). But all that stuff is stacked so elegantly, each piece perfectly interconnected with those around it, and all of it in service of giving you genuinely compelling decisions to make at every single moment. If it sometimes makes you feel like an idiot, that’s only so it can give you countless chances to feel like a genius.
It doesn’t matter how overcrowded the genre is, Trials of Fire is an absolute breath of fresh air. If you love strategy, and the clack of tokens on a board, then this cleverly designed challenge is a must play.