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Preview: Death Roads: Tournament

28 Mar 2023

Can you believe that I’ve actually never played Slay the Spire? I feel like I should have by this point, but I also feel like I have a general idea of the shape of it just by playing so many games that are derived from its basic formula. There’s a certain type of game, and while it would be wrong to say that they are all the same game – they aren’t – it would be at least moderately accurate to say that they are more similar than not. They are linked in their formula.

Why do I bring this up? Because Death Roads: Tournament is going to probably feel familiar when it rolls into early access on Steam on March 28th. That is not a bad thing or a good thing, it’s just a thing. No, you haven’t played this game itself before, but you are familiar with the sort of game it is aiming to be. So does that work out for the game? Let’s find out.

Car Talk

First and foremost, it’s important to note that Death Roads: Tournament is actually one of two projects set in the same universe, with the other being an actual physical card game. I’m not sure which one came first and if they borrow any mechanics from one another, but that’s interesting just the same.

At any rate, the story of the game is fairly perfunctory and straightforward. There’s a race that takes place across the Divided States of America, with the question of how everything turned all Mad Max being left as an unimportant one. What matters is that your driver, along with countless others, is trying to get from the West Coast to the finish line on the East Coast, and along the way you’ll deal with bandits, other racers, stores, random events… you get the idea.

That’s it. Get from Starting Point to Finishing Point. There is very little actual narrative, it’s all about ludonarrative, and quite frankly that’s enough. It would be a little lacking for a lot of other games, sure, but this game is very specifically trying to build an atmosphere and a narrative out of your journey from one point to the other. Or, as will happen more often at the start, from the start to about halfway through your destination. So let’s talk mechanics.

Car Walk

So the basic mechanics of the game are more or less what you might expect. At the start of the game, you choose your driver (who has a small selection of cards that they can pick out normally no matter what) and your starting car which is loaded down with certain guns, engines, wheels, and so forth. These cards determine everything that you can do on the road, you draw a hand every time a combat encounter starts, and used cards are shuffled back into your deck to be drawn later.

Everything else, naturally, is determined by cards. The game is turn-based, which each card costing a certain number of handling points represented in the upper-left corner of the card. Handling is refreshed at the start of your turn or after a skid; skids happen when you lose all of your handling, resulting in your car going out of control for a moment and a series of moves playing out without your impact. Each car occupies a certain space on the road, and you can move forward and back or left and right based on your cards.

After each fight, you can swipe a part which you can also swap onto your car for new cards or just hold on to in order to sell later. And thus goes the game. Move from one node to the next, clear each one on the road, hope to get some repair stations or stores along the way as you try to keep your car from blowing up on the road.

Your car will frequently blow up on the road.

Once you blow up, your progress along the track will translate into level improvements, which in turn unlock new items, new starter options including new cars and characters, and so forth. You probably already guessed that, though. It’s very straightforward insofar as the new unlocks do not actually translate to direct starting power, but more chances to assemble the rig you want, more advantages from part availability, and so on. Repeat until you get bored.

That probably sounds a little bit dismissive, but it’s not meant to. It is all a perfectly good example of exactly what it is trying to be, which is… exactly this game. You are probably familiar with this game! Not with the specific mechanics but the broad strokes. And it’s a fun game, but now it’s driving souped-up death cars across a map of the US. If that sounds like exactly what you were hoping for, hey, good news! Someone made that game. Have fun!

Car Mock

The graphics of the game are, let’s face it, excellent. The various different parts of your car are mostly visible and each car body is distinct, and the actual animations of cars driving, skidding into one another, and opening fire are all a bunch of fun. There’s a real sense of weight with every vehicular impact, too, which I appreciate.

Equally positive are the character illustrations and landscape graphics, all of which are detailed without being overstuffed. The card designs are easy to understand and unpack at a glance, which is good. Heck, the cards are almost completely devoid of actual text, just icons and illustrations… but you can also inspect a card more closely to get a more didactic breakdown of what the card does if you’re unclear. Very helpful.

The music, on the other hand, is… just kind of generic noodling on a guitar. It works, it’s not bad, but it’s not going to stick in your head unless you play the game a lot. Fortunately, the sound effects do step up here and add to the feeling of impact; tires squeal and frames crunch appreciably, and guns sound rightly powerful when they unload on your competition.

Car Rock

I don’t dislike Death Roads: Tournament, I just kind of find it underwhelming. On the one hand, it is really cool that people put together a racing game that relies on strategic planning rather than just twitch reflexes. That’s a really cool thing! On the other hand… well, the beats are kind of familiar, and I really dislike having to slowly unlock different racers you can start with just because you should get some level of personal customization out of the gate.

That is, I accept, a me thing.

None of this is to say that the game is lacking or somehow fails to deliver what it’s promising. In a lot of ways, this is already a fun game, and it’s going in to early access to become better. It also is tuned well in terms of balance, never being too hard or too easy; I didn’t feel like I was just doomed one fight in, but I couldn’t just no-brain my way across the country over and over. There’s more work to be done in early access, but it’s not bad.

It’s a familiar style of game, and if you wanted that familiar style but now you’re driving cars around, this is that. And it’s a good fun version of exactly that! If that’s what you want, you’ll have a good time.

Preview copy provided by Knights of Unity for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Knights of Unity.