THE SOURCE FOR TECH BUYING ADVICE
At the start of the next Witcher game, Geralt is but a glint in a cunning sorcerer’s eye. You play as Alzur, the notorious magician whose Frankensteinian experiments gave rise to the first deformed monster slayers, in Gwent: Rogue Mage, a tasty deckbuilding roguelike from CD Projekt Red.
However, none of the leaping, cat-eyed assassins that could appear in The Witcher 4 will help you with their swords. When you first meet Alzur, his laboratory is devoid of the mutagens he’ll require to carry out his morally questionable ambitions. In order to extract the hideous essence of rare species, you must cut open their necks and guts.
Alzur begins each journey near the western end of a large valley, while the notable beast—a white dragon, for example, or a giant spider—nests in the eastern mountains, woodlands, or scorched wasteland. Your objective is to cross the bridge from one side to the other while channeling magical energy from holy sites to fuel your spells, dodging bridge trolls, and frequently fighting off foes who want to kidnap or enslave you.
The success of your business is not assured since this is a roguelite. Alzur will be sent cursing back to his lab with his own tail between his legs and the dragon still securely connected to its abdomen in a faraway place if you lose even one combat.
Even if battle takes place across the table as a card game, it is still an abstract activity. Since The Witcher 3’s release seven summers ago, Gwent has developed into a highly tactical and rewarding CCG. It now features some of Hearthstone’s immediateness, with troops and spells that allow you to thwack cards straight on the field. Fortunately, Gwent has also kept its USP. Even though there are now just two instead of three lanes on each side, the interaction between melee and ranged rows still determines the outcome of games as soldiers move between lanes, change their allies, or move the enemy’s cards.
Since Rogue Mage’s fights take place across a single, extended round, Gwent is now less about knowing when to take a loss, and more about the slow-burn synergies you create between cards collected throughout the course of a run. At the end of every battle, you’ll be given the choice between gaining a new card or tossing an existing one – and as every CCG veteran knows, the latter is often the cleverer option when it comes to whittling and refining your core deck.
After a few runs, you might even argue that Rogue Mage – and its sister Gwent spin-off, Thronebreaker – are the only two Witcher games to have truly great combat systems. Sounds controversial, but spend a minute thinking about Wild Hunt’s sub-Souls counters and dodges and you’ll know in your bones I’m right.
Lore to the floor
The richness of their storylines is where Rogue Mage and Thronebreaker diverge. While Thronebreaker was a full-fledged RPG with companion characters in the Bioware manner and choices that may change the course of the plot, this new game has a far more casual feel. The occasional back-and-forth between Alzur and his conceivably amorous partner Lily, whose rather thankless function as the wizard’s conscience is deftly subverted as the mission progresses, serves as its emotional focus.
The writing, though, is concise and lively, there is little conversation, and your most significant decisions usually involve which cards you lift and which ones you leave behind. You will be looking down at the board and trying to decide on a plan for the most of a run – I averaged around an hour for my failures and an hour and a half for my first win.
The setting of Rogue Mage offers intrigue for even the most avid lorehounds. Due to the fact that this prequel is set hundreds of years before the events of the main games, groups that were hinted at in The Witcher 3 are still active during your missions.
You’ll face off against operatives dispatched by the Chapter of the Gift and the Art, the emerging body of magical rule-makers headed by Herbert Stammelford, he of Stammelford’s dust, and elves from the forgotten realm of Dol Blathanna (“they track like hounds, run like deer, and slaughter like ruthless devils”). The guy previously lifted a mountain to clear the way for his tower, so it goes without saying that he has little patience for the disorganized questing of errant wizards.
However, because CDPR overstuffs its decks with individuals from Geralt’s chronology, this roguelike never really establishes a firm sense of time and location. Fans will disagree with my choice, but I think it is more than justifiable. Rogue Mage draws on pleasant memories created elsewhere in the developer’s portfolio each time a recognizable image appears.
If I’m going to rely on a card that increases a whole lane’s healing, I’d want it to feature Keira Metz, the lady I once went on a picnic with to try to glam up the filth and squalor of Velen. If I’m going to kill someone, I don’t mind if they go by the moniker The Bloody Baron and mutter something about vodka as they hit the table. Additionally, there are deep cuts from the novels, such as Sabrina the adolescent (in appearance, if not in age) witch, and cards from the main characters of Thronebreaker.
When a result, as you overcome Rogue Mage’s difficult trials, the voices and faces of friends and foes from Geralt’s history reverberate in your consciousness. And what about that? Reliving the finest moments of the series in precise tactical combat is one of the better ways to pass the time while waiting for The Witcher 4 than there are many other options.