Neurodeck Review: Playing Mind Games

Neurodeck is available on PC and is coming to Nintendo Switch. I conducted this review using the PC version of the game.

You can find a video version of this review here: Neurodeck Review [Psychological Deck Builder] – YouTube

Overview

Neurodeck is a rogue-lite deckbuilding game with a very interesting setting, inside the mind of your character. You aren’t raiding dungeons or slaying dragons, the monsters you encounter are manifestations of real-life phobias.

You aren’t doing battle with might and magic, but with snacks, hot baths, and friendly dogs. Conquering your fears rewards you with new cards, and the maze you navigate is a mental one.

You play with cards such as comfort food, rather than spells and swords.

You can take on psychological surveys to gain new traits, visit the library to duplicate cards you already have, or do some workouts to improve your stamina or sanity.

Failure in Neurodeck means you must begin again, but you can unlock new emotions which, make up the foundation of your playstyle as well as additional cards

Fighting Phobias

There are two characters in Neurodeck, one which must be unlocked. Each character has different emotions you can choose at the start of each run. Emotions form your initial foundation with your starting cards and inherent ability. For example, playing as Lei with the Joy emotion grants you a bonus to both stamina and sanity

The two characters themselves both have a unique power you can use alongside cards. Lei can spend energy to draw cards, and Jupiter can gain meditation, a status effect unique to her that grants her a bonus turn whenever she reaches five.

Your card pools are also limited by your emotions, mixing in cards specific to it with the character’s basic ones. This means each Emotion has a very distinct feel to it, but at the cost of variety, as each individual pool is somewhat small. You can occasionally nick a card from another emotion via an event though.

Emotions dictate your starting deck, card pool and a passive boon.

The restricted choice actually works really well within the games’ mechanics. Neurodeck has an almost puzzle-like feel, with a touch of randomness in deck building. This is because the whole game follows a rigid, yet replayable structure.

You choose between one of two phobias to fight, followed by two sets of helpful choices and repeat until you either win or lose. As you do progress you obtain new cards and traits, while the phobias go up in rank.

The phobias themselves follow the same rigid pattern. Each specific Phobia never changes, they follow a precise routine of actions and always have the same health. Arachnophobia has only a single action, that deals 25 sanity and stamina damage every turn. While something like Tokophobia attacks and buffs twice, before resetting its buff timer, growing stronger the longer the fight takes.

Neurodeck’s rigid nature presents you with a degree of determinism to factor in. If you don’t have cards that can break block, you know to avoid Phobias that use block. If you’re building your deck around burst damage, you know to avoid phobias that drag out a fight. It’s an interesting dynamic that actually allows for a variety of strategies within each of the emotion-limited card pools.

You always choose between two phobias to fight, except for the final boss, which is a random high tier phobia.

On the flip side, Neurodeck can also feel solvable. There are only 14 phobias in the game, and they are split between four ranks, you’re only going to fight a few potential phobias per rank. If you smack down any single phobia once in a run, it’s a safe bet to pick if you see it again.

Sure the card choice, events, and phobia choices within each rank are random, but it doesn’t take long to figure out a winning pattern. You can unlock resilience levels, which are stacking difficulty modifiers, but even the highest level doesn’t change the fact that its deterministic structure makes it solvable.

That’s not really a flaw, exactly, puzzles are fun to solve. But it does mean Neurodeck lacks the same degree of replayability as most deck builders. Only 14 phobias split between a few ranks can be repetitive though, which is a shame because the phobias themselves are brilliantly portrayed and animated.

The game really brings phobias to life.

The animation does a fantastic job of bringing the concept of each one to life in a creepy, yet alluring manner. From the laughing shadows of Agoraphobia to the flexing shape of Masculinity and the popping disgust of Mysophobia. They are just the right amount of disturbing that they aren’t off-putting to engage with, so you can truly appreciate the fine detail in their design.

Mental Misfire

Like the phobias, each card in Neurodeck represents something in the character’s life. You have to manage, stamina, actions, and sanity. Sanity essentially plays the role of hit-points. Playing cards takes an action and each one also has a stamina cost.

Additionally, you have a couple of item slots for item cards that are moved there once played. Items don’t cost additional stamina to use once equipped, but do break after a couple of uses. You regain stamina through specific cards and by ending your turn with actions left over.

The balancing act is very intriguing because it’s different based on the phobia you fight with the cards you have chosen for your deck. You can’t fight two phobias the same way. Sometimes slotting items that can regain stamina can save you against a Phobia that drains it, for example.

I ain’t afraid of no ghost! (Don’t tell the game of the same name I said that).

The abstract nature of the game’s theme can be problematic. Card games rely on having the effects of a card make sense within the game’s world to engage the player with what is happening. That’s difficult when it comes to taking on mental phobias with real-world objects and actions.

Sometimes it clicks, using a comfy pillow deals damage to a phobia and grants you rested, which heals your sanity over time. Slap down a comfy bed, and you can wipe away the rested bonus for a ton of damage. It makes sense.

Playing the period card deals damage to yourself, but places a resilience card in your deck that you can draw later that hits the phobia hard. I get what the game, is putting down.

Others are confusing at best, and morally problematic at worst. I’m not sure how Back Pain and Liver Cramps help you fight a phobia. Then you have cards like Alcohol, it takes a lot of stamina to play and gives you wrath, making you deal more damage.

Using cards such as Altercation or Alcohol to fight phobias is…Odd.

I understand the idea, I don’t agree with it being included in a game about winning a battle against one’s own mind. Given the implication of every other real-world card, the idea that booze is anything but a self-destructive vice in the face of mental health is a whiff, in my opinion.

Beyond that, Neurodeck really seems to lack polish and cohesion. One important choice you can make is to take on psychology surveys to gain powerful traits during a run. It asks you a series of questions and grants you a trait, such as introversion, or Generous.

Each specific survey is interesting at first, but in a rogue-lite game where you are meant to play many times? There comes a point where you can no longer answer them honestly if you ever want to see the other traits, and then you’re going through a pointless questionnaire each and every time.

Unlocking new cards for each emotion follows a similar pattern, where you answer honestly the first time, then pick whatever choices you think will unlock more cards. The worst part is, even when you unlock all the cards the event still appears and does absolutely nothing.

Each survey is neat once, than something to click through every other time.

I found multiple cards that had the exact same artwork, which really threw me off. The Retrogaming Card was lacking artwork altogether. I had a bug where I could only scroll through cards in one direction when using a classroom, the other arrow didn’t work. I crashed more than once, and the game had a habit of hanging whenever I closed it.

The thing that disappointed me the most, however, was the second character, Jupiter. Like Lei, she has three emotions and starts with one unlocked. I could not unlock the other two. I tried completing the game several times as both Lei and Jupiter, with all available emotions and on the highest resilience level, and nothing worked. This, I can only assume, is a bug and a bad one at that.

UPDATE: It’s not a bug, Jupiter’s other two emotions are not yet implemented. These emotions appear locked and tell you to unlock them during the game. Neurodeck isn’t an early access game, so this makes it feel unfinished. Additionally there is a fast mode option that you can activate, but it doesn’t work, because it’s not implemented either.

Verdict

Neurodeck is an intriguing take on the genre that can be a lot of fun. Having suffered from mental illness my entire life, I certainly enjoyed taking the fight to manifestations of mental demons, even though they represent phobias in the game.

The phobias themselves have a fantastic aesthetic design and animation too. The rigid and puzzlelike nature gives the game a unique playstyle that’s a lot of fun to solve. The lack of polish is very apparent, however. Between the bugs, strange design choices, and lack of cohesion the game feels like it needed more time in the oven, and maybe some focused direction.

There is some reading you can do on the characters inner thoughts.

Only some of the mechanics of the game fit a rogue-lite deck builder. The surveys are neat precisely once, and are then just annoying. The abstract nature can be hard to follow, and the small number of phobias can be repetitive.

It might still be worth checking out if you enjoy the genre, but be aware of the technical issues and that parts of the game feel unfinished. It’s unique setting and charm can’t be denied, however.

A copy of Neurodeck was provided for Gideon’s Gaming by the publisher for the purpose of review.

My verdicts below but you might also be interested in my reviews of Ratropolis or Tetrogue Dragons. You can buy games from my Creator Store or toss a donation to my Kofi if you would like to support this content.

Pros

  • Interesting mechanics balancing stamina, actions and sanity
  • Puzzle like nature gives it a unique and fun identity compared to other deck building games
  • The phobias look fantastic with great artwork and animations
  • Variety of emotions with different deck building strategies within each one

Cons

  • Psychological inspired surveys don’t work well when you need to re-take them each run
  • Abstract nature of the cards can be hard to follow at best, and distasteful at worst
  • The game lacks polish and feels unfinished, missing card art, multiple cards with the same art and some nasty bugs
  • Solvable nature of the game is compacted by a small number of phobias split into multiple ranks