Tainted Grail: Conquest is available on PC. A copy of the game was provided for Gideon’s Gaming by the publisher for the purpose of review.
You can find a video version of this review here! Tainted Grail: Conquest Review – A Deckcaliber Title (Rogue-lite Deck-builder) – YouTube
Tainted Grail: Conquest is a deck builder based on Arthurian Legend, and I’m not talking Disney’s Arthur Pendragon or that snarky young Merlin show. The world of Tainted Grail is dark, creepy, and sometimes gross. The overall aesthetic reminds me a lot of Bloodborne, which can be problematic because that style churns my stomach for some reason.
The game by no means looks bad, however. In fact, it’s probably one of the best-looking deck- builders available right now, Jeepers creepers aside. The ominous atmosphere and grounded art style definitely invoke feelings of dread and uncertainty, which is likely what the game is going for. The music pushes that feeling of gloomy dread the whole time, kicking up to intense levels during boss fights, while the vocals retain that disturbing aura.
As much as I loved the souls’ game’s I could not put aside my own discomfort to enjoy Bloodborne. I managed to do it for Tainted Grail: Conquest. I’m happy I did because it’s one of the best deck builders I’ve ever played.
A Little Wyrd
Tainted Grail: Conquest is a rogue-lite game. That means a lot of dying and starting over. But the game actually has a detailed story for a deck builder, complete with voiced characters. Your deaths are baked right into what’s happening.
It’s similar to Hades in that way. Characters and events you encounter appear on subsequent runs advancing different storylines piece by piece. The land is shrouded in Wyrdness, a mystical fog that warps and alters everything it touches. Nearly every character you encounter in the Wyrdness has a story and side quest attached to them.
You can bring some of them to your village, and each one grants you some form of meta-progression and will offer additional quests. The meta-progression is a huge part of the gameplay loop. Every character offers you an array of upgrades that are bought with a currency specific to them. Each currency is earned in a different way.
You can buy runestones off the blacksmith, but to purchase his upgrades you need runestone dust that you only obtain by merging runestones into more powerful versions. The Seamstress offers stat boosts but requires the blood of slain foes. While the Candlemaker needs the tallow from your burnt-out Wyrdcandles.
Each character you recruit is a substantial boon to your gameplay and opens up a new avenue to pursue as you take on more and more runs. Each currency is obtained through gameplay in some way, so while there are several kinds, it never truly feels like a grind to obtain any of them. Every upgrade you get is incredibly meaningful.
Large upgrades, such as always drawing an extra card are huge. But even something as simple as boosting how often runes drop after battle can be a game-changer. It both gave me greater control over what kind of runes I was using and allowed me to combine them more often. That meant more rune-dust for blacksmith upgrades.
You also unlock new classes, cards, passive skills, and cosmetic items after every run. When combined with the village and the many story arcs, it always feels like you’re making progress, win or lose.
That kind of progression goes a long way toward making a loss sting less, and keeping you engaged with the game. I had something to look forward to with each new run, beyond my own bullheaded nature to not give up. If you happen to lack the same stubbornness, the game does offer an easy mode, which is a thoughtful addition.
The Card in the Stone
The core mechanics will be familiar to fans of the genre. In battle, you have three energy per turn to play cards. Then you discard your hand at the end of your turn, sound familiar? Where Tainted Grail: Conquest sets itself apart is with the sheer variety of classes, cards, and possibly the tightest balance of mechanics I’ve seen in a deck-building game.
There are three factions, or card pools if you will, and three classes within each faction. Each class has different stats, passive abilities, and an ultimate ability that charges up based on certain aspects of that class.
Classes within each faction pull from the same card pool. But each class alters how some of those cards work and feels drastically different to actually play.
A Wyrdhunter and Berserker might both be warrior-style classes in the same faction. But the Wyrdhunter focuses on making enemies vulnerable after a set number of attacks and protects himself primarily through blocking.
The Berseker, on the other hand, just tanks the damage while hitting hard and then uses the life-steal granted from his ultimate ability to gain it back. The Sentinal fires as many arrows as possible, while the Apostate has a focus on maneuver cards. A Summoner can beef up its minions to a massive degree but takes damage from them equal to their level. A Blood Mage doesn’t but takes damage to summon them.
Each class has an ultimate ability that charges differently. The Berserker’s charges by getting hit, while the Necromancer’s charges when something dies.
Each time you gain a level during a run, you choose from a choice of cards and sometimes a passive skill. Cards may be shared within the faction, but the gigantic array of passive skills are unique to each class. This presents an insane amount of gameplay variety, strategy, and combos within each of the 9 classes. These skills are kind of like relics or artifacts found in other games of the genre. They are tailored to each class and which ones you choose can shift your playstyle a great deal.
The enemies will put your strategy to the test. Each one of them has a specific design that the monster uses to fight. It might be invincible to small attacks, summon totems that buff them, or deal more damage the longer the fight drags on. Each of them is designed to be predictable, but challenging and the game nails that balance exceptionally well. There’s rarely a mindless encounter. Even simple ones could drain your precious HP if you don’t pay attention.
Most games of the genre struggle with enemy variety, and while Tainted Grail: Conquest does too, the impact is much less noticeable. First, it features a sizable roster, even if you become familiar with them quickly due to the game’s replayable nature. Second, they show up in different combinations, which changes how you fight them. In addition, their behavior and compositions change on certain difficulties
Thirdly, how you fight them is completely dependent on which class you’re playing as. Two different classes can’t approach the same enemy with the same strategy. This leads to the game remaining fresher longer than a lot of its kin. You unlock a new difficulty whenever you complete a run, so if you ever feel like it’s becoming too easy, you can dial it up.
Tainted Grail: Conquest takes a lot of common concepts from the genre and blows them up to massive proportions without losing the quality or substance. With some games, it’s quality or quantity. With Tainted Grail, it’s both.
When you venture into the Wyrdness, you decide where to go and what to fight. But you have to put the same degree of thought into your actions on the map, as you do in battle. Healing yourself is difficult, but it’s not the only resource you have to manage.
Lighting a Wyrdcandle pushes back the fog. Without one, you will hardly be able to see the encounters you’re walking into, but it gets worse. The Wyrdness can insert cards into your hand during battle. These can be good, bad, or a mix of both, and it all depends on your light level.
A bad Wyrdness card will do something awful if you play it. But if you don’t play it, it does something else bad on your next turn. Good Wyrd cards work the same way, you can play it for one good effect right away, or gain a different boon on your next turn. Both options can sway a battle.
Wyrdcandles aren’t easy to come by either, so you constantly have to weigh your actions on the map. The more enemies you clear, the more money and experience you gain. But can you risk later fights with no light?
Many events have risk versus reward choices to them as well. Many useful things can be found, but are nearly always guarded. This constant balance of resources only ends when your run does. Every decision you make could be vital, from the consumables you use to the items you buy during your brief respite between stages. Every skill, item, runestone, and card matters.
Tainted Grail: Conquest invokes the very best principle when it comes to the rogue-lite genre. Player choice and making it matter. Randomness is always present, it can not and should not be removed. That’s half of what makes these games fun. But giving the player everything they need to make meaningful decisions about how to approach that randomness is the holy grail of making a great rogue-lite game.
Once I got past the gloomy atmosphere, the game hooked me in a way I hadn’t seen since the first time I played Slay the Spire. Nearly every complaint I thought I was going to have died on my lips as the game continually cut them to the quick.
When I first saw that the nine characters were split between three-card pools. I expected each one within a card pool to play the same, and I was proven wrong.
It appeared that the meta-progression was going to be minor and unsubstantial, but the game proved me wrong. I expected the repetition to set in quickly, but it didn’t. When a game goes above and beyond to look better than other games in the genre, I assume something else was sacrificed. After all, most deck builders have a simple aesthetic for a reason. Once again, I was proven wrong. The game has a ton of content, plenty of depth, and is polished enough to match any other deck builder I’ve played.
Even the atmosphere is something I can’t truly pick on. It’s a weird quirk of mine that I dislike grimdark, gloomy, or gross aesthetics. But everything within Tainted Grail looks creative and well designed. As creepy as the monsters are, they look as menacing as they feel to fight against.
The only real gripe I have is I did experience some framerate hitching that I couldn’t seem to resolve. My rig wasn’t being taxed at all, but it was still present. It was fairly minor, especially given that Tainted Grail: Conquest is a deck builder, but noticeable nonetheless. It did not in any way impact my enjoyment, however.
To put it simply, I adore everything about the game. It’s variety between classes, the balance of resources, the meaningful meta-progression, and breadth of content. Slay the Spire and Monster Train are some of my favorite games, but they can have a seat at the round table and bow before the throne at which Tainted Grail: Conquest now sits.
- An interesting storyline with voiced characters that evolve over several runs
- Creepy as it is, the visuals and music are both great, especially for a deck-builder
- 9 classes with unique playstyles
- A ton of cards and passive skills
- Meaningful meta progression through a variety of subsystems
- Well designed enemies with behavioral changes based on difficulty
- Difficulty settings present
- Tightknit card mechanics, resource management, and player agency makes for fantastic gameplay
- High replay value
- I experienced minor frame hitching
- The oppressive and gloomy atmosphere could be tough to swallow for people like me