These days, it feels like deckbuilding elements are finding their way into all kinds of roguelikes, but it’s not too often that you see new releases purely built around card games. City Wars: Tokyo Reign is one of those rare releases, and we’re pleased to report that it presents an interesting and unique take on CCG gameplay. There may be some minor rough edges to the experience, but it overall manages to provide an addictive and engrossing experience fans of card games won’t want to miss.
The cyberpunk narrative here plays second fiddle to the mechanics as you fight your way through a series of procedurally generated city districts to defeat ne'er-do-wells and reign supreme. Battles play out across a two-phase setup, alternating endlessly between the two until either you or your opponent dies. The first phase has each of you taking a few turns to lay cards out on your respective sides of the track, while the second phase consists of chronologically executing the effects of those cards. Each tick on the track represents one unit of time, and cards with a higher ‘duration’ will thus take up more ticks. Cards placed the farthest to the left will be the ones that are played first, so before you’re even considering any of the stats or effects of a card, you first need to consider both where you can fit it on the track and how early or late you want it to activate in the execution phase.
A key element of surviving long in City Wars is learning how to use the ‘shatter’ mechanic in your favor. Every card has a little yellow number in the corner denoting its accuracy, and if two cards are placed opposite each other on the track, the one with the higher accuracy will stay while the other will be shattered and become useless. So, if an opponent puts down a high damage card on the track, simply placing a card of equal duration and higher accuracy will both completely cancel their attack while nearly guaranteeing that yours won’t be cancelled when the execution phase comes. If you’re crafty with it and lucky with the cards you draw, you can thus get through entire fights without ever getting hit.
Even if you couldn’t manage to block an attack in the placement phase, you’re still given a long-shot chance to save yourself from damage in the execution phase. Normal attack cards you placed will trigger a brief minigame that tests your reflexes, and if you can manage a perfect score, you’ll fill up a shield meter that you can activate at any time with the tap of a button to guarantee that the effects of enemy cards in the next five ticks will be completely nullified. You can only do this once per execution phase, and that’s assuming you were dexterous enough to win at the minigame, but we had many situations where this shield saved us from defeat and ultimately won us the fight.
There are ultimately four kinds of cards that make up your deck. The bread and butter are basic attack cards, which have no special modifiers and simply exist to both dole out damage and give you a shot at winning that brief invincibility. Silver cards are similar to this, but they have special effects depending on fulfilling certain conditions. One card, for example, gains more accuracy and damage for every shattered card on your side of the track when it’s placed. Gold cards are in turn similar to silver cards, but they’re more focused on creating elemental effects, such as freezing a tick on the opponent’s track that prevents them from placing a card there. Lastly, there are support cards, which can do things like block an opposing card regardless of its accuracy.
There’s a staggering number of ways you can build your deck, then, depending on the kind of synergies and strategies you’d like to go with. Going with lots of high-duration cards ensures you’ll have a lot of track coverage, but you’ll be doing so at the risk of getting shattered more often. You can build a very effective deck centered around poison, but this will probably blow up on you when you go up against an enemy immune to poison damage. No matter what you do, there will always be gaps and weaknesses in your deck, so much of the game is about thinking through possibilities and doing what you can to mitigate damage when it comes.
Another important thing to bear in mind is that your deck is randomly generated at the start of each run by picking 20 cards from the pool that you’ve unlocked for that class. Some may balk at this as it doesn’t allow you to plan as easily in advance, but we appreciated how it forces you to use the full complement of cards at your disposal and consequently causes you to stumble upon strategies you wouldn’t have even considered. Plus, you can later work your way to a safehouse that lets you swap in any cards you’ve picked up from rewards, so you’re not totally locked into a bum deck for the entire run.
If you’re playing in the main mode, a run consists of picking a class you’d like to play as and participating in a gauntlet of battles spread across a randomized map. Each run is broken up into multiple sections of about four or five battles, ending with a tough boss battle before you move onto the next section. You’re usually given a few paths you can take to reach the boss, which gives you the opportunity to size up your foes and the rewards that lie between them and decide which route is best for you. Taking risks is rewarded handsomely, but we also had many a run ended prematurely by overestimating our ability to fight a tough enemy.
Though you’re all but sure to fail many times, there is an element of persistent progression that ensures the progress you make isn’t completely wasted. Cells are a currency you acquire from winning battles and shattering enemy cards on the track, and these can then be spent at the technician for boons like increased starting health and a guarantee of better cards in your starting deck. None of these benefits are replacements for mastery of the card mechanics, but they do help to create a wider margin for error. Additionally, you’ll collect new cards as you win battles and claim rewards, which helps to create an overall higher quality pool to pull from for each starting deck. Though there is often lots of overlap, each class has to build its own collection of cards, which means that playing as one class for more runs essentially guarantees that class will be stronger and have access to better cards each time.
In case you haven’t gathered yet, there are a lot of decisions to juggle in City Wars. Whether you’re choosing the class you’re going to play, the paths you’ll take to reach the next boss, or where on the track you’ll place your next card, City Wars demands that you always think critically about how your choices will affect the bigger run. One misplaced card can start a cascade of misfortune, and second chances are few and far between. Given this, we’d say that City Wars is a very unforgiving game, but that’s not to say that it’s unfair. Nearly every loss we suffered could be traced back to a handful of mistakes we made; though RNG does certainly influence outcomes, it’s ultimately your ability to successfully pilot a deck and plot a course across the map that will determine your run.
Despite the difficulty, we would also contend that City Wars remains a very accessible experience. The (optional) tutorials do a good job of explaining the mechanics to you, and it’s relatively easy to get into the groove once you’ve wrapped your head around the flow of battle. Plus, you can take things at your own pace and experiment plenty with deck combinations, while losses don’t sting quite as much given that you’re always making some kind of tangible progress even when you fail.
The design of the card mechanics are excellent, then, but there are still some flaws that drag the experience down a bit, such as low enemy variety. We had one run where we literally fought the same enemy three times in a row, and there probably would’ve been a fourth had the boss not been the next fight. Every fight is dynamic and different from the last, but each enemy type only carries certain kinds of cards and it can be a little vexing when you’re fighting yet another security drone that follows the exact strategy of all the other security drones you beat.
We also noted that the enemy AI can be a little too dumb, in a way that can almost feel patronizing. We had one instance where an enemy had a card that gets a big stat boost when placed at the beginning of the track. Instead of doing just that, and shattering the card that we placed at the beginning of our track, it threw the card somewhere randomly in the middle, basically wasting the card and their turn.
Regarding presentation, City Wars goes for a simple 3D graphical style that admittedly doesn’t look great. Nearly every battle in this cyberpunk universe evidently takes place in the exact same back alley, and the character models are all stiffly animated and have a flat look to them. However, the card art itself is well drawn, and that’s admittedly what you’ll spend most of your time with City Wars looking at. Still, we would’ve liked to have seen a little more effort on the graphical appearance of everything around the card interface, as what’s here is middling at best.
Luckily, the soundtrack holds up better than the visuals; the developers got Mitch Murder to pitch in for the music and his influence certainly led to a great final product. Moody, ethereal synthwave is the name of the game, fitting the tone of City Wars nicely while making the card battles feel intense and dangerous. Those of you who aren’t into synthwave won’t find much to enjoy, but also this is a cyberpunk game. What else would you expect?
Though it has some flaws, City Wars proves itself to be an impressive and immensely enjoyable roguelike deckbuilder that stands out well from the pack. The interesting track system for card placement creates gameplay mechanics you can’t find in any other card battler while the persistent progression system ensures that you’re always getting something out of every run. Though the low enemy variety and sometimes weak AI can dampen things a bit, and it's not exactly a looker, the depth of the strategic gameplay keeps City Wars feeling fresh and interesting as you go back for yet another run. We’d recommend anyone with an interest or inclination towards card games add this one to their Switch library; there's lots to love about City Wars and it's worth both your time and money.