Fun fact: at this time last year, we had only just learned of the existence of Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars. Not only has that game and its sequel—Voice of Cards: The Forsaken Maiden—come out since then, but we’ve now received yet another sequel in Voice of Cards: The Beasts of Burden. As you’d probably expect, this newest entry is largely cut from the same cloth as its predecessors, but with some meaningful nips and tucks here and there that help to give it its own personality.
The Beasts of Burden follows the story of a girl named Al’e (by default, you can name her whatever you want) who dreams of one day seeing the stars. Al’e lives in an underground village beset by frequent monster attacks, which are slowly chipping away at their limited supplies and remaining residents. Al’e is quite the capable warrior, but while she’s out fending off yet another monster swarm, another group of monsters manages to sneak into the village and kill everyone there. Grieving the loss of her mother and friends, Al’e is then whisked to the surface by a mysterious boy who seems to want to help. Here, she learns that she holds a special power that allows her to control monsters to do her bidding. Armed with this newfound ability and aided by her new ally, Al’e sets out on a quest for revenge against the ones behind the incident that destroyed her home.
Notably, The Beasts of Burden feels darker in tone compared to its predecessors. This is a story about people whose lives have been ruined by monsters and the low-burning hatred they harbor as a result of their trauma. Even so, this still doesn’t necessarily feel like a heavy tale; there are still plenty of moments of levity to be found throughout as your band travels the wasteland. In many ways, this narrative feels much more episodic than its predecessors. You don’t start out with a well-defined quest objective like slaying a dragon or helping an amnesiac girl reclaim her memory this time, but this works in The Beasts of Burden’s favor. Whether you’re searching for missing members of a circus in a desert or tracking down a legendary monster holed up on the other side of a lake of fire, each chapter feels like a meaningful contribution to your party's character development.
It’s also worth mentioning that the narrator has been switched up yet again, this time featuring the first female Game Master. Carin Gilfry does a wonderful job of setting the mood, imbuing the narrative with her own personality that feels somewhere in the middle of the previous two GMs in terms of energy. She’s a little more serious than Mark Atherlay, but also a little more playful than Todd Haberkorn, evidenced by little things like her exclamations when you land a critical hit or how she compliments Al’e when she gets a new outfit. We felt that she delivered a performance just as strong as her predecessors, drawing us into the narrative in a way that helps stoke the imagination to fill in the gaps between all the static cards.
The Beasts of Burden follows the same basic template of the previous two games, which is to say that it’s a relatively simple JRPG dressed up in a whole lot of cards. The overworld is a series of cards laid face down, and you can only see what’s on the reverse side by moving your totem—which represents your party—to the next adjacent card. There’s something strangely alluring to slowly uncovering the layout of a new area, as you never know what you may find just in front of you. That facedown card could be just another wall, or there could be a treasure chest or a secret cave there. And though it can be kind of slow going when mapping out a new area, your ability to quickly jump to any previously flipped card means you don’t need to traipse back and forth across long fields or wastelands more than once.
The overworld here generally feels a little more pulled back and focused than the open sea of The Forsaken Maiden, and the same goes for the dungeons, but we felt that this focus on tighter and more linear environments works in The Beasts of Burden’s favor. Just about when you’re reaching that point that a given area is feeling a little stale, you reach the end of it. Plus, the more focused approach allows for better puzzle design and environmental gimmicks. For example, one dungeon is a little more maze-like and consists of a series of rooms interconnected by minecarts; progress is made by finding new minecarts and switches to unlock new tracks. You’ll never find any gimmicks or puzzles that put up too much of a fight, but we felt this area was a little more interesting in comparison to the previous two entries.
This being an old-school JRPG, it doesn’t take long for you to jump into a random encounter when out and about. Here, things unfold much in the way you would expect of a traditional turn-based battle system, though with the interesting caveat that ‘mana’ is shared by your party in a common pool. Everyone will generate at least one gem at the start of their turn, and any cards aside from items, defending, or your basic attack will cost you gems to cast. Planning out your turns a little in advance is necessary as you have to consider that using a particular attack or skill with one character may mean the next won’t have enough gems to cast theirs.
Generally speaking, it feels like the difficulty level here is pretty low, but boss fights can certainly put up some notable resistance and facing the higher-level enemies when you come to a new area is sure to push your team a little bit more. Though there’s a lingering wish that the enemies would push you a little bit more, it’s hard to argue that the current difficulty isn’t perfect for the cozy, warm atmosphere that’s being made here. The Beasts of Burden isn’t meant to be a game that stresses you out (aside from the somewhat tense boss fights), and it does an excellent job of providing just enough resistance to stay engaging throughout its ten to fifteen-hour run.
The new headline feature of The Beasts of Burden is the monster-catching system, which adds a welcome level of depth to your combat and character-building options. Basically, every enemy you fight—including bosses—can be subdued by Al’e and turned into a card that can be equipped to any of your characters. Each card has a distinct and helpful action, like a powerful elemental attack or a defense debuff if you get a certain roll of the dice, and each character can have up to four of them equipped at a time. Further, each card has a star rank anywhere from one to five, with higher ranks of the same card having more powerful versions of that card’s effects.
Getting new enemy cards is based on random chance; you’re occasionally given an option after battle to select a treasure chest card, and one of these usually has a new enemy card in it. Though some may not be enthused at the randomness of this catching mechanic, we felt that new cards were doled out at a well-measured pace, and you can always buy consumable items that raise or guarantees the chance of getting a treasure chest selection after the fight is over. You don’t have to grind for these cards unless you’re hunting for higher ranks of specific cards, and even then, it feels like it doesn’t take too long till you get what you’re looking for.
We think this monster-taming mechanic adds a lot to the battle system of The Beasts of Burden, as this effectively now brings a soft class system to the tried and tested turn-based battles. Tweaking character stats with equipment and then kitting them out with monster cards that will best take advantage of those changes gives you a lot of room to experiment with party composition. Plus, the ability to upgrade these cards by collecting better-ranked versions of them adds a separate form of progression beyond the rote leveling system. It’s not a radical reconstruction of the battle system we’ve seen in three games now, but it also feels like a meaningful evolution of what’s come before.
If you want a break from your quest, the Game Parlor has returned once again to offer you a more traditional card game that acts as a nice distraction from the main storyline. Here, the goal is to take turns trying to make pairs and sets of similar cards to give yourself more points, while doing so in a way that doesn’t give your enemies too many chances to upstage you. Like many traditional card games, it features a nice blend of both skill and luck to win, and you can also choose to add special rules like card skills and random events if you want a little more flavor. It’s fun whether you’re playing against the AI or with someone on the couch next to you, and winning in the Game Parlor also nets you nice cosmetic rewards like new card backs.
As for its presentation, The Beasts of Burden follows closely in its predecessors’ footsteps of creatively displaying a whole fantasy world via cards. Kimihiko Fujisaka’s character designs for all the card art remains just as excellent as it’s always been, while elements like the overworld cards being fanned out on an old wooden table or a separate felt-lined tray being brought in for the ‘battle screen’ help to couch this all in the real world as if you’re sitting in a firelit tavern somewhere across from a GM who’s doling out the cards as they narrate everything. We also appreciated all the little details around the cards to help imbue them with a little more magic. For example, in their introductions, most mini-bosses will shake the whole screen and send out an energy shockwave when their card hits the table, which really sells that these enemies are a cut above the typical fodder.
The soundtrack, helmed once more by Keiichi Okabe, Oliver Good, and Shotaro Seo, does an excellent job of mixing together somber piano notes and relaxing strings to provide a notably relaxing atmosphere. There’s an almost sleepy quality to the music, but it merges perfectly with the soft narration, warm lighting, and generally slow-paced gameplay. This is for sure a game that we would recommend you play with headphones in handheld mode, if possible, if only so you can pick up more easily on some of the subtleties in these tracks.
In case you haven’t gathered from everything so far, The Beasts of Burden is quite similar to its two predecessors. If you weren’t attracted to either of those, or you feel you already got your fill playing one or both, The Beasts of Burden certainly isn’t going to change your mind. At the bottom, this is still a rather short and simple JRPG that doesn’t take many chances with its mechanics. We would contend, however, that The Beasts of Burden is the best example of the Voice of Cards concept yet. The world design feels tighter, the monster-catching provides just a bit more depth to battle, and it generally feels like the developers have zeroed in further on what they’re trying to accomplish with these games.
Voice of Cards: The Beasts of Burden is an excellent entry in this quirky new franchise, pulling together a darker story, a new battle mechanic, and that ever-present cozy atmosphere to make for a hypnotizing and immersive experience. Though some may be miffed at this being yet another one of these games in a relatively short window, we feel that Yoko Taro and company have moved the series forward another (single) step with this new entry. If you enjoyed the last couple of games or are just looking for a new JRPG that doesn’t require a ton of investment, we would certainly give this one a recommendation; it’s easily worth both your time and money.