Especially in more recent years, the eccentric Yoko Taro of Nier fame has made quite a name for himself as a game designer simply without an equal. Any project he works on is sure to be interesting and experimental in certain ways, and this trend has continued with his latest release: Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars. Though this card-based RPG proves itself to be more traditional than it first appear to be, it nonetheless delivers a satisfying and enjoyable take on the RPG genre that you won’t want to miss out on.

Voice of Cards has an extremely traditional narrative, but it also stands as a fantastic example of how delivery is just as important as content. This is a story that’s ‘just’ about a fellowship of adventurers who travel across the continent to slay a dragon threatening the land. Along their journey, they stop in various towns and get caught up in whatever subplot the chapter calls for. Sometimes a new party member even joins afterward. This kind of story is likely nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s elevated to something much more special by the narration.

See, Voice of Cards is really a ‘game within a game’, and all the dialogue is read to you by the sultry tones of Todd Haberkorn—the Game Master and narrator. The Game Master is the literal 'voice of cards', andevery line of dialogue has a smooth and relaxing cadence that really sells the idea that you’re sitting by firelight at a table with a guy who loves telling stories. This effect is only strengthened by the fact that the Game Master proves himself to be a character in his own right. For example, there are moments where you can hear his judgment of a character’s actions and words slipping into his tone as he reads off their lines. Or there are times where he mispronounces a character’s name and has to quickly correct himself before continuing. Little touches like this go a long way towards selling the kind of cozy and imaginative vibe being pursued; it’s hard not to be pulled in.

Gameplay follows the template of a standard turn-based JRPG, just one wrapped with a remarkably fascinating aesthetic. The whole game is evidently taking place on an old wooden table in a warmly lit tavern somewhere, and the game world consists of a series of cards laid out on the table in a grid. You navigate this grid with a small totem that represents your party and only the cards immediately adjacent to the card your totem is currently on are flipped over to reveal the terrain. In practice, it doesn’t feel that different from navigating a typical overworld in an old Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy game, but there’s a delicious pull to exploration here that’s uniquely tied to the card aesthetic.

Most cards will just have various sea, road, or grass pictures to represent traversable terrain, but every now and then you come across something more interesting like a treasure chest, a cave, or another town. So, each time you come to a new area and survey a brand new sea of cards placed face down, it's hard to resist the need to turn over each one to see what it hides. The environments are just the right size, too, so it doesn’t feel like flipping every card is too laborious or done too quickly.

Every few times you jump to the next card, you’ll trigger a random encounter and this is where the game’s turn-based combat comes into play. Each character is represented on the game board by a card that displays their key art and main stats, and fights play out in a simple manner wherein everyone takes turns bashing away at each other until someone dies. Things naturally get a little more interesting when you factor in things like elemental weaknesses, but this is otherwise about as straightforward as combat gets in a JRPG.

Interestingly, there’s no such thing as ‘MP’ in Voice of Cards, but there’s an alternative to it in the form of ‘Gems’. Every party member will generate one gem when their turn comes up and it then gets tossed into a pool that’s shared by the whole party. Most of the more useful spells and attacks will thus have a Gem cost attached to them, which can create an interesting layer of strategy as you’re planning out your turns. Having your mage cast a thunderstorm spell surely could wipe out a couple enemies, for example, but then your healer won’t have enough gems to pull back another party member from the brink of death. This limited resource management aspect adds a surprising amount to combat encounters, and it only becomes more interesting as you progress and widen your options.

Character progression initially seems rather limited—there’s no job system or skill trees to be seen here—but leveling up your party eventually unlocks additional spells and abilities that give you some leeway in what kind of role you want each character to play. So as each character matures, their potential roles diverge that much further from the other party members, and this helps add to the sense of customization and autonomy, especially because you can only pick three party members at a time to be in combat. Considering the length and difficulty of the whole game, it feels like the developers struck just the right balance between simplicity and depth.

Believe it or not, there’s also an entirely separate minigame that actually does play like a more straightforward card game. You can play this at any town in a game parlor against myriad AI opponents and under some different rulesets, and while it’s not the most compelling card minigame Square has ever devised, it nonetheless adds a fun extra dimension to Voice of Cards. Additionally, this is where the multiplayer component comes in. You unfortunately can’t play online against others, but any friends nearby can join in on their own Switch or you can take turns on just one console. The rules are simple enough to learn and teach to others, and we’ve found that it can get fiercely competitive when you’ve got someone on hand who really grasps the nuances.

Though the presentation is stellar and the gameplay loop is well-designed, there’s nonetheless still a lingering sense that Voice of Cards is missing out on some of the potential of its distinct aesthetic. For one thing, it simply feels odd that a game entirely communicated through playing cards features a simple turn-based combat system, rather than one centered around some kind of deckbuilding. Decisions like this make the singular focus on cards feel less like a fascinating deconstruction of RPG gameplay and more like shallow decoration that’s used to disguise a game that is otherwise ordinary.

And yet, there is something uniquely captivating with how all the disparate parts of Voice of Cards come together. It may only be a dozen hours long and feature an unambitious combat system you’ve seen in a billion RPGs before, but there’s something powerful in how well-executed it shows itself to be by the end. Simply put, this is a game that feels tremendously complete. In an age where RPGs often bloated and playtimes can reach a hundred hours just to see credits, it feels remarkably refreshing to play through a quick and memorable experience that doesn’t try to aim too high and gets out of your way before it overstays its welcome. You won’t be bogged down here by extraneous characters and poorly explored gameplay mechanics; everything in Voice of Cards exists for a purpose.

As you’ve probably gathered so far, presentation is an absolutely critical part of Voice of Cards’ DNA, and the developers have roundly nailed the atmosphere they were going for. Todd Haberkorn’s enchanting narration paired with a warm and rousing soundtrack from Keiichi Okabe makes for a thoroughly excellent auditory experience, while all the card art from Kimihiko Fujisaka is impressively detailed. Characters may not have a single frame of animation, yet their poses and designs imbue them with distinct personalities all the same. Most importantly, the art fulfills its purpose of priming the imagination, as your brain comfortably fills in the gaps and creates for itself a world that the images onscreen only hint at.

Conclusion

Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars is a game that certainly won’t appeal to everyone; this is one that you have to come into with an open mind. It’s pretty short compared to most RPGs and doesn’t take many chances with its gameplay, yet the card aesthetic remains consistently interesting, it’s supported by extremely strong presentation, and that gameplay ultimately proves to be quite satisfying. For thirty bucks, this card game is one of the best concise RPGs you can buy on the Switch, and if any of its art or concepts pique your interest, we strongly recommend you give it a shot.