Review: Gordian Quest

26 Oct 2023

There was a time – and I remember it quite well – when not every single type of game got stapled to an RPG. I don’t even feel like it was all that long ago. It’s not as if no one loved RPGs or anything, but it was a reality that it was something of a niche genre, helped along substantially by having a fanbase that primarily considered their impenetrability a mark of distinction. “Oh, you don’t know how to play the game because it has no signposting and it’s punishingly hard? Guess you don’t deserve the intricate plotlines here!”

Fortunately, this attitude has at least been somewhat ameliorated now, and as a result we are getting a never-ending stream of games that blend RPGs with something else. Gordian Quest is just such a game that is now coming to the Nintendo Switch, a blending of RPG with deckbuilding games. You might say “isn’t that just Slay the Spire already?” but there is something more to it than that. Whether or not that something more sticks the landing, however… well, that’s what we’re going to spend the rest of the review examining!

Knot Heavy on Story

Welcome to the land of Wrendia. It totally sucks here. No, I’m not exaggerating; the whole backstory is that Wrendia was inhabited by humans and the reach-exceeded-our-grasp precursors, they unleashed curses on the land, badabing, babadook, now Wrendia is totally screwed up and cursed and it’s your job to go around fixing it. By “you” we of course mean one of the game’s ten heroes, each of whom is simultaneously a character and a class, having fun on a quest that will not really address you personally as you recruit other heroes.

If it sounds like I’m being just a bit dismissive of the plot… well, yeah, I am, but with love. This is very much a game in the style of many RPGs wherein your personal character is not only a blank slate but also isn’t really meant to be a fully fleshed-out individual. You are not here to explore the deep backstories of the land or the characters, you are here to explore how many zombies you have to kill before all of the zombies are gone.

That doesn’t mean the story is bad or anything, it’s just a style that’s much more about understanding the setting and the ways that the world changes than your characters. Catherin is someone you are going to care about only insofar as you use her abilities, not because she’s got a fully developed character arc. If you’re hoping for something closer to Baldur’s Gate 3, adjust your expectation, but the RPG part of this particular game is not focused on delivering character dialogue or making huge choices in the story.

Tied Building

Now, it’d be easy to say that the game is less of an RPG like a lot of games that wedge “RPG” into meaning “you level up and upgrade gear,” but that’s really not accurate for Gordian Quest. You do level up, and indeed, the game is a mixture of card game and RPG tactics throughout.

Battles take place on a grid consisting of a number of blue spaces for your characters and red spaces for the enemies. Each turn, your character has a limited number of points to use actions; you also build a secondary resource for certain cards as you take actions. Cards have variable range and effects, and you have to judge the best spot for your characters on the battlefield while taking into account enemy actions and your own strengths and weaknesses.

If that sounds like I’m being vague, it’s not through lack of interest or anything of the sort. It’s because the game has definitely made sure to have a solid fundamental card engine in here, and so much depends on your character’s build and your party makeup. Each of the ten heroes plays differently, but more importantly each one has a different set of skill grids to upgrade as well as three different specialties to explore. You can start each hero already specialized or with a broader “default” deck, and then unlock skill grids for additional specialties as you level up. Every level gains you a new skill point, which allows you to add new cards to your deck, rank up existing cards, or alter your stats beyond that.

And it doesn’t stop there. Each hero has different stats as well, and as you explore and take on challenges you will have challenges that require different stats to be rolled against. Those stat checks can make a battle easier if successful, open up new options for solving a problem, or the like. Cards are also tied to the three major stats, and certain cards make reference to them as well.

In other words, you can call the game lots of things, but simple is not one of them. Fortunately, it also doesn’t feel punishingly difficult in the campaign mode. You can turn on more roguelike options, but its default mode definitely feels like you can start out, build your ideal character with only a minor nod toward RNG, and steadily improve with time. It’s the fun of deckbuilding games wherein you explore different options combined with RPG persistence, and while the story is a little light, it’s also nice to have a game in the genre that isn’t built around consistently losing and unlocking new stuff as you keep having your resources ground down.

Bound Hands

The graphics of the game are excellent – character art is detailed, sprites of both allies and enemies are lovely, and card art is well-done. Icons can get a little bit cramped, but the help messages are thankfully clear enough that you can know what’s happening… but that also speaks to a different problem.

See… while I like this game, there is the minor problem that I am reviewing the version of this game on the Nintendo Switch, not the base game. And the problem is that this is very clearly a mouse-heavy game on PC. How does the interface map to a console? Not great, at least to me.

This isn’t to say that I had constant crashes or major interface bugs or anything, just that the interface is clearly struggling to match up to what the game is actually doing and I don’t feel like it entirely works. I feel that the developers definitely tried their best to make the game playable and fun while on the portable console, but it doesn’t entirely work all the way through. Mostly it has the feeling of being good enough, never quite great.

Coiled and Striking

Gordian Quest is a straightforward and fun game. I liked it all while I played. But I also kept wishing I was playing on my PC, which is… probably the game’s biggest weakness. It feels like a PC game ported to a console (which, let’s be real, it is) and it is a bit limited as a result of that.

However, if you want the game in portable form and don’t have (or want) a Steam Deck? It’s a great addition. Sure, you will have to wrestle with the game’s interface a little bit and there will be the odd moment where you feel like something should have worked but you couldn’t see a bit of text that indicated otherwise. But the game is good enough that a bit of interface jank hardly pulls it down, in the end.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by Modus Game for Switch. All screenshots courtesy of Modus Games.