Cold as Dice
Roguelike deckbuilders have become a Steam Standard. There seems to be a new one coming out every week and I am not remotely complaining – I love these damn things. The day I get tired of calculating lethal is the day I have lethal calculated on me. So when I saw Wildfrost and its at-the-time Mixed reception from players (Mostly Positive at time of writing) I was a bit confused. Most of the negative comments claimed balance issues were to blame for their lack of enjoyment, and I could immediately feel the urge to type “skill issue” burning at the back of my gamer brain. I had to try it! I had to know!
Wildfrost is, stop me if you’ve heard this one before, a run-based roguelike deckbuilder with a few roguelite elements that persist between runs. Your characters won’t get permanently stronger, but you will unlock more cards and options as you see more of the game. The runs themselves are relatively short when compared to games like Slay the Spire – we’re talking about 30 minutes for a successful one, about the same length as a win in my beloved Monster Train. Win or die you’ll end up back at the start afterwards, repeat ad nauseam.
I want to praise some elements that set Wildfrost apart from the crowd. The presentation is fantastic, bean-mouth character designs and all. There’s a ton of color in the charming character designs, both friendly and enemy, and the audio helps set the tone for each fight wonderfully. Top notch aesthetics matter a lot when you’re going to be looking at the same images for an entire run, and these are top notch indeed.
The main mechanical differentiator here is the use of cooldown timers. Unless you’re playing a card onto a target, everything in Wildfrost takes time to resolve. This means characters have differing amounts of turns before they get to swing again, as do enemies, as do effects that persist on the board. To win a fight is to spin as many different plates as possible while dropping as few as you can manage. You’ll play a unit to start their cooldown, then accelerate another unit’s action with a card to buff the first one before they attack, then use a different card to weaken an enemy just in time for your units to finish it off. Combos in this game are resolved in slow motion, which makes pulling them off a unique kind of satisfying.
That is, when the game lets you.
Wildfrost has problems, and those problems are rooted in how it handles randomness. Roguelikes rely on randomness to provide run-to-run variety but rarely to this extent. Surprisingly this doesn’t apply to the fights themselves as those all have perfect information. No, my issue is with every single thing outside of the combat. Most roguelike deckbuilders allow you to look at the upcoming events in advance, plan a route, know roughly what you’ll have access to and how strong you can get before you hit key bosses. Wildfrost does not. After each fight you get a fork in the road with a couple positive events to choose from and that’s it. You also aren’t allowed to see what fights you’re in for, which means you have a very real chance of acquiring a typically powerful upgrade – say for example Frenzy, which allows for multiple attacks per activation – only to immediately run into a fight in which all the enemies have Teeth, which hurts attackers for each swing.
This lack of information is only the beginning of Wildfrost seemingly withholding functions that we’ve come to expect from the genre. Units added to your band are chosen from a draft of 3, which is fine as you can just bench units that don’t fit your squad, but the same convenience is not present for cards. Any addition of cards to your deck that isn’t a purchase from a shop is a gamble as you very likely will hit 3 you don’t want and, unlike almost every other roguelike DB’er I’ve played, you cannot simply turn them down. You must add one, diluting your deck’s effectiveness. The only way to cull cards is by visiting the cull event, which has a very real chance of being on an otherwise useless path or just not showing up when you need it. I need to emphasize: you can not plan in any significant capacity. All you can do is try to make the smallest, most powerful deck possible and hope that its bad matchups don’t show up.
Relics are worse than the cards. These are the obligatory non-card upgrades that allow you to ascend to busted-hood, but again, only when the game opts to give you usable ones. Aside from the relatively rare relic-seller, relics are only acquired via gacha. Literally, you turn the crank on a gachapon machine and receive a capsule. These things are not remotely created equal. You could get one that amps up all of the numeric effects on the card you apply it to, or you could get one that just makes the card consume itself when played. All of these effects have some kind of use, but since you have almost no ability to control what cards you’re getting you’re unlikely to be able to use the niche ones.
I said you have “almost no ability” to pick your cards, so let me elaborate. There are shops, and they do sell cards along with random relic pulls. The problem is your cash will always be at least half-spoken for, because every time you enter a shop you are required to purchase a crown. These, in theory, are a brilliant inclusion. Your units must be drawn from your deck to be played, but crowns allow you to predeploy them along with your leader at the start of a battle. This is a huge boost to your efficiency and consistency, moreso than anything else the game avails to you, but it costs you 80 gold a pop and you can only buy one per shop. You will almost always be able to afford these but that’ll often be at the expense of other things, and that makes crowns feel more like a frustrating obligation than something to get excited about acquiring as you pass on multiple interesting cards to get the objectively better hat. It also ends up forcing players to take Blingsnail (gold) events more often just to keep your cash up, and these are the most boring events as you just…get some money. A random amount within a range, of course.
All of these elements of randomness frustrate me, but they didn’t stop me from feeling motivated to keep playing until I figured out how to get my wins in. What killed my desire to keep playing Wildfrost was actually the very first randomized element it introduces, and the one that intrigued me the most when I started playing: your leaders themselves. Randomizing the player character is a fascinating concept. They could be glass cannons capable of shredding enemy armies, support players with debuffs or heals, a massive tank that protects your selected units so they can do the dirty work, the sky’s the limit in theory. Unfortunately I found the ceiling to be deceptively low, by which I mean most of the generated leaders are crap. I’ve had the game straight up generate me leaders that are nigh identical to each other, give me 3 that have no capacity for damage, offer some that are just better than their fellows, and so on. Units are better than leaders most of the time, assuming you pull usable ones, because they’re purpose built. Randomized leaders are just that, random, and that means a lot of them are duds.
What’s particularly perplexing is that you eventually unlock 3 clans to choose leaders from, but you don’t get any more leaders to choose from per run. To elaborate – when you first boot up the game they offer you 3 Snowdweller leaders. After a few hours of play you unlock the two other clans, at which point they start offering you 1 Snowdweller, 1 Shademancer, and 1 Clunkmaster. If I really want to do a run with Clunk (my favorite clan) and the leader on offer is trash, the only way to circumvent that is to start and immediately abandon a run. This limitation is as obnoxious as it is pointless. Why can’t I pick my faction before it generates 3 leaders? I have a lot of crossed out names in the journal because I abandoned them just outside the city gates, let me tell you.
So what do you get when you finally start making wins happen? Not much. Most games like this would introduce something akin to Slay the Spire‘s ascension system, which allows you to incrementally increase difficulty run after run so that the game can meet you where your skill level currently is. Wildfrost can’t do that because its difficulty is scattershot at best, so instead it just gives you a toggle at the start of a run that gives random enemies random relics and makes them worth a random amount of extra gold. Why? Because this game was made entirely as a tribute to RNGesus, that’s why, and lord forbid you be able to ever have the slightest idea of what is going on.
I know this reads like I’m ripping the game apart, and I kind of am, but I swear it’s with good intentions. Wildfrost is frustrating because it’s so close to being great but the more I play it the more it frustrates me. When this game works it works wonderfully. Planning a combat several turns in advance, mitigating your enemies’ advantages, and watching your intricate clockwork combo go off without a hitch makes my brain squirt the good chemical every time. The amount of original and compelling concepts here is impressive, especially for a 2 person team, and I fully intend to keep an eye on updates to see if this achieves more of its potential. But when so many of this game’s payoffs are gated off by heaps upon heaps of obfuscation and variables that are impossible to control, I find it difficult to treat any given run as anything more than a 30 minute die roll that occasionally goes your way.