A rogue-lite deck builder built around battling demons and heavy metal music. Running down that checklist, it seems Big Blue Bubble was trying to make something just for me. It’s an appealing mix and I’m always down for some tasty riffs that make the ears bleed and the soul plead for more. After spending a dozen hours in Power Chord battling demons, collecting cards and hoping that this run was going to come together, I came to the conclusion that Power Chord is the rock debut album of a heavy metal band with potential, but hasn’t managed to put any real depth into their music.
Power Chord hurls a pretty cool setup at you within the opening minutes, describing an Earth being attacked by demons wearing denim jackets and rocking guitars like they’ve busted straight out of the cover of a heavy metal vinyl. Centuries back some mighty hero managed to seal the portal using the legendary Chronocaster to shred time and space. You aren’t him – nah, you’re playing as a touring band who are interrupted by some of the demonic stragglers looking to reopen the rift, so you decide to help push them back and hopefully find the Chronocaster once again.
It all sounds pretty awesome when the gravelly-voiced narrator is explaining it all, throwing in cool words like the Thunderfists. After this blast of exposition, though, the story heads off to bed with a warm cup of tea and a book, and never comes back. All you really know is that you have to beat four boss battles and any demon that happens to get in the way, and preferably look cool while doing it.
Turn-based card-battling is the name of the game with each of your four band members filling in the familiar roles; the drummer is the tank, the bassist is the specialist, the lead guitarist dishes out the damage and the singer is the support class. At first, you just have the starting lineup and I was instantly enamoured with Grimnir Brawlfist because he sounded like he came straight out of a cheesy fantasy novel and because he wears a kilt, so I had to support my Scottish bro. Plus, he has a very Scottish ability: the more damage he takes the more rage he builds, and the more rage he builds the better his attacks, throwing out riffs like a supermarket throws out food. He’s like the Hulk if the Hulk was capable of playing Enter Sandman on an electric guitar. The drummer can buff up armour and provide special shields to help keep Grimnir from actually having to take damage per se, and the singer can add power charges to ramp up the damage even more. Thus I had my first basic strategy: shred the enemy to death with head-banging Grimnir riffs.
Each turn you get an amount of energy to spend on playing cards from your hand, so naturally, it’s all about figuring out the order of play to get the absolute most from the selection because they all get dumped at the end of the turn. On the other side of the screen, there are speech bubbles above the enemy band showing what they’ll be doing on their turn, with damage indicators above your bandmates displaying just how fucked up they’ll be getting. And I don’t just mean at the backstage party. By keeping a wary eye on that info you can decide to focus down on one enemy before they turn your drummer into a drumskin. If you can’t kill them outright, breaking their armour stuns them for a turn, potentially saving a bandmate from being downed.
Speaking of which, one of your crew visiting the great big music store in the sky isn’t game over, they’ll just be out of the game until you visit a health stop on the map and resurrect them. Until then, though, you’ll have to bust skulls with less backup, and you’ll have a bunch of bad cards chucked into your deck for every band member missing the gig.
Each victory under your belt means being the choice of adding a new card to your deck, gradually putting together something that hopefully has some semblance of sanity. There’s a pretty wide selection effects to consider when shuffling something new into your pile, from stacks of poison damage that ignore armour to special stances that give band members passive effects until they get knocked out of it. Power Chord doesn’t always explain these effects as well as it could, leading to a few confusing moments where a pile of damage emerges from nowhere and wrecks a character in a single turn. Regardless of that, it’s a decent turn-based action, though far from the best.
Like a try-hard teenager wearing a Nirvana t-shirt despite having never listened to their songs, the musical aesthetic is only skin-deep. The heavy metal demons, the instruments – it all looks pretty cool and yet it doesn’t impact the actual gameplay in any way. Even the cards you play barely link into the theme. Perhaps the most telling thing is the lack of variety in the soundtrack. With the heavy-metal vibe you’d expect a banging song list designed to get the foot tapping and the head thrashing, but what we actually get is a coupe of generic backing tracks on repeat. I don’t want to be too harsh, mind you: Power Chord comes from a small developer who presumably wasn’t working with the kind of cash needed to license big-name bands. Still, though, it seems foolish to build a game around the metal community without some sort of plan for the tunes. Heavy metal is a rich genre, and people tend to underestimate how hard it is to actually play metal well. It also has one of the friendliest communities I’ve ever encountered, and it’s a shame that none of this is reflected in the game even half as well as something like Brutal Legend, a love letter to all things metal.
I’ve got some other issues with visual and UI design as well. The action takes place on a stage that only occupies the top half of the screen with the bottom half just being a black void where the silhouette of a crowd can be seen. All this space is dedicated to your hand of cards and a few simple bits of information about how many cards are left in your deck and so on. It’s a baffling design choice because there’s so much wasted space and so little of it is used to show your kick-ass band battling the demons, to show off the cool art design. Perhaps that’s because there isn’t much to see: both bands face off across the screen and toss weak-looking flashes of light at each other, or fire off colourful little explosions. Coming from the action of Marvel’s Midnight Suns, these weak attacks and stiff animations really stand out, although I obviously don’t expect the same high standard coming from a much smaller team. Still, it’s just lacking any flair, and that, combined with the four basic environments you fight in, makes Power Chord dull to look at.
The enemies suffer from being too similar in their designs, all spikey armour and helmets. It makes it extremely difficult to see what you’re up against at a glance, and even a dozen hours later I still had to click on most of them to remind myself of their abilities. Again, a bit more space to actually view the battles could have helped.
As for the rogue-lite elements, they follow the trend of being a little underdeveloped. The basic idea is that as you play you’ll make progress toward a variety of challenges like killing X amount of demons or using a character’s ability so many times. Each challenge will unlock new cards that may (extra emphasis on ‘may’) appear in future runs. Some of these are highly valuable, cards that can completely make or break a whole run. However, a lot of them are also kind of useless or only really good if you get other cards, too, and so progression feels a little backwards – as you unlike more cards the pool becomes bigger and bigger, and the odds of getting the good stuff actually shrink. The balance is off, and the whole of Power Chord could do with being reworked.
On each new tour, the game will throw together a web of randomly generated fights, mystery events and shops for you to click along before reaching a boss to be battled in the hopes of moving on to the next randomly generated leg of the tour. Brawls are the most consistent way of getting new cards to play while events can be a variety of good or bad scenarios, and chests will earn you new gear for your band. It’s a very basic system that provides only the simplest of strategic decisions where you look ahead and decide which path to trundle along. Brawls and elite brawls are just icons so it doesn’t matter much which ones you choose, and shops, chests and mystery events are all random, too, so basically whatever you pick doesn’t make much difference.
Not much carries over between runs, either. Time is rewound so you can have another run at driving the demons back, but any cards and gear you grabbed are tossed in the bin. The best rogue-lites tend to have things that do carry over from run to run in order to build a sense of progression, just see the likes of Deathloop or Hades for prime examples of this. Without that, Power Chord’s runs can feel like being tossed back to square one with little to show for the effort, ready to work through another randomly generated web of encounters in the hopes of lucking out this time.
The better rewards are new bandmates. Right now there are four extra musicians to unlock, one for each class, plus another four being added over time. These can take a while to unlock but the effort is worth it as quite a few of them seem to be significantly better players than their pals. Big Blue Bubble has done a good job of ensuring each one feels unique to use, like Roxy who builds up Stone Charges that are used for big armour buffs or a singer that uses tarot cards and can copy attacks. Finding the right combination of drummer, bassist, lead guitarist and singer is vital to beating the four big boss fights.
And speaking of which, the boss battles are pretty lacklustre. They’re big bruisers with equally big health bars and armour, and their fights are little more than slow grinds without too much thought required. They’ll throw out big damage that often affects your entire band, too, so you buff up your armour, throw out whatever damage you can and just hope that the cards you’ve picked up along the way will let you grind down their health bar before they grind down yours.
Like how a broken stick is the enemy of a drummer, repetition is the enemy of Power Chord. Even after just one run you’ve kind of seen everything that the game has to offer you. Sure, new cards will pop up and you’ll find a couple more willing saps to recruit into your high-school garage band, but it’s the same gigs in the same venues. It’s the equivalent of that local band who tour around the same two pubs and one club, blaring out the same songs each time – fun the first time, maybe even a few times, and then it becomes dull.
As a debut album, Power Chord has got a couple of good tracks on it but the rest are pretty meh. The turn-based card play is pretty decent, but the rogue-lite elements are underwhelming, the presentation needed some work and the heavy-metal theme is nothing more than skin-deep. I can’t even tell if the developers have a real love of the metal genre or if they just like the look of it. So if you slice off the leather, the chains and the spikes what you’re left with is an okay card-battler that doesn’t match up to its own inspirations of Slay the Spire or Darkest Dungeon. If you really need a card-based fix then Power Chord is only £16.75, but there are plenty of others to choose from.
Categories: Reviews, Videogame Reviews