Title: Where Cards Fall
Developer: The Game Band
Release Date: November 4, 2021
Reviewed On: PC
Genre: Puzzle Adventure
The catalog of artsy indie games is continually growing with new experiences that are admittedly sometimes even too high-brow for me. The ideas often leave ambiguous leaps for players to cross as they try to connect themselves to the experience, but that’s just not always the case. I had a feeling that developer The Game Band would lose me in this manner during their newest game, Where Cards Fall, but as they began to show their hand, I felt confident in how this would play out.
Where Cards Fall features a coming-of-age story that isn’t well detailed in its opening moments, it’s one of those games where a second play-through may help fill in the gaps of understanding exactly what’s going on here. For starters, the characters speak in an in-game language that leaves it up to the player to figure out their actions during the cutscenes. In addition, although brief, each puzzle features a cutscene following the conclusion that adds another bit of understanding about what this character is going through.
Each scene plays out a portion of the character’s life, but nothing is rushed. You’ll experience nearly every significant event from this character’s life, but this highlights elements that we know all too well. Friends fading away, break ups, parties, hanging out, work, it’s all here compact in delivery but significant to convey an emotion to the player. The bite-sized portions force you to want to see the following story to understand if the events play out the way you’d hope.
Because there’s no actual dialog, the game utilizes the movement of the characters and sometimes just the eyes to tell the story. It works incredibly well in some instances, as you can tell when someone is engaged in a topic or over-it as they roll their eyes. After I understood this element of storytelling, I followed the narrative more closely, as getting distracted could cause me to miss out on an important character scene.
Sadly, interactivity is limited in these moments, and you’re mainly just able to walk around. The developer added a lot of fine detail to the environments, and I would have liked to explore them between puzzles, but your main goal through gameplay is to find the door and move on. In fact, you don’t have any interaction with this person’s life outside of pushing forward. I wouldn’t say I liked all of his choices, but I don’t think he did either in retrospect. It portrays a sort of helplessness when looking back on your actions and wishing you did something differently.
Gameplay features puzzle elements utilizing constructing card-house to navigate environments. Players grab cards, stretch them across the field, and then the house builds up depending on how big the area is. The houses can then be climbed on to get to other paths and destroyed with the click of a button. These accessible controls make puzzle navigation easy to maneuver as you can try as many combinations as you’d like with ease. In addition, it limits exhausting the player on more challenging puzzles as you build up and destroy these houses.
As you progress, new environmental obstacles are introduced, such as weights or new types of card-houses. However, the game introduces them steadily with easier designs and then a combination of several. It forces you to think outside of the box, but the experience has a natural flow to it as you push your understanding of these mechanics.
When beginning, I thought to myself that this felt like a game made by students, and after looking into the developers, it is a game made by students across ten years. What is most striking here is the amount of detail put into the puzzle environments that make them integral to the story being told. There are often things happening on screen that you may miss if you are only paying attention to figuring out the puzzle. I loved this concept and appreciated just how varied the environments were as each puzzle has a distinct theme. With over 50 in the story, I was surprised by the variety, no matter how challenging the puzzle at hand was.
Puzzles can be daunting, but the developer has added a neat hint feature that provides an idea of what to do next and then makes you wait a minute until you can use it again. Often, I found it was enough to get me started on the puzzle, so I admit I used it. It’s not in your face, though, and doesn’t remove the challenge from the player. Instead, it acts as a way for players to still feel accomplished at the end of a puzzle.
Graphics are minimalistic, but everything is designed beautifully. The music and environments go hand in hand to provide a calming experience to the player, even through challenging moments. I did have some issues with navigating the isometric world. Still, I was glad the developers allowed actions like jumping and climbing down areas from the beginning of the game as it gave the protagonist more ways to explore.
Where Cards Fall is full of surprises as it has the presentation of a simplistic puzzle game but offers so much more in terms of story beats, beautifully crafted environments, and unique puzzle mechanics. This labor of love has become a memorable gaming experience to me that doesn’t push metaphorical ideals onto the player to figure out during table discussions. Instead, we have an emotional adventure following a character’s life that you don’t have to relate to to feel connected to their journey.
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