First Impressions: Cardinal Quest 2

Thanks to the many indie developers who have stepped up to fill us with the panic and rage that only permadeath can provide, the roguelike genre has never really been in better shape since the sudden rogue renaissance in 2011. Among this inexplicable rush of commercial dungeon crawlers, one of the cleverest roguelikes to come out of the period was Cardinal Quest. You remember Cardinal Quest, right? Cute little roguelike, ten floors deep, looked like a half forgotten Sega Genesis RPG, demo on Kongregate, that old chestnut? Well, whether or not the original wormed its way into your PC or onto your phone, enough dungeon spelunkers bought the game to warrant another crack via a sequel, conveniently titled Cardinal Quest 2. It’s all thanks to Ruari O’Sullivan, better known by the studio pseudonym randomnine, and his collaboration on some later builds of the first game with original developer Ido Yehieli.

pugalistcastle cardinal quest 2
Did you like the first game? I certainly enjoyed picking it up now and then, particularly after it made the jump to smartphones. It was a fairly simple roguelike, sure, but it tweaked a lot of the sacred cows we’ve come to expect from the more brutal roguelikes in very clever ways. Because of this, Cardinal Quest was a very clever game. It was smart. Ingenious, really. I would hazard to say that it was almost too clever, sanding off all the quirks and oddities of the genre into a roundly solid, but admittedly flat, experience. It may seem odd to start a preview of a game’s sequel by slagging off on the original, but it’s important that you have the proper context for the fawning and raving I’m about to do in a paragraph or two.

As you may or may not know, Cardinal Quest was unique in the way its priorities differed from your usual hacky-slashy affair. Gear, surprisingly, was a non-issue as your warrior was perfectly capable of dressing himself, Mom, and any leftovers were just immediately converted into gold. Instead, the game focused on collecting and using glyphs and abilities that recharge on a per-step basis as you shuffle around. But despite this clever shift from passive gear mongering to active ability popping, the experience just didn’t feel… deep. It was deep in the sense that there were ten floors burrowing into the core of the earth before you reached the dreaded minotaur, but once you had a few glyphs in your belt, it was just a process of taking down the monsters one room at a time, crossing your fingers that enough potions would appear. It was still a cleverly designed core, but not a particularly engaging surface. Luckily, it looks like a lot of the sequel development time has been spent adding some much desired depth, and not just by adding another sub-basement.

“…progression rears its welcome head by making each act into a horizontal journey, instead of a vertical crawler.”

With that in mind, the magic word of the day for the sequel is “progression.” Progression of characters! Progression of plot! Progression of design! Progression of mechanics! Cardinal Quest 2 is all about filling in the experience from point A to point B in a way the first game’s single dungeon affair did not. Video game sequels often follow the track of just beefing up the original, but Cardinal Quest 2 in particular really benefits from the attention devoted to wider scope. Honestly, there’s so much progression here I don’t really know where to start.

wizardforest cardinal quest 2Maybe we should start with characters. When making your character, amongst the familiar faces from before were some enticing new class choices that he (or she now!) could sample. There is the Ranger, a class with a rechargeable bow attack and a very dopey canine sidekick that doesn’t quite get how “fetch” works just yet. There’s the Paladin, a class that takes full advantage of the new dualistic spell system—holy spells are right in his or her bag, but using that blasphemous arcane heresy garbage induces a touch of self-flagellation. My new favourite the Pugilist, a class that forsakes swords and shirts for a bout of gentlemanly fisticuffs, introducing a combo-oriented style of kicks and headbutts that seems to vaguely capture the rhythm and pacing of a fighting game moveset in the turn-based system. Each of these classes has some pretty unique mechanics in play, and the talent trees help to shake up this diversity even more.

Talent trees, you say? Yes. Another influence of that P-word I keep bringing up is that each level gained comes with a handy skill point, letting you buy class exclusive skills, upgrade old ones, or influence the growth of your stats. Each of the classes has a fair range of exclusive abilities in their individual talent trees, fleshing out the gimmicks of the newbies while also evolving the gameplay of the original three classes. The Wizard, for example, can replace his default fire spell with an icy area of effect blast, while the Thief gets a complete makeover of the invisibility spell, allowing for lots of stealth in the new grassy environs.

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Yes, like so many dungeon-crawling sequels, Cardinal Quest brings us outside. The one musty dungeon structure has been demolished; instead, the game is divided into three acts. Mechanically, everything is vaguely similar on the surface; you wander around a map, hoovering treasure and punching kobolds until you clear the area and find the exit. But now, progression rears its welcome head by making each act into a horizontal journey, instead of a vertical crawler.

In the first act, you travel from the ruined village to the overgrown forest, and onwards to the deserted town, and then the haunted castle. It seems like the switch from straight dungeons to the great outdoors wouldn’t be a big deal, but I can’t stress enough that this makes a ton of difference. It’s mostly because each of these environments feel very different from the last, which is very unusual for many roguelikes. The open spaces, starkly paved roads and enemy infested houses of the town simply offers a vastly different experience from the narrow trails, thick vegetation and hidden enemies in the forest, and you can tweak your strategy to suit each situation.

“The new details and embellishments certainly help as well, as does the terrific dynamic lighting system and the shift to a definitive three quarters view.”

Take the Thief. He could turn invisible in the first game. Pretty cool, useful for escaping bad situations, you know how it is. Now, thanks to the new environments, there’s a full-blown stealth system to play around with. So dashing from bush to bush (each offering a stealth bonus), turning invisible as the enemies draw near, all in the name of setting the table for the perfect backstab? That is a ton of fun any way you slice it. Sure, I’ve played roguelikes with stealthy elements before, but this was the first time I actually felt stealthy about it, in a strictly turn-based system, no less. Hopefully, the other two acts continue this trend of introducing environmental mechanics, because the stealthy bushes and varied layouts easily make each area feel fresh.

pugalistvillagecompare cardinal quest 2
Oh, yes, don’t forget about the visuals. Did you watch that trailer before, which I helpfully embedded below this? Go ahead if you want, but as soon as it ends, immediately forget it ever existed. Well, maybe not as it does do a good job of showing off the new gameplay, but the artwork has received a significant upgrade that you can see at work in the screenshots. I mean, just look at that comparison shot I mocked up. No more blocky walls and ugly black outlines! I’m not always a big fan of pixel art graphics, but this is a great example of how to go about it. The new details and embellishments certainly help as well, as does the terrific dynamic lighting system and the shift to a definitive three-quarters view. I should also throw in a shout-out to Whitaker Blackall’s soundtrack, which seems to always complement each new area my angry punchy man stumbled upon.

Cardinal Quest 2 is one to definitely watch out for. Yes, that’s perhaps the most excitedly clichéd thing I could say in a preview. I wish I had a more creative way to put it, but the real thought and effort put into the increased scope takes an already clever game and makes it truly engaging. As long as randomnine keeps all the plates spinning as the last two acts are developed, I’ll be a very happy spelunker when this finally launches.

For more, you can download an early demo, check out the development blog for some interesting dev insight, and maybe stop by and give the game a bit of love on Greenlight.