“What the fuck? There’s literally no possible way to win this fight. I know I said that before, but this time it really, truly is impossible.” I think I’ve said words along those lines (or more… colourful variants) in just about every turn I’ve taken in Quinterra. Not as a frustrated outburst or a hyperbolic exclamation, but just as a statement of fact about what I see before me. This time, with the pieces where they are and the stacks of obnoxious abilities that every enemy seems to have, victory is out of sight.
And then I win the battle, and I give myself an involuntary round of applause. Somehow, I pulled the most miraculous win out of my ass, a triumph I probably didn’t deserve but nonetheless feel like I’ve truly earned.
You’d usually expect such moments once, maybe twice a run in your typical roguelike—get dealt an unlucky hand that makes the strategy you’ve been relying on fall apart, but somehow scrape through anyway. In my experience with Quinterra, this is every single encounter, from the very first battle of a new run to the epic final boss showdown at the end. It’s amazing.
Much of this comes from a truly inventive battle system, one that draws heavily on both turn-based strategy and tabletop card games but amounts to so much more than the sum of its parts.
Each battlefield is a random assortment of hexes, each one representing up to three different elemental essences that you can draft in order to summon creatures. But ransacking a tile of its resources also means it falls way from the world, altering the playing field in the process—so it’s not just a choice about what creature you’re trying to summon and what elements it needs, but also a question about which spaces you can afford to lose (or benefit from losing!) in the process. A new tile appears at random each turn, so there’s never a risk of eradicating the map entirely, but the constantly-shifting nature of it changes the strategy on a fundamental, fascinating level.
Even if you ignore the resource aspect, the simple choice of which tile to delete each turn is one that’s rife with tactical possibility. Pick smartly, and you can set up pincer attacks or funnel enemy hordes into a channel where their numbers mean nothing; choose carelessly, and you’ll leave vulnerable units stranded or lay foundations for your opponent to launch a powerful offence. When you add resource needs to this same equation, the tactical possibilities become near limitless.
On top of that, different battles have different goals, which can demand wildly different approaches. In a Vanquish battle, where the aim is to kill target foes as quickly as possible, it’s often worth sacrificing cheap, easily-resummonable minions for a bit of extra damage or to protect your more valuable creatures. But in a Clash encounter, all that matters is zone control: at the end of each turn, whoever has more active units in a marked zone gets a point, and the first to reach a specified target wins the battle. Suddenly, keeping those weak little minions alive becomes crucial, and positioning within the map becomes more important than ever.
That’s before you even get to the deck-building and individual abilities of each different creature that are typical of a collectible card game. A relatively small deck of 10 elite units (no duplicates), two minions (which can each have two copies in play at once), and two structures means you have to be selective about how you form your party. But even with an imperfect party, you can usually scramble together a winning strategy, and the unpredictable nature of Quinterra‘s roguelike trappings means unpredictability—in terms of both what challenges you’re up against and what cards are available for you to build your deck from—is rife.
At present, there are four different playable armies in Quinterra, with each one favouring very different strategies. Lycans are good at buffing adjacent allies and healing, but struggle to deal with ranged attacks; Imps are, primarily, powerful but frail spellcasters; and so on. But those strategies aren’t set in stone, and there’s nothing stopping you from recruiting creatures from other species when the opportunity arises, bringing a bit of balance to your army and opening up further strategic possibilities.
Each expedition sees you start from your chosen army’s home domain, before venturing out into other regions. As you travel across a randomly-generated assortment of nodes, you’ll find new recruits and equipment, money to buy things, talent points to unlock party-wide abilities, and of course, different enemies to fight. It’s all the usual roguelike stuff, with everything adding layers to the already rich combat system at Quinterra‘s core and ensuring every expedition is unique.
If that all sounds complex, it’s because it is. Quinterra is a game with layers upon layers upon layers, and much of the appeal is in digging into those depths and seeing what you can discover. At the same time, a suite of well-crafted tutorials means the early stages aren’t nearly as laborious as roguelikes often are; it doesn’t take long at all to get up to speed with the basics, and start enjoying the experimenting and flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants strategy that follows.
And when all this comes together, Quinterra is a stroke of brilliance. Again, it’s a game where almost every encounter is one that seems impossible, with victory somehow seeming further away as the turn counter racks up, before you somehow pull out the big win. The range of different possibilities and ways to combine them on the fly mean flexible, adaptable tactics that let you turn even the most dire circumstances into a win.
Even in its current Early Access stage, Quinterra is impressive. The road to full release will mean more armies and more cards, but the groundwork is already there for a tactical roguelike that’s deep and dynamic.
Developer: Sidereal Studio
Publisher: Sidereal Studio
Platforms: PC (Steam)
Release date: 8 April 2021 (early access)
A copy of the game was provided to Shindig by the publisher.