It’s funny, how things come around full circle. The earliest JRPGs were inspired by early computer RPGs, which were in turn inspired by tabletop RPGs, each taking the essence of what came before and adapting it to a different format. With Voice of Cards – first The Isle Dragon Roars last year, and now The Forsaken Maiden – Square Enix closes the loop with what are, essentially, tabletop-style games that play like classic JRPGs.
If you ignore the art style for a moment, the DNA Voice of Cards shares with its NES-era counterparts is abundant. Beyond just the rudiments of tile-based movement and simple turn-based combat, every facet of the game builds an atmosphere reminiscent of venturing out from Corneria in Final Fantasy, from map layouts that are straightforward yet still enticing to explore, to isolated battle scenes that offer a change of perspective, to the way the reuse of a limited pool of unique assets can inspire imagination. Stories that draw on classic tales of ancient prophecies, fated heroes, and grand adventures to save the world feel like something right out an old Dragon Quest—almost quaint by today’s standards, but with plenty of adventure, emotion, and some thoughtful reflection all the same.
The only difference, really, is that instead of 8-bit tiles and sprites, Voice of Cards uses cards and game pieces. The map is a grid of cards laid out on a table, each one depicting a certain type of scenery or location. Each new area is a sprawl of face-down cards at first, but as you explore (using a golden game piece to represent your party, of course), the cards flip over to reveal the map. When a battle triggers, you’re whisked away to a separate “screen”—that is, a tray lifted onto the table, on top the map, where cards do battle using dice and tokens, right down to a Game Master taking roles for the enemy. Narrative delivery and dialogue choices all unfold through cards, with the added layer of said Game Master’s narration. Functionally, everything here is identical to a classic JRPG, but presented as a tabletop game.
The effect is remarkable. Granted, it’s probably a little too complicated to function as a real, physical card game (you’d need a huge table, and keeping track of different battle effects, random encounters, and whatnot would get unwieldy), but mood and aesthetic is spot on. The artwork on the cards is consistently impressive, channelling both vintage JRPG concept art, the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, and the sorts of scenery you’d find on a Magic: The Gathering land card. A gallery of all the cards you’ve seen or collected, complete with unlockable flavour text to flesh out the background of the world, adds another layer to that physical card game mood. Voice of Cards does a fantastic job of selling the fantasy of playing a tabletop game, and it’s a delight to watch it unfold.
Such heavy commitment to the theme comes with its annoyances too, though. The drawn-out animation at the start of each battle, as the game places the battle tray down and lays out all the cards, is fun the first few times, but it quickly grows tiresome. The fights themselves tend to be lengthy affairs, even when they only last a turn or two, thanks to flashy animations that play up the “physical” nature of the cards (which, to be fair, are a lot of fun), and there’s always a weird delay after loading back onto the map before you can actually start moving your token again. In other words, battles are far more tedious than they ought to be—not because of the combat itself, but just because of how much peripheral toing and froing there is—and they’re made even more so by a ridiculously high encounter rate. (Thankfully, you can mostly avoid battles in places you’ve already explored by literally just picking up your token and plopping it down on any uncovered map tile, no matter how far away).
Those nuisances aside, Voice of Cards combat is neat. It’s fairly straightforward, in the way that NES JRPG combat or the battle phase of a trading card game is fairly straightforward, but finds sufficient depth in the variety of different skills available and the juggling of resources needed to use them. Each character has a decent assortment of skills, and the broad range of different party members and unique traits they bring with them ensures plenty of variety and frequent opportunity to explore new tactics.
But this is a review of The Forsaken Maiden, not Voice of Cards as a whole (even though everything above applies equally to both games). This is the second Voice of Cards game, but it isn’t really a sequel or expansion to The Isle Dragon Roars, so much as a new story built on the same framework and ruleset—less “videogame sequel”, and more “new D&D campaign”. This time around, we follow the journey of a young sailor to save a chain of islands on the brink of destruction, by assisting the islands’ maiden protectors in undertaking sacred protection rituals. The sailor’s companion, Laty, tried and failed to become a maiden herself, but—as you’d expect—she has her own ties to the archipelago’s destiny.
You can probably guess where that setup is going, and The Forsaken Maiden plays to the familiarity of the religious pilgrimage theme and the accompanying reflections on destiny and duty. But in centering on a “failed” maiden, it introduces a unique perspective, and pushes that in some intriguing directions. Yoko Taro’s name conjures expectations of genre-breaking deconstruction; The Forsaken Maiden isn’t NieR, but in its throwback to classic RPG storytelling, backed by spectacular writing, it still achieves some subtle introspection and pushing of boundaries.
Voice of Cards: The Forsaken Maiden continues what The Isle Dragon Roars so brilliantly started: a riff on JRPG foundations delivered in tabletop style, cleverly marrying two closely-related but different sources of inspiration. Its unique spin on the religious pilgrimage theme makes for a compelling, thought-provoking tale that channels classic RPG storytelling style without feeling constrained by it. But more than anything, The Forsaken Maiden proves Voice of Cards’ value as an RPG framework that can play host to all sorts of adventures, and I can’t wait to see what else comes out of it.