Spoiler-Free Review: Across the Obelisk

Life requires time for a good game now and then.

Across the Obelisk is a roguelike deckbuilder where a party of four adventurers goes on a quest. It is Slay the Spire meets Dungeons and Dragons.

I played Across the Obelisk while it was still in early access. For most of the games I played, this meant that the ending was not fully available. I did get in several games once the final act was introduced, as well.

Now that Across the Obelisk has been fully released, it is high time to review it.

As usual, I’ll do this in sections with increasing levels of spoiler.

Pure Spoiler-Free Review (1 bit of information)

Yes. You should play this game.

Almost Pure Spoiler-Free Review (3 bits of information)

Across the Obelisk is a Tier 2 game, meaning you should play it if and only if “Slay the Spire meets D&D” sounds like a good time.

Here is my full tier list for Rouge Deckbuilders, links go to my reviews:

Tier 1 (Must Play): Slay the Spire

Tier 2 (Worth It): Across the Obelisk, Monster Train, Roguebook

Tier 3 (Good): Dream Quest

Tier 4 (Playable): Monster Slayers, Dicey Dungeons

Tier 5 (We Don’t Talk About Bruno): We don’t talk about it. I think I’ve encountered a few, but I’m not convinced I gave them a fair shake.

Overview (Spoilers minimized)

A warrior, a rogue, a priest and a mage walk into a town to start a quest to rescue the princess. How original.

That’s fine. It’s not trying to be original in that way. You get plenty of good encounters, and a world with its own unique twists on various things, wrapped in a classic tale.

Across the Obelisk does an amazing job capturing the feel of playing D&D within a rogue deckbuilder. It feels right. Each party member feels right. Your party plays its roles, works together, goes on an adventure, levels up, struggles to make it to town, divides up the treasure and so on. As far as I’ve seen, no other game comes close to getting this right.

The game also changes quite a bit as you gain in experience and resources and as you move up to higher difficulties. Early on, you’re not expected to make it to the end, because you will have few resources and tools and also not know what you are up to. Later, you’ll unlock town upgrades, have more initial gold and shards to work with, and know what it is that you are doing. Things will then go quite a bit better.

This is a difficulty curve plan that was supposed to hold true for many of the other similar games, but mostly doesn’t.

Slay the Spire’s base mode is easy to beat without unlocks or knowing much about what you are doing, and fell on my third attempt, and it takes several games before things start getting harder again even if you stick with one character. Roguebook’s initial difficulty also fell on my third attempt, and there you unlock advantages much faster, for a time, than the difficulty is allowed to grow, so the game gets actively easier for a while. Monster Train does a good job getting more difficult at a good pace and has unlocks to avoid initial complexity, but isn’t fully going for the same dynamic.

Dream Quest is the other extreme, where you can’t win your initial game at all (at least unless you get stupidly fortunate) and you’re supposed to die a bunch getting upgrades and learning.

Across the Obelisk, on the other hand, pretty much nails this. You go farther each game, but your standards for how far you should go rise at the same time, and the several games before you’re a threat to win thus work well.

A core mechanic of the game, like many such games, is energy. Each turn, each party member draws five cards by default. The things you most want to do cost energy, of which you by default only get three, which is stored between turns. Finding ways to spend that energy efficiently, and get more of it, is even more a key here than it is in many other similar games.

The other core mechanics are various different elements of attack, and stacking status effects. Everything has a percent resist to each of nine attack types (three physical, mind/dark/poison and lightning/fire/ice), which modifies damage dealt. Shoring up your weaknesses, targeting their weaknesses and planning for your nightmare matchup are keys to success. At some point there will likely be an enemy who shrugs off the element you love most and also the way that you get around those who would otherwise shrug it off, so you’ll need a plan for that.

Status effects are central. There are tons of status effects, both positive and negative, which generally tick down slightly over time in a way that matters a lot at low power levels and not at all at high ones. They all stack and they are cumulative. Some are general bonuses or penalties, while others create vulnerability or protect against particular elements, modifying resistance percentages and often adding extra damage in various ways.

Also you and enemies will sometimes dispel some number of bad effects, so it is good sometimes to inflict a wide variety of negative effects to more often keep the ones you care about. Also highly effective is to quickly stack a ton of the same thing, and keep leaning on your specialty, so having a character or party focus often pays off – with the danger that eventually some enemy will laugh it off and you will then need a plan B, fast.

It can all be a bit overwhelming. You do get used to it, and the game previews what cards will do before you use them, but there were definitely a lot of games where I had only a vague idea what was happening.

For the right person, this is an awesome game. I spent many happy hours on it.

There’s also a multiplayer mode, where each player plays a different subset of the four characters. I never got a chance to try it, but many people have a blast with it.

Despite all this, I have concerns that kept the game in Tier 2.

Concerns

Why can’t I quite make this a Tier 1 game?

There are a few problems.

The biggest problem with Across the Obelisk is the amount of time spent in battles in relatively uninteresting ways, which breaks down into two categories.

One is that often there is little or no uncertainty. There might be some question of exactly how many turns it will take, which does impact one’s reward slightly, but if your party is on track then the majority of battles, once you get used to the game, will simultaneously be on autopilot while also requiring you to move around quite a lot of cards.

The other is that you need to end the battle at full health. Sometimes this creates a lot of good tension, where you know not ending the battle now is risky, or you are going between battles hurt especially early on. This generates some great stories. The problem is this also essentially requires that you end the battle on your healer’s turn or directly thereafter, which often means prolonging things quite a while, in a way that doesn’t feel realistic at all, since it’s basically ‘I can heal anything so long as I don’t accidentally kill all our enemies first.’ You know how it is.

This compounds with the fact that runs of the full game drag on and are too long. Going through all four acts takes several hours. Once you know what you are doing, a lot of the early parts of that won’t carry much risk or offer much tension. In my last few plays, it felt like you decided to run an experiment/plan, then it took something like two hours to play out, then you found out if it worked.

Another aspect of this is that there is much less randomness in what you have to work with here than in the other good rogue deckbuilders. If you go into Slay the Spire or Monster Train with a plan chances are it won’t survive contact with the enemy. Roguebook you can sort of have a plan, more so for certain hero pairs than others. In Across the Obelisk, you do have a plan. The encounters you have and the cards you roll can essentially give you extra options and make your life better, and when you’re playing with less power rolling the right premium card can guide you a decent amount, but mostly you’re effectively only looking for a handful of goodies and rejecting everything else in favor of shards. You also get equipment, and the ones you get later on matter, but mostly again you know what you need.

Similarly, once you learn what is on the maps there is not enough randomness in which events area available, what the correct path is to take and what happens in those events. You do get the option to randomize a lot of enemies, which helps some, but it’s not enough. You can of course choose to take the road less travelled by at least once, and you should, while understanding it’s a sacrifice.

At lower difficulties (this game uses ‘madness’ levels as its parallel to Ascension levels in Slay the Spire) you have freedom to mess around, try different things and party configurations and so on, which is good. But as things get more intense, the range of useful things narrows in all ways. There are multiple viable party builds, but also clearly better and worse approaches in most ways, and your poverty means you need a laser focus.

I wish there was a way to make it more beneficial to ‘roll with the punches’ more. As it is, many of the epic and legendary cards are splashy or potentially interesting, but simply cost too much energy and aren’t efficient, or take you down the wrong path. You need something that packs a punch, but the wrong something mostly ends up being a dead card. I’d like to see a path to more improvisation in adventure mode, without having to fall back on the other modes of play.

The game has a lot going on and gets rather complex. The good news is that as you settle in you can often largely ignore these interactions and still have plenty of fun, but it can be a barrier to get and keep it all straight.

That’s all mostly talking about adventure mode. In the other modes you’re playing with much less power and much less predictability. That has its advantages, but in the end I didn’t find it to be as much fun.

Conclusion

Across the Obelisk is a game made with love that very much satisfied its vision. I had a great time. If the vision interests you, you should absolutely go for it.

The game is good enough that I want it to be just that extra bit better, to address the last few concerns, that would have turned it into a true all-time great. As it is, it still goes on the list of games I hope my kids eventually get to play, but I can’t quite offer a completely unqualified ‘yes everyone needs to play this.’

Despite that, yes. If you are considering playing, you should play it.

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4 Responses to Spoiler-Free Review: Across the Obelisk

  1. Doug S. says:

    Have you tried Night of the Full Moon?

  2. breh says:

    Your ‘Slay The Spire’ review convinced me to play it, and it’s now one of my very favourite games (thank you). I had little previous experience of or interest in CCGs.

    Have you tried Slay the Spire: Downfall? (https://store.steampowered.com/app/1865780/Downfall__A_Slay_the_Spire_Fan_Expansion/)

    It’s an unofficial (but, I distantly and perhaps wrongly recall, officially-endorsed) “Expansion”, consisting of 8 new classes (each with new mechanics) and a game mode where you play “in reverse” as the enemies against the original classes. None of them are as brilliant and tight as the originals, but you might get something out of it.

    • TheZvi says:

      I haven’t, although I’ve heard good things. Not for any particular super strong reason, more that it didn’t seem like the thing I most wanted to do. I believe it’s been essentially officially unofficially endorsed (as in the devs confirmed it’s cool).

  3. Pingback: Across the Obelisk | The Tao of Gaming

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