Not too long back the new hotness was having cards and decks take the place of other mechanics in games, we saw them replace movements in golf, we saw them control how we race cars, and we've seen them replace skillsets in RPGs. Despite all the pushback it received, the format continues to appear in all sorts of genres, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Traitor's Empire proves that card-combat can meet turn-based strategy in a smart manner and then build as the game progresses.
Traitor's Empire's setting is certainly not the stick with which to measure the entire game: It's the year Xdy -X and the royal prince has been murdered. You are his former trainer and certain factions have framed you for said murder, meanwhile other factions are too busy taking advantage of the power vacuum to even care who did what. Throw into the mix your own history as a renowned military veteran, a sprinkle of transparent villains and a fistful of easily bought angry farmhands, and you've got the trope stew which makes up the plot.
Thankfully Traitor's Empire is much more than its story. It's a robust, turn-based RPG experience which has clearly had a lot of care go into the game design. This is evident from the conversations held between campaign missions, and the choices which permeate their way through your journey to the truth. Not only that, but Traitor's Empire manages something that most RPGs fail to do with their rich lore: keep it in the background. It does this by filling the foreground with tonnes of unnecessary information, meaning that - just like in real life - it is up to the player to gauge what is relevant or not. That's right, in my opinion, the setting is completely unremarkable, but the way that the writing is handled is extremely notable.
Character's slather on the backstory, but they do it in such a manner that it is presented as entirely irreverent to the possibly curious players. It says, 'Oh, you want to know about the world before?' and answers you with a deluge of interpersonal banter about the characters' personal history. This might sound awful to you, but I assure you that it is a positive. The pithy banter and chatter between characters is so reminiscent of pulpy film 'You old dog, you saved my life - repaid from that time in Shangri-La no doubt.' that it really doesn't matter that it's littering lore and history all over the place - it is immediately obvious that it's just filler and you should enjoy the moment.
It doesn't stop there either. When it comes to the media we consume there are a few unwritten rules, and one of them is 'if they don't matter, don't give them a name'. Traitor's Empire just starts naming everybody, people from the past, people from the future, people who died months before the game starts, people who never show up at all. It names them, and throws their name into the pot and then you kill them on the first meeting, or reflect on... knowing their name... while at a campfire, and then the story just continues. This means that you don't know whether the named guard you know will ever return, or be remarked about again - this is an amazing subversion of the standard and I was really expecting characters who were clearly dead to return from the grave.
So, let's get down to the meat of this. The combat is a very familiar format - by default each character has a move and then they can use up their personal mana supply on attack cards. It plays out in a I-go-You-go format, so you'll deal out a bunch of damage and then spend the next few minutes receiving it. Finally, its medieval, germanic, low-fantasy setting gives it a remit which includes some spell-slinging and a lot of archery - meaning that there's ranged play as well as melee.
The combat is exceptionally well balanced, leveling up is frequent and the game is generous with statistic upgrades. The combat however, as I said earlier, is card based. Each character has their own deck of cards, which you can add to and tweak at certain points, however you gain a lot of them through leveling up. The mana system ensures that you can't overload the enemy with powerful spells or attacks, which subsequently slows down the game to ensure that each combat is around five–six turns long. It's not all offense either, other cards can boost your defense and your movement, which massively changes up the turn-based-rush format we've seen popularised by the likes of Fire Emblem Heroes.
As a matter of fact, this feels like a true revisitation to the turn-based strategy golden age of the PSOne era, and I don't say that lightly.
Bringing the tight combat systems together is a really clear UI. Even though the game itself is extremely dark, all the required information and interface buttons are clearly displayed and easy to read. This continues all the way down to the team-colour glows on each of the characters.
A massive bugbear of mine is when you can't tell teammates or foes apart in a game because of a combination of its moody setting, bad lighting and exaggerated shadows. Traitor's Empire completely foregoes this by presenting character health and mana in a way that allows you to easily reestablish understanding of the battlefield, and that is enviable.
Anybody who has read the site for some time is likely very aware that I'm not actually mobile-first, I often experience a lot of the ports which (finally) make their way to mobile long before that while they are in their original form. Traitor's Empire really feels like a game which could have released on the last generation of consoles (maybe as an Arcade/PS Indies effort) due to its quality and pacing. It is a complete delight to find it here on mobile instead, and while it isn't a format which normally fits well with the handsets (character-driven tactical RPGs), they've done some amazing work with their daily rewards and clan challenges systems. It is well worth a download and, considering that it is free, you have little excuse not to.