Developer & Publisher: Thalamus Digital Publishing Ltd.
Reviewed For: Nintendo Switch
Also Available On: PC
Unique approaches to classic ideas are either going to fly high or absolutely crash and burn. When you take something like Chess and turn it into Battle Chess, you need to consider your audience: is there enough action for players who enjoy fighting games? Is there enough chess strategy for the chess nerds? Turns out, neither is well balanced enough, and the game is remembered fondly because it’s a classic PC title, but not because it’s actually a great game. Walk Home Games clearly wanted to take a bold new approach on something fun and interesting, which is what brings us to Cardful Planning, a unique action puzzler that, while charming, tends to leave the player scratching their head rather than feeling satisfaction.
You play a card who apparently is deeply in love with another card, because we can’t not have a game where a romantic interest exists, even if they’re bloody playing cards. Your companion card is cardnapped, and you need to get them back through a series of dungeons and labyrinths that are filled with traps, pitfalls and other cards. The idea is to move end over end through a two dimensional area, flipping and either picking up other things or carefully avoiding them to get to the exit. You need to land on the exit as the appropriate number and suit, which changes depending on the cards you touch along the way. Early levels will have a minimum number of cards to encounter (thus ensuring your victory as long as you can move cleanly). As you move on, however, the choices become more varied, and also the traps become more difficult, shifting from spikes and crossbow turrets to things like massive flame barriers and actual lasers. Think this is weird? Don’t worry, it gets weirder!
As it turns out, Cardful Planning wants to incorporate a bunch of additional things to think about, including suit specific abilities. So sometimes you’ll be a spade so you can dash around and try to avoid projectiles, but, other times, you’ll be a diamond so you can move blocks like you’re doing a strange interpretation of Baba is You. This, in theory, can be really quite exciting, but it’s the same as a stage from Mario Maker 2. More often than not, a powerup or ability change doesn’t arbitrarily exist: you’ll need it in order to beat the level. So, when you get the chance to dash around gaps or traps, you inherently understand that the purpose of this level is to dash to the end, and you adjust your expectations accordingly. Rather than this being a good thing, it creates an air of predictability for the game, which is a shame as it’s relatively short. If you know what you need to do before you even figure out what you need to do, there’s not much of a comprehensive challenge. This leads to you burning through the entire game in about an hour, which isn’t a terrific amount of time.
While an hour doesn’t seem like a lot of time (because it certainly isn’t when compared to most indie games taking anywhere between eight to eighteen hours), it can feel long when a game is presented like Cardful Planning. As the aesthetic is so stark, you can feel like you’re doing an extremely retro take on a simple concept, like someone developed a game for the Commodore 64 with an expanded memory slot. While it’s sometimes charming, a lot of the simple black, white and red (with touches of green and blue) make the whole experience seem muddled. Traps that explode with color feel like they’re purposely catching you off guard, exploiting their sharp contrast to cause your reflexes to flag rather than because they’re well designed. When you combine that with 70s arcade sound effects and a strangely unsettling musical score, the entire ordeal almost seems like a red herring. It gave me a Pony Island vibe, but there was never a reveal that made the journey worthwhile.
Don’t get me wrong, the game was certainly interesting. Cardful Planning, as I said up top, decided to try something different and, in that, it succeeded. The dungeons are unlike anything I’ve played before, which the same can be said about fish flavored ice cream. When there’s a moment that really clicks and comes together, it can be exciting, and I appreciate the detail given to “boss” stages, especially the fast reflexes needed for the King of Diamonds. The final boss, The Bad Hand, felt more like it should have been in another game (a twinstick shooter, perhaps) but it nevertheless delivered on both a satisfying action setting and a good ending. This is the element that I really enjoyed, the moments where the game ramps up the action and asks you to think and act fast. Sadly, there’s so much of the game that’s “hurry up and wait” that it becomes a chore to finish it all, but I was still glad that I did finish it.
I guess the takeaway from Cardful Planning is to go in with either the appropriate set of expectations or no expectations. Either approach the game without any comparisons in mind whatsoever, or carefully get a feel for the game through reviews and word of mouth input. You don’t want to think this will be too much of one or the other, because, in truth, it neither delivers enough on action or on puzzling. It’s a decent little taste of both, but the balance is so unbalanced it just feels like you take heaping mouthfuls of one till your tastebuds go numb, then you’re asked to try the other flavor. A few more levels, some better pacing, and you might have a great indie game on your hand. As it stands, though, I’d rather fold than call on future plays.