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Why Did CDPR Release Rogue Mage Like This?

A new Witcher game came out this week, though you probably didn’t hear about it. Gwent: Rogue Mage is a standalone roguelike deck builder that was announced on Wednesday and released on Thursday. I’m not against a surprise shadow drop when it’s part of a Nintendo Direct or some other event – we all like those “and you can play it right now!” moments – but this one is just weird. I’m not sure how CDPR expected anyone to find out about this game, but then I’m also not sure why it exists in the first place.

Rogue Mage is completely separate from Gwent, though it shares the same basic gameplay mechanics of playing cards to build up a score higher than your opponent’s. It follows a mage named Alzur on his journey to create the first Witcher. Across dozens of runs you’ll defeat bosses and collect mutagens that are used to experiment on Alzur’s subjects. This story is incredibly light, told through short dialogue sequences between encounters and simple cutscenes when you make significant progress. Don’t expect a big sweeping epic like the one found in Thronebreaker, Gwent’s other standalone game. In fact, don’t expect anything even close to the kind of experience Thronebreaker has to offer.

I’m a huge fan of Thronebreaker’s story and puzzle-like battles. It managed to eliminate the complexity of regular Gwent deck building, which is both wide open to possibilities and extremely narrow within the meta, at the same time. Thronebreaker starts you with a basic deck that grows over time as you learn more about the system, and it rewards you for discovering ways to overcome the unique mechanics that appear in almost every encounter. It’s still the best blend of RPG and CCG I’ve seen, and it’s hard not to hold Rogue Mage to that same standard. Unfortunately, there’s just no comparison here.

Rogue Mage is just a roguelike card game, virtually indistinguishable from the dozens of roguelike card games we’ve already seen. You begin each run by choosing a path on a simple map and working your way through encounters, collecting cards as you go to add to your deck. When you lose, you reset back at the start with a basic deck and try again, with some slight differences in the map and the available encounters each time. Eventually you’ll unlock two new starter decks to choose from, as well as new spells Alzur can cast, but otherwise there isn’t any other permanent progression. There’s a good variety of encounters, but it doesn’t take long before you're challenging the same enemies over and over again. Because of the random nature of roguelikes, the battles don’t have the same puzzle quality that Thronebreaker’s battles have. It's up to you to mix things up by experimenting with different decks and choosing different rewards after each fight, but once you find a winning strategy, it's typically best to just stick with it.

It’s not spectacular or anything, but I could have seen Rogue Mage being a fine enough game mode within Gwent, similar to the way Hearthstone occasionally receives new single-player content. But Rogue Mage isn’t a Gwent game mode, it’s its own standalone, separate game in the app store with a $10 price tag. Add-ons are one thing, but I expect a lot more from a standalone game, especially a CDPR one.

When you launch the game, the main menu advertises an up-sale to the deluxe edition, and download buttons for Thronebreaker and Gwent. The play button is hard to actually find and even harder to press. In fact, the touch controls are pretty confusing and unresponsive across the board. I haven’t tried the PC version, but the mobile version of Rogue Mage is surprisingly difficult to control. Card info doesn’t always pop up when you hold and press, the Go Back and Select options are tiny and too close together, double taps often don’t register, and a lot of the text overlaps so you can’t read it. The music and voice acting are excellent, but the overall presentation of the game is subpar, especially for a triple-A studio like CDPR.

I’m confused by the whole thing. I don’t know why CDPR released this game with no marketing whatsoever, I don’t understand why it’s its own game and not a game mode within Gwent, and I’m shocked at how poorly it plays, at least on mobile. It feels like a game that was made years ago that the studio just forgot to put out until today. It’s certainly scratching the Thronebreaker itch for me, and I’ll likely finish the story sooner or later, but I have a hard time recommending Rogue Mage to anyone other than Gwent diehards which, unfortunately, are the only people that would even know this game exists. Play the far superior Thronebreaker if you’re jonesing for a little Witcher, and save Rogue Mage until you’ve played Slay the Spire, Monster Train, Inscription, Griftlands, and all the other great roguelike card games.

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