You won’t complete Nowhere Prophet on your first try. The moment you start the game up, it warns you of this fact. This is a title that’s designed around not just the acquisition of cards and resources on your individual runs, but the player’s acquisition of knowledge too. The more the player learns about the game, the further on their journey they will go – but every death means starting from scratch with nothing but what the person behind the keyboard has learnt and maybe a new type of Leader of Starting Caravan you’ve unlocked. You will fail. This isn’t an easy game, even on the “Easy” difficulty setting, but it is wonderful in both aesthetic and design to keep you coming back after each defeat.
An alien satellite has fallen from the sky and crash-landed on your ruined, dusty, conflict filled world. As it did so, it talked to you, a technopath, filled you with information and gave you a destination – a crypt located a long way away. Others heed the call of the satellite, find you and follow you, forming a caravan of followers on your pilgrimage to the crypt. With you as their leader, you set off on the long journey.
The core of Nowhere Prophet is presented on a number of connected maps, each of which has nodes linked with paths you can travel. The aim of each map is to make it from the left most point to the exit (guarded by a mini-boss) on the right which leads to another map and, eventually, the crypt, by travelling through the nodes on which ever path you choose. There a variety of different types of nodes you can visit along the way, all of which trigger an event for you to deal with. Some are simply camp sites which allow you to take stock of the situation. Others are marketplaces where you can trade goods. Red nodes with swords on them represent tough battles with potentially lucrative rewards. There’s green nodes which represent sources of food, yellow nodes which indicate a location at which you can recruit new followers and brown nodes which note interesting places which can explored. Some stops along the way give you multiple choice options on what to do like a Choose Your Own Adventure book e.g. You come to a camp which is full of resources but there’s a band of raiders picking over it. Do you a) attempt to sneak by b). attack head on or c). call out to them to try and avoid a fight. Some choices have a risk involved which is displayed on the option itself and you’re at the mercy of the random number generator on whether you’re successful or not. The path you choose across each map is up to the player but if you want to succeed on the pilgrimage, you’ll want to make decisions based on the status and resources of your caravan.
You see, each time you move between nodes, you consume food and faith which is a limited resource. You can keep these 2 resources topped up in a variety of ways like sharing precious items with your caravan which gives them faith, trading at markets, as rewards for winning battles or as the result of options you choose during events. Planning your path across each map is essential because if you run out of either resource on the journey, your followers will begin to desert you.
Your followers are an essential part of Nowhere Prophet because they act as both a narrative device and as combat units during battles. In the general game play, when you’re navigating the maps, having particular followers in your caravan can alter how things play out. For example, heading to a food rich node will pay dividends but particular followers can search for an even better horde of food if you choose to allow that. In other instances, recruiting someone on the road can later lead to a run in with bounty hunters who are chasing them down. These little touches, blending who is in your caravan with new options and narrarive quests, gives this game a richness many other deck building games lack. Some followers can get you out of certain scrapes while others will bring trouble to your door and while you might be tempted to keep those miscreants away, their effectiveness during combat usually makes up for whatever negative they introduce.
It’s impossible to avoid fighting in Nowhere Prophet and when you do end up in a scuffle, battle’s play out in a clever variant on turn-based, Magic The Gathering-esque rules. These fights pit your own Leader, shown on the left, against the head honcho of which ever group you’re fighting against, displayed on the right, with the number of health points (plus armour if applicable) each has displayed beneath them. The aim of each scrap is to reduce the opposing leader’s health points to 0 before they can do the same to you. To achieve this, you’ll both be utilising randomly drawn cards from your respective Followers/decks and placing them onto your own side of the battleground at the centre of the screen before sending them to attack the opposition leader. Each of your followers has 3 stats – a number for health, an attack number which represents the damage they do if they come into conflict with another card and an energy cost which must be paid to get them onto the field in the first place. A lot of these followers also have additional traits like Taunt (which prevents any unit from attacking their leader until they’re defeated), Overpower (which moves any unutilised damage applied to a follower and directs it at the leader’s health bar instead) or can even do random damage to other units on the field once they’re activated.
Depending on how you entered the battle – whether you chose to charge in to get the jump on an enemy or you walked into a trap – depends on who gets to go first. Whomever gets the first turn gets 3 energy to spend on 3 randomly chosen Follower cards and 3 Leader cards (more on those in a second). Each time you or your foe ends their turn, the available energy balance you can spend with each turn goes up by 1 until it reaches the maximum of 10. Freshly placed followers can’t attack immediately and only the unit you’ve placed on the front lines of the battle can attack at any one time (unless they have a trait which negates this rule), once they’re fresh enough to do so. Thus starts a game of chicken, of chess and of deeply strategic back-and-forths as you try to out manoeuvre, sacrifice, predict and prepare for what is before you while attempting to attack the opposition Leader without leaving yourself exposed. Your foe places a Follower with a huge Attack value so you place a weak piece that’ll Taunt it into attacking them instead of your Leader, sacrificing it in the process (Followers can be defeated twice in battle before they die permanently) then placing a healer to top up the health of other Followers before mounting an all-out counter attack with Overload units. Sure, luck plays its part in your success, but it’s all so gloriously measured and laid out in a way so that the Nowhere Prophet battle system feels immediately familiar to CCG or table top players while adding its own unique take on proceedings.
Aside from sending Followers to clash with one another, both you and your enemy will have Leader cards to use. These also cost energy to use and have a variety of effects that can sway the tide of a fight. One particular power does 1 damage to every Follower on the field – friend and foe – as well as to both Leaders which can come in handy when you’re facing off against a field packed with high attack/low health Followers. Other cards can do damage to every Follower on the field who has 3 or less Attack score. Some cards act as traps, activating when your opponent plays their next card and inflicts some damage before they’re even fresh enough to fight. There’s straight up “do 1 damage to target” cards and cards that can twist a whole battlefield on its head. You can add new Leader cards to your hand as you progress through the game the same way you can add followers.
Elsewhere, you can equip your leader with weapons and technology which gives them once-per-fight abilities or passive effects before heading into battle. Find a pistol in a wrecked city or similar location then equip it to your leader and once per fight, you can target an enemy follower or leader and shoot them for 3 damage. Communication equipment can allow for units to be pulled back from the front lines once they’re fired, meaning you can set up a revolving series of attackers all backed up along a single row in the battlefield. You’ll be subject to the RNG gods on what equipment you’ll find on any given run but making use of their abilities can give you the edge in a brawl.
And you will need every edge you can get in the hostile land of Nowhere Prophet. While a lot of fights can be won by being the first to get your powerful units on the field while covering your own arse with Taunt units, the game can throw some truly mind bending fights your way as you progress. The second boss I faced off against, for example, gained attack and health bonus’ to each Follower in its hand every time it takes damage to his health. There I was, chipping away at his health thinking I was doing a great job then he started to place down +9 attack, +8 health buffed units on the field. 2 turns later and I was gonzo. My second run at him was a different story, using what I’d learnt from my defeat I, held back on attacks and took a hit on my health upfront, flooded my field with units before going all guns blazing. While that initial defeat was disappointing, like the best Permadeath games, it’s the knowledge you learn from losses that’s most valuable going forward.
Winning fights, making positive choices and generally getting further in your pilgrimage awards your Leader with experience. While the RPG aspects in Nowhere Prophet aren’t interlinked with a lot of the other game play mechanics, gaining XP and eventually levelling up gives you more health and more slots to which you can equip weapons and items. You actions and choices in certain situations can also grant you with personality points like altruism for helping the needy or scholar points for seeking knowledge. These points, while not essential to your progress, can open up new options for you at important junctures in the game.
Nowhere Prophet’s aesthetic is described by developers Sharkbomb Studios as “Dust-punk” which a Google search told me (after I’d instructed it to ignore the Daft Punk results) is a “Subgenera of style encompassing but not limited to Postapocalyptic-punk, Africa-punk, desert-punk and desert punk”. I’ll admit, I’d not heard of dust-punk prior to playing this game but I sure as hell hope that NP is the launch pad for this visual style, propelling it alongside cyber-punk where it belongs, because this game oozes taste and a quiet confidence in the artists. Bold, solid colours without an outline backing detailed and intricate designs. Paint smears and tyre tracks contrasted by solid lines. Everywhere you look, whether it be the background to the camping grounds, the headers to your decisions or the character art representing your Followers, it’s a truly iconic art style that deserves recognition. My only wish is that there were more full screen visages or scene setting cut scenes to take in because those that are in Nowhere Prophet are excellent. The soundtrack, while unobtrusive on the overall experience, serving as a backing to the events on screen rather than to complement them, really builds on the atmosphere too.
Having that Roguelike/Permadeath element does means that, if you’re repeatedly attempting to reach the end goal with one particular Leader and Starting Caravan (there are a number to choose from, each with different strengths and weaknesses, once they’re unlocked by meeting mysterious objectives in a previous run), you’ll likely end up playing through the same initial start to the journey a number of times and after 10 hours of play, some repetition does start to set in, despite the fact that the maps you’ll traverse are procedurally generated. I’ve seen the same text passages about walking into a fight with bandits 5 times now and visited a number of other locations multiple times too. Sure, they’re always in a different order and it’s impossible to know what’s coming next but the variety in the early game content, where you’ll spend the most of your time, doesn’t feel as big as it needs to be. As for the later maps, I’ve only been there twice.
Nowhere Prophet is a stylish, slickly designed deck building adventure that’s one of the best in class. Combining narrative ties to the cards/Followers you collect has the surprising side effect (or maybe, desired effect?) to make you actually care about those brave enough to join you on this death road across a desert world where as they’d just be a culmination of numbers to use then discard in other games of this ilk. The intense strategic nature to combat and RPG elements combined with the procedurally generated branching paths and decision making give this game a real depth of play and a tonne of replayability. You’ll eventually start to see the same things twice but by then, your focus should be on the end game anyway. This is an easy recommendation for those that like Card Capture Games, strategy games or table top card games that’ll attract you with its aesthetic and keep you playing with its lattice of well-structured and cannily implemented mechanics.
Nowhere Prophet releases on PC on the 19th of July via Steam.
Developer: Sharkbomb Studios
Publisher: No More Robots
In order to complete this review, we received a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy please go here.
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