Death Roads Tournament
During PAX East 2023, I played several demos and talked with the developers about their projects. With most titles either released already or releasing soon, it would be fairer if I gave each individual game their own time in the spotlight. This is especially true for Death Roads Tournament as it enters Early Access on Steam today. Part of what captured my interest was the combination of deck-building roguelikes, a genre that feels like a large rabbit hole that I found myself falling in. Last year, I praised Power Chord for combining deck-building with a thrash metal aesthetic. This year, we take things into high gear and swerve into the lanes of our opponents. Let's just hope we don't find ourselves in a scrap heap.
Death Roads Tournament is a cross-country race in which the winner receives the right to make their way into the big city on the East Coast. Set in the 2070s in what is now known as the "Divided States Of America," the player isn't the only one with dreams of fame, money, and security. Hundreds of racers will pit themselves against the player and the only way to advance is to eliminate them. Initially, there's only one character and car to choose from. Each character has unique "character cards" that are exclusive to each driver. The starting cars each begin with a loadout that can be swapped at any time. Each loadout consists of an engine, wheels, and weapons that are rear, roof, and hood mounted.
During a battle, each driver has two different resources which are the body health and handling of the vehicle. Each card requires a handling cost, much like a mana value, and the main combat is on a grid system similar to One Step From Eden. One thing I praised about the combat system was the inclusion of numbers to determine where exactly on the map an attack will land or where a car is moving. In order to move forward and backward, a car has to specifically say "Move X number of spaces," followed by a direction. If two cars are next to each other, the player can bash into a car by moving into a space that another car is occupying. Depending on the ability, the card may push an opponent into a different space altogether.
That last part is useful if a lane is about to close, as hazards exist in combat at random. If a player is in a lane that will close off the next turn, they will instantly get a game over. The same can be done to opponents as well, making certain fights end quicker with less of a hassle. There's also a gearbox system where certain cards will cause the player to shift up, shift down, or give the option for both. In most cases, the higher the gear the more powerful the effect. This comes with a risk, as players will Skid if they run out of handling either from playing all of their cards or taking enough handling damage. Each character has a "skid" deck that will play cards at random. The number of cards is determined by what gear a player was in. Ending a turn in fifth gear will mean the player will go through five cards before resetting back to a lower gear.
In Death Roads Tournament, there's also the option to "run away," however the game does not shy away from letting the player know that not only is this cowardly but if this is done enough times, the player will be disqualified. Simply pulling away or behind far enough will trigger the escape mechanic, however, the player won't earn any scrap, Death Roads Tournament's version of currency. Sometimes, running away to fight another day is a viable strategy especially if there's a pit stop close by where the player can restore health. There are events that may trigger which places the player in a scenario that may or may not benefit them. Most options are simply to turn the other way, but sometimes curiosity seems enticing enough to wager a gamble.
As mentioned earlier, the player will eventually come across a rival challenge, which is generally a one-vs-one duel to the death. Upon defeating a rival for the first time, the player will earn their car and the character themselves, alongside a gadget that's a permanent buff for each fight. As the competition thins out and stronger competitors survive, it becomes a challenge to maintain your vehicle's health in fighting shape. Cards in your hand aren't discarded at the end of each turn like most deck-builders. This means that cards that cycle through ones in your deck are some of the most powerful in the game as it converts a dead hand to a possible decent one.
The various promotional art for Death Roads Tournament emphasizes its influences, even down to the cars themselves. Much like the post-apocalyptic punk culture, each car is loosely based on a real model yet heavily modified to fit a "winner takes all" tournament. The starting car is based on a Buick Continental while another car is based on a Datsun 240Z. Some cars and character designs are more eccentric than others, but the dedication to car culture is felt. While other games like Drive Girls may be "fanservicey" on one end, Death Roads Tournament offers a different kind of fanservice for the gearheads. There's a driver named Chevelle, like the Chevrolet Chevelle, wearing a Laguna Seca race track shirt, for example.
As Death Roads Tournament enters Early Access, based on what I was told when I played the demo at PAX, there's tons of content planned for the future. So far, it's a charming addition to the deck-building genre that also makes it stand out from the rest. Fans of the genre as well as cars will enjoy Death Roads Tournament but it requests the player's patience in understanding its unique mechanics. About halfway through my first real run, I understood the gameplay but as with most "roguelikes" there's also a hint of RNG. Be sure to check this one out and follow the development during its Early Access! A special thanks to The Knights of Unity for providing us with a copy as well as allowing us to try their game and answer our questions!
Death Roads Tournament is currently in Early Access on Steam.