Nowhere Prophet is a clever amalgamation of concepts that proves to be greater than the sum of its parts. On paper, it sounds pretty straightforward- a postapocalyptic roguelike RPG in which you fight your way through some scenarios and talk your way out of others on a journey to a vault. In practice, it’s not Fallout: The Gathering, though I do think that the folks at Bethesda may want to tap Sharkbomb Studios to create something- Nowhere Prophet is a game that combines a few familiar elements in creative and unexpected ways to create a card game that I cannot stop playing.
The premise of Nowhere Prophet is pretty straightforward- you’re the titular prophet in what seems to be a cyberpunk, postapocalyptic India- only, it’s not quite India, but another planet called Soma. The catastrophe that struck has left behind scattered pockets of humanity, replete with roving bands of bandits, little villages struggling to survive and dreadful, ravenous creatures. This isn’t your everyday apocalypse, however, as the world of Nowhere Prophet is also full of killer robots, Luddite cultists and labor unions. I’m not kidding. While I’ve played less of this game than FTL: Faster than Light (one of the game’s that inspired Nowhere Prophet), I have to say that overall, I have a better feel for the world; it doesn’t feel like a pastiche built on tropes but an incredibly unique and original setting.
Within this world, dozens of little stories unfold- the game being a roguelike, you’ll never encounter them in the same order twice, and depending on your circumstances, you have to figure out the best ways around them. For instance, you may encounter a wandering family- you spot them in the distance and you’d like for them to join you- if you’ve got points in altruism, they may recognize you as being a good person, and choose to join our quest. On the other hand, if you’ve been absolutely merciless, they may shy away from you.
I have to say that I really love the way that Nowhere Prophet handles morality; it is, explicitly, a function of the game in the way that it affects events. There are rewards for choosing to play kindly, but there are also very real consequences. Sometimes, you’ll be betrayed for your kindness, and sometimes it just won’t pay off. From a storytelling perspective, this is exciting- it keeps you on your toes, so to speak, since you can’t be sure what outcome you’ll get- but here’s the thing: you don’t just have to worry about your altruism. Belief and wisdom are also factors in the game; sometimes the altruistic action doesn’t net you additional knowledge, and sometimes the action that reinforces faith does nothing for altruism.
Though the game bestows upon you the title of prophet, your disciples don’t necessarily need to believe in you in order for them to continue following in your footsteps and fighting your battles. I do feel that the belief aspect of the game, while well integrated into the lore, doesn’t seem to impact gameplay as much as altruism- an intentional choice on the part of designers? Perhaps.
In terms of gameplay, Nowhere Prophet is pretty straightforward; the game’s map is divided into explorable nodes with different encounters at each location- you may uncover a village that worships a giant machine, or accidentally walk into a funeral- as mentioned before, sometimes you handle these scenarios by communicating with the game’s characters- other times, however, you need to walk the way of the warrior.
The game’s battles involve two decks of cards- the leader deck and the convoy deck. The leader deck contains various abilities for you, the leader- they can strengthen your followers, strip away the power of enemy followers, place obstacles on the board, etc. The convoy deck, on the other hand, is composed of your followers. Each has its own unique set of attributes; besides their capabilities in battle (there’s a dog who’s a little overpowered and I love him), they’re also useful when you’re not fighting. For instance, there are blue skinned mercenaries with a strict warrior code roaming around. You don’t understand the code- but if one of these mercenaries joins your convoy, they can interact with other mercs for you, defusing tense situations and, sometimes, haggling for cheaper items.
The game’s combat feels a lot like Mojang’s Scrolls (now Caller’s Bane)- albeit with a few key differences. Much like in Caller’s Bane, you place your followers onto a grid, and each has a different cost; each turn, you have a little more energy to pay the cost of placing your units. Unlike in Caller’s Bane, your units take damage when they attack other units- if you use a unit with four points of attack and five HP to strike a unit with five points of health and five HP, the unit you’re attacking will be damaged, but yours will be eliminated from the match. If a unit is eliminated during a match, it’s considered wounded, and it’s recommended that you heal it before using it again- if it’s eliminated while wounded, it’s lost forever.
The different boards create some unique battlefields with a lot of opportunities to play creatively- it’s just a matter of creating a good synergy between your followers and their abilities along with your leader cards and the terrain.
While Nowhere Prophet is finished, it does seem to have some small balance issues- the “normal” difficulty is, at times, a little too easy; once you’ve got a good synergy figured out, it becomes a little too simple to steamroll the game’s final boss- this is an issue in a game wherein much of the enjoyment comes from struggling to survive. Then again, having played a lot of the game, I’m pretty biased.
Overall, I recommend Nowhere Prophet; it’s a unique package in the world of roguelike deckbuilders- while its story isn’t quite as dense as something like Sunless Sea, it’s definitely more involved than that of FTL, with a lot more moving pieces. It explores a theme you don’t see often in games- the creation of a religion- and it has one of the best settings I’ve seen in a while. Check out Nowhere Prophet if you’re after something different; it’s available on Mac, Windows and Linux.