Ancient Enemy is a game that I hadn’t heard of until I stumbled across the Steam page, but I’m thoroughly glad I did. It mixes a turn-based RPG battle system with the mechanics of Solitaire, a combination that may sound odd to anyone that hasn’t played Shadowhand – Grey Alien Games’ previous title of a similar ilk – but is surprisingly engaging.
The story is fairly brief in Ancient Enemy; you awake as a Mage in a land that has been ravaged by evil and journey to fight “The Enemy” and purge the land of its blight. The story is pieced together with snippets of text before and after most levels.
These sections can be a little verbose, though, with cascading archaic prose that might need multiple reads to fully grasp, such as “push beyond the deepening weakness that gnaws at me”. You can skip these story beats entirely as they’re pretty inconsequential to the gameplay, but they do offer a nice change of pace.
The gameplay is where Ancient Enemy really shines, however. You’re given a tableau of cards with one face-up card that acts as your pivot. Using this, you can knock cards off the tableau that are either 1 above or below the value of the card you have face up, revealing more cards for you to try and knock off.
By knocking off cards, you charge up powerful spells that are used to attack or defend against a range of foes that you meet. It’s difficult to explain succinctly, but just know that it’s instantly familiar if you’ve played Solitaire before, and Ancient Enemy does a good job of explaining the mechanics in the opening levels.
As you progress into the later chapters, there’s a nice variety between big enemies that are tough to take down, and weaker ones that still need to be beaten quickly to earn a 3-star rating. This provides a decent level of difficulty without making it seem like an unnecessary slog.
You’ll also accumulate new gear, spells, and abilities as you progress through your campaign, and I was often spoilt for choice when it came to options available to me. I didn’t have much need to deviate from a small pool of my favourite cards on Normal difficulty, but the diversity of options was very welcome.
You also have an unlimited number of restarts, which does stop RNG from ending an otherwise perfect run. Though trying as many times as you like to achieve 3 stars does remove some degree of challenge, bad luck alone can make some levels pretty tough, so it’s a welcome addition.
I’ve had battles where I clear almost every card on the tableau and one-shot the enemy, and when the stars align and your combo reaches 20 or 30 plus, Ancient Enemy is intoxicatingly fun. The fights are interspersed with neutral levels that function more like puzzles, too, usually accompanied with a new ability or piece of gear to unlock, and these were equally as enjoyable.
The music compliments the setting nicely, as well, with olden melodies that are gentle and soothing on the puzzle levels, but shifts to a dramatic medley to accentuate the battles. Similarly, the art style achieves a lot with a relatively simple aesthetic.
There are a few downsides, such as the writing stumbling over itself occasionally, and the game could definitely do with some form of Glossary – I was unsure how many Wyrm cards I could hold, or exactly what Poison would do until after I used it.
New mechanics and powers that are unlocked throughout the first few chapters help keep things interesting at first, but there’s a considerable lull towards the later chapters where the gameplay begins to feel routine. In spite of this, I was still powerless to resist the “just one more level” feeling that Ancient Enemy gives you.
Despite a few rough edges, Ancient Enemy is still a wonderful Indie that brought me hours of comforting nostalgia in a troubling time. It took just over 8 hours to beat the game on Normal difficulty, 3 star-ing every level and only skipping a few optional levels in the later chapters. I’m not ashamed to say most of this happened over two play sessions, as Ancient Enemy thoroughly hooks you.
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