Racine is a game that has a lot going for it: fun and retro art direction and style, potential in the genre mashup of deckbuilding and auto battler, mystery and things to discover in mechanics or playstyles, … and yet it falls down by leaving the player behind and having progression almost feel like anything but.
I wanted to love Racine. All those elements above call to me and give it a good jump start out of the gate. And I’m not opposed to needing to learning things the hard way or muscle through starting difficulty. But in the end a few hours were all I could muster. I started off confused and not knowing what anything was, which gave way to realizing the meaningful progression would come after too many hours.
So, let’s back up and lay out the basics. Racine sets you in a world of vengeful spirits in a broken world, with just some little exposition to set the stage and quick dialog here and there (yes, hello, Dark Souls, I see you). Your character, simply Wanderer (or “Wander” in the Character reference), has been awoken and trying to set things right. Which means swinging the sword and defeating various monstrous spirits. The Wanderer was a protector in the past, but other than choosing cards and simple dialog, you don’t get any real character development.
The auto battler part is that you auto attack whatever is in front, from sidescrolling like perspective, but you stay on one end and new enemies come from the other. You have energy that lets you play cards (or gain by discarding) which generally permanently increases some stats: damage, armor, critical hit percentage, and so on. So that’s the deckbuilding part, selecting what cards you have in your deck. By timing when you play a card to right before an enemy attacks you get a shield that blocks 50% of the damage. A simple overhead map lets you choose where to go next, with shops, towns (for healing), challenges, new cards, and all the rest.
Sounds good. Except the very short tutorial (normally I’m a fan of short) gives you the threadbare basics and leaves you to it. What’s that skull thing in the top right that goes up? What do the colors on the map mean or the spreading black tendrils? How do the various mechanics like shield and armor work? Or what are status effects?
Luckily there are some tooltips on cards and an in-game reference to give you the basics for most of it. But I did find I had to actually stop and read each element in the reference to understand the basic mechanics, something I can’t remember having to do in other games of similar genres for just base competency.
Which is fine, if it wasn’t the start of a pattern of feeling like the game doesn’t want you to play. There are some meta-progression elements, probably the most important is one to show an attack timing bar of enemies. Otherwise, for that important parrying mechanic, you have to be very observant and quick for when an enemy flashes just before they attack. Combine that with trying to pay attention in realtime to your energy, cards, stats, upcoming enemies (in the upper right, I didn’t notice it for a long time), and it can be a lot in tense moments. Which can be great, bringing some stakes and tension to a fight.
It doesn’t feel bad at first to get hit. You can use some healing cards, which you always seem to get to start (but not a damage increasing one!). And so you focus on other stats at first. Until you realize you are getting hit hard, as that skull meter at the top is the enemy power level. You quickly find yourself outscaled rather easily. Or if not in some late stages of a level then at a boss. Without a clear idea of what the bosses attacks or abilities are even doing, you are dead. And parrying won’t save you; 50% of too much is still too much. In other words, your timing skills will only take you so far, same with your deckbuilding and strategy. You’ll need some good ol’ luck.
Okay, fine, I know hard games and learning or progressing through unlocks. Except the unlocks here cost a lot. And that run to the first boss already took too long (half an hour at least?), with no way to speed things along as it is an auto battler. So you don’t feel like you’ve made it easier or set up the next run, either in new tools or fundamental ability to play the game.
Yeah, the auto battler/deckbuilder/roguelite progression can have a fundamental tension. Though not insurmountable, as Loop Hero has shown us. The key thing is always feeling like you are making progress, getting new tools, finding new mechanics and strategies. Some sort of progression, whether in your skill, what the game gives you, or other draw to motivate you to die yet again.
But it doesn’t work here, at least for me in the first hours. Staring down at not unlocking anything but some cards, when you start with a basic deck (mostly random, other than heals?) and only a few spots for card rewards on the map, I couldn’t do it. It didn’t find that rhythm and pull that makes the best of these so compulsive.
There aren’t enough spots to take cards or chances to build good synergies. Some cards seem they could go together, but the chance of seeing cards you want, with just a few spots on each map to select a few cards, is rare. The metaprogression is mostly unlocking cards as you find them (but see previous sentence) with the abilities you can buy taking a long time to get and not necessarily game changing. It adds up to a feeling of the pacing being off, coupled with the fact that you can’t really do anything faster even if you are more familiar and better at the game: it all plays on the auto attack pace with large maps where you really need to hit many of the optional spots to make it to the boss. It is a bit of a slog.
A lot could be fixed with some rebalancing, tweaking of the map size and placement/number of non-battle spots. Combined with a bit of a rough start of not knowing what was going on and some rough spots (very hard to read icons for the controls, for instance), I actually thought it was an Early Access game until I checked. But after some quick updates in November soon after the game came out, the developer has seemed to go silent on the Steam discussion boards (the official Discord looked very quiet since release). Maybe they are planning on doing a big update, but there are no signs of a roadmap or plans for what is next. I hope this isn’t the end of support for Racine, as that would leave a lot that could have been improved.
Racine is not terrible, not at all. I like the art and setting, the music is pretty decent (bit orchestral and epic), some satisfying animations and it seems there could be lots of possibilities for deckbuilding and playstyles (several different elements for theme, different stats you can focus on). Yet the balance and progression are not there to grab you to “one more run” or feeling that exponential growth as you become unstoppable. I think it could be there. I just couldn’t make it over.
If only the name was “Ravine” I would have had my ending joke.
Racine is available on Steam. Game key provided for review.