The Title Screen of Card of Darkness by Zach Gage

Card of Darkness is a card game by Zach Gage, Pendleton Ward (of Adventure Time fame), and Choice Provisions. Card of Darkness is like a game of solitaire mixed with distilled roguelike elements and a vibrant atmosphere. But don’t let this game’s sweet colorful aesthetic deceive you; this game is trying to wind you up. You’ll be seeing cards for days—they’ll even haunt your dreams.

Pick up a card

The game is relatively simple. Each game starts with a few cards face up. A card can be anything: a wide variety of monsters that will attack you, a chest that gives you gold, potions to heal yourself, various weapons to attack—you name it.

Here’s the catch, when you’re attacking with most weapons, you need to match your weapon’s even/odd parity with the monster card. So, if you have a sword with a value of four and the enemy has six, you’ll take two damage and keep your sword. But if you have that same four value sword against an enemy with five, you’ll be hit with one damage, and your sword will break. So this game isn’t always about picking up the heftiest sword—you might lose it with the very next card you have to pick up.

You progress through levels by picking up enough cards to reach the stairs or volcano at the top of the screen. If you pick up a card from a pile, you can’t leave that pile unfinished before advancing. You also need to keep careful watch of your health and try to forecast what will happen with the marked cards that you need to pick up before proceeding to another level.

A flavorful adventure

Considering that Pendleton Ward, creator of Adventure Time, is behind the art of Card of Darkness, it’s exactly what you can expect—colorful and silly, yet with a marked sense of adventure. Each region you visit presents a different flavor of game design and art, like new monsters and weapons with varying mechanics with increasing complexity.

For example, Fearfoxes lose three value every time you pick up a monster, so you try to pick up others first. A Potion of Patience is a regular portion, but its value goes up by one each turn. Later, there are beefy fire swords, Burning Steel, which damage you by one each turn while equipped. Further still, you encounter Horrors; they’re monsters that do enough damage to leave you with one health. They’re pretty, well, horrible, until you realize that killing one horror can kill all the horrors on screen.

Strategy and well-balanced randomness

Card of Darkness is an RNG heavy game, and the randomness of the game is not your friend. That said, the randomness does bring balance and depth to this game. It softens the difficulty when you’re just starting, and also deemphasizes the need to min/max the game for advanced players. And in that sense, the game feels well-tuned. It usually feels like you can figure your way out of a tense scenario, but if you do fail, a restart of the level might be the run where you squeak through. I love how this feels—it gives you a euphoric feeling of “oh god, I just barely made it through with one health.”

The fun of this game is the problem solving to get ahead of the randomness. How do you tailor your Cards of Darkness for each level? It’s chasing the thrill of steamrolling a level because you found a buildout of Cards that’s a bit busted. (If you’re not changing your Cards of Darkness on most levels, you may be getting stuck for longer than you need—especially boss levels.)

Sure, the game is hard, but it’s not unfair. You might get the occasional level with brutal RNG where you give up immediately, but the game wants you to finish it. There’s no penalty for failure—if you have poor luck, it’s as fleeting as bad a hand of poker. And You’re coming out ahead every time—you’re bound to pick up some coins from each level, enable you to get more tokens or slots for Cards of Darkness that give you an extra advantage when you may be quite stuck.

Fall in the deep deep end

Card of Darkness is probably the best idle game on Apple Arcade so far. Like many other Zach Gage games, it’s a great game to pick up in idle moments, like waiting in line at a grocery store or trying to multitask while listening to a podcast.

I’ve played for several hours so far, and while I’d like to say I’ve finished the game, it looks like I still have a bit more to go—I’m presently battling my way though The Baxlan Delves as I write this (which is level six of eight). Based on my experience, I can say it’s a game just for “hardcore gamers”; it’s relatively accessible for anyone to pick up—with persistence, you’ll make it to the end of the game.

Card of Darkness is available for iOS and tvOS with an Apple Arcade subscription.

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A screenshot of the fool riding a tarot card in the Apple Arcade title Sayonara WIld Hearts

Sayonara Wild Hearts is a pop album video game developed by Simogo, known for their previous titles Year Walk and Device 6. Featuring a half synth-pop, half EDM soundtrack from Daniel Olsen and Jonathan Eng, Sayonara Wild Hearts is like no rhythm game you’ve ever played. It’s probably fairer to say that this is a playable animated music video.

A screenshot of the first level of Sayonara Wild Hearts, Clair De Lune

Let’s Pop

The musical immersion of this game is outstanding. Each track is a different level of the game, revealing a bit more of the story of our heroine, a masked biker we know as The Fool. There’s driving and flying bits of the game, where you steer to pick up hearts and collect points. There are also quick time events—like striking at enemies with a sword. There’s also teases of shooting and bullet hell mechanics in some levels.

Tapping to and playing along with beat feels good—especially when it gets tricky, like tapping offbeat to emphasize bits of the melody. It’s the best version of tapping your foot to the beat, except you get a score for it.

The album itself is incredibly catchy and stands alone as an excellent album outside of the game. It’s got a dreamy, atmospheric vibe to it that calms you down despite the high-BPM of some tracks. It became the soundtrack I put on while preparing dinner last night, and I’m listening to it while writing this.

A screenshot of Sayonara Wild Hearts, showing the the Dancing Devils

Hearts & Swords

This game is astonishingly clever, and each level brings something new to the table. My jaw dropped more than once, completely inverting my expectations for what this game is.

Parallel Universes is a level where you play against the twin-like allies, Stereo Lovers. As the Stereo Lovers snap and clap along to the beat, you’re flipped between two parallel game universes, each one with bits to pick up and obstacles to avoid. The goal is to foresee what’s coming up in your path in both worlds and avoid it. I’ll be honest, I struggled a bit in one segment this track, but there’s no severe penalty for actual failure: the game never sets you back far, and will let you skip a small chunk if a segment is too hard. I stuck through it, and I am glad I did. (And, if you can’t swipe fast enough, turn up the sensitivity in settings.)

You’re chasing scores in each level, with different benchmarks for bronze, silver, and gold. You’re likely not going to get gold in many levels on your first playthrough, and that’s okay. I doubt anyone playing will feel that the music or visuals are repetitive. After you complete the game for the first time, there’s even an Album Arcade game mode that unlocks—you play the entire game/album front to back, and earn a score from that. (Probably a perfect game mode for a long flight.)

The Stereo Lovers swinging their swords in Sayonara Wild Hearts

The World We Knew

The aesthetic is something else too. It’s punchy and purple in the best way. It leans on bright and minimal thin lines for key artwork, which provides a sharp contrast from the quiet, dark blues and purples of the backgrounds. If you’ve read my previous posts, I might have mentioned “vibrancy” of color a time or two on this website, but holy hell, this game is in your face with its über-colorful aesthetic, and boy, it’s on point at all times.

The game uses tarot lore to tell parts of the story. The heroine is the fool, which is one of the cards in a tarot deck. At times, you’re riding along a level on a tarot card. The tarot base becomes the driving backbone of this dreamy spiritual and really glam vibe of the game.

Oh yeah, Queen Latifah is the narrator for the game too. (Who would have thought?) I didn’t realize it was her voice until I hit the credits the first time, but it’s excellent casting. Her voice brings such poise and confidence to the narration and is the right choice to deliver the narrative through-line of the story.

Riding a motorcycle in Sayonara Wild Hearts, in the level Begin Again.

Wild Hearts Never Die

Sayonara Wild Hearts is published by Annapurna Interactive, which seems to be winning my heart “best publisher” feelings, for the sheer number of indie titles that I love they’ve published in any capacity this year. (Telling Lies, Journey, and Donut County come to mind.)

Sayonara Wild Hearts is available for free with an Apple Arcade subscription. It’s also available for PS4 and Nintendo Switch for $12.99. Each stage only takes a few minutes so that you can play in discrete chunks, but a typical front-to-back playthrough will take just over an hour of your time.

This game is so chill, and I probably would have had this post up a few hours earlier if I didn’t get completely immersed playing it again while taking notes for this post. Let Sayonara Wild Hearts steal your time (and heart) too.

A screenshot of Mini Motorways, showing editing strategies and tips for building roads.

Do you know those moments when you’re sitting in deep stop-and-go traffic that goes on for miles? The traffic that makes you lazily slouch down in your seat and turn up the volume to your podcast, to distract you from the boredom? Perhaps you wonder to yourself, who designed these roads? Well, now it can be you.

Mini Motorways is a city simulation game by Dinosaur Polo Club. Your task is to build a road network that can support a growing, sprawling city. It’s a follow up to Dinosaur Polo Club’s earlier game, Mini Metro.

A screenshot of Los Angeles in Mini Motorways, showing the early development of a city, with multiple colors of buildings.

Los Angeles

I first take on the task of planning roads for Los Angeles, a city notorious for dense and never-ending traffic. Something makes me think I can do better. (It’s a game, right? How hard can it be?)

Specifically, Los Angeles is vast and open, with only the Los Angeles River (and later, the San Gabriel River) to get in the way of your planning. As the game starts and time passes, colored houses and factories pop up. The houses provide a few cars of traffic, and the cars leave home to a store or factory of the same color, and then turn around and return home.

Since LA is my first experience with the game, I’m soon caught out by learning the systems yet. I don’t yet know how to foresee the problems here, so my road development is just blindly connecting new houses and buildings to my road network without much rhyme or reason. I don’t know how to anticipate where buildings will grow, and this gets me caught in awkward corners. My first (and expected) loss comes because I never expected how to grow across the Los Angeles River. Next time, I’ll build across the river in advance of things popping up there, and start to preestablish a grid.

An early screenshot of Tokyo in Mini Motorways, showing a road along the Sumida river.

Tokyo

My next contract is in a new city: Tokyo. This city presents a slightly different challenge from Los Angeles. The Sumida River (隅田川) is my first foe—It doesn’t take too long for the game to start throwing stores and houses on the other side of it.

I build on what I’ve learned from LA and decide to establish a grid layout. If you’re thinking about a grid, when a new building appears, try to extend the roads well past the building with your extra road tiles long enough so intersections can naturally form. Also, since you can connect houses to a path from any of their sides, flipping houses seems to be a more critical strategy, so I can start reducing their pressure along main roads.

A well formed city of Beijing in Mini Motorways, with an advanced grid established.

Beijing

Beijing is the next map I sunk my teeth into, and honestly, it took me a few attempts to get right. There are a small river and lake here, and both manage to get in the way. I feel like Beijing is more big-building dense than the other cities I’ve played too.

I’ve refined my grid strategy a bit here, and also picked up a few other strategies. For example, to reduce the number of intersections, I’ve started to focus on tertiary roads that connect to major arterial grid roads—these tertiary roads focus more on dead-end home traffic, and the grids hold more store/factory traffic.

I’ve also picked up the habit of pausing when a new factory drops. I’ve quite often found that the large buildings drop in awkward spots, and as I’m going to paint down new roads, a house will pop into my planned path unexpectedly.

A close zoom of Moscow in Mini Motorways, showing traffic and two buildings about to fail.

Russian to download it

Overall, Mini Motorways is a more zen-like experience than Mini Metro. Once you start to pick up skills that help you better understand the game and its traffic flow—like pre-planning a grid, tertiary roads, etc.—it feels like you have much better control over the game. When I fail, it’s mostly due to shortcomings in anticipating traffic, not from a bout of randomness—like fifteen people decided to stack up at a metro station that I suddenly have to account for (like in the previous game). You also usually have a bit of time to recover from these misses, or can plonk down a motorway as an exhaust path.

Mini Motorways is available now for Apple Arcade. Each game can last from just a few minutes to a max of about 20 minutes (all depending on how well you do), but you can undoubtedly get hours of playtime out of this game.