If you enjoy tower defence, video games presented as fake PC desktop environments, and big sexy mouths in Hell, cast your innumerable unblinking eyes over Heretic’s Fork. The deck-building tower defence game casts you as an employee of Hell tasked with punishing sinners by building towers and deploying troops using a demonic computer system. I’ve played a few hours since Heretic’s Fork launched yesterday and while it hasn’t quite enraptured my hellbound heart, I am enjoying figuring it out—and seeing what my paperclip helper will do next.
As a tower defence game, it’s a simple one. Your base sits at the centre of a circle of Hell, with hordes flooding in from the rim. You want to survive through to end of the ninth circle, obvs. You can build towers which sit in the middle shooting their various elemental attacks in their various ways (bullets, zaps, shockwaves, you know the types). You can also build garrisons, which regularly deploy units to scamper about performing automatic violence. You can only build a small number of structures too. No routes to optimise placement, no opportunities to build mazes, just you in the middle surrounded by sinners. What keeps you busy is a deck-building system which feels inspired by auto-battlers.
Each wave is a ‘turn’. After surviving, time stops and you draw a hand of cards to cast by spending a limited pool of energy. Some let you build towers or garrisons. Some boost basic stats like damage, range, and garrison spawn speed. Some grant new active abilities like heals, summoning a squad of shootaz, and grenades (you can set actives to auto-cast, because who has time for that). Some do snazzy stuff like converting damage to other elements, or spawning daggers when you crit-kill an enemy, or adding whole extra projectiles to each shot. Some cards stay in your deck when cast, others are single-use. While you do get to pick random new cards as rewards over the course of a run, and can buy cards from a shop in specific circumstances, the real way to power is by crafting them in an auto-battling way.
You upgrade towers to their next level by merging with another tower of the same type. You can also combine any two cards of the same rarity to pick one new card from a random selection of the next rarity tier. If you combine two identical cards, you’ll be offered a higher-level version of that directly, alongside two other choices. It’s important to create a strong rotation of buffs while also crafting to dig for powerful single-use cards and tower upgrades. Deciding what to craft and buy and use and how and when is a lot of moving parts creating interesting decisions and trade-offs every turn.
This card is useful but not amazing, so is it worth combining it to dig for something better from the next tier? Do you take an unwanted high-level card so you can combine it later, or do you reserve the deck space for something you might actually use? Oh this card could change everything, should I pivot my build? Do I boost my Luck stat to improve my card drops in the long term, or pump damage to survive right now? My favourite character has the ability to sacrifice half your health to draw an extra card and gain 2 energy, and I cannot resist a risk/reward proposition like that. Then after you make the decisions and end your turn, you get a short break to sit back and enjoy watching damned souls burst.
All this runs through a fake PC environment. You’re just a person in Hell working a boring deskjob. The initial startup screen is a boot sequence, complete with whirring PC noises and a fake login with your Windows profile picture. It’s a fun bit of framing and Heretic’s Fork has fun with it as we visit between runs. E-mails develop little storylines and running jokes, we have little IT tasks to complete, and I was surprised by how much I liked the obligatory paperclip helper character, who does good silly things. I appreciate the song he made for me. I sorely wish our demonic company wasn’t named Deus Vult Inc (“Deus Vult”, “God’s will,” being a Crusades motto recently revived by the far-right) but it doesn’t seem overtly malicious.
Along with permanently unlocking new cards across runs, you unlock new characters with different abilities, some of them quite different. Winning runs with them builds to an end to the story that’s unfolded through your desktop, though you can still play with everything after that. The game does have an Endless mode too, where you might survive long enough to create truly silly builds. I had fun with all that but was about done with Heretic’s Fork by the time it credits rolled.
Builds were often boring, either running into a wall or becoming so strong that enemies died off-screen. And many powerful card boost individual elements and structure types (often while reducing another), so it’s easiest and strongest to build a run with only one element and either towers or garrisons. While a few cards encouraged multi-element builds and a mix of structures, they were rare. This was exacerbated by every extra card you unlock also being one more card that’s not the one you’re looking for. Likewise, some cards encourage clever combos but I’ve rarely made them sing because you still need to survive while waiting for RNG to give you the parts you need. I’d end up crafting and shopping, desperately searching for cards that would never come. But I am now feeling more enthusiastic following the arrival of a big patch on Wednesday.
One huge change with the ‘Synergy’ update is that you can now pick two starting structures from all you’ve unlocked, and they’ll start at level 2. Previously, I’d come to restart runs if I couldn’t draw (or craft) structures I wanted on the first turn, especially in the punishing Endless mode. A handful of new cards encourage mixing element types more too, though you will still need to find them. I’ve dipped back to check out new possibilities and ah sure, I’ll play a few more hours before I’ll hand in my notice.
Heretic’s Fork is out now on Steam. I would recommend considering the discounted bundle which also includes the excellent arcade Survivors ’em up, Brotato but that game scratches an idle itch so deep in me that I recently forced myself to uninstall it, so maybe don’t. Heretic’s Fork is also sold on its website through Xsolla, which I can’t say I have any experience with.
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