One of the joys of a scattershot approach to buying games is picking something up for as flimsy a reason as recognising the artist responsible for an eye-catching front cover, or stumbling across a favourite developer out in the wilds of an unexpected format with an bizarre concept in tow, or, as with Texthoth Ludo: Arcana Senki (known as Arcana Senki Ludo on PlayStation for whatever reason), because it comes with a complete set of major arcana tarot cards packed in the box.
Y’know, like normal games do.
Now I like tarot. Fascinating stuff. Cosmic insight into your personal future thanks to a pack of cards? Who doesn’t like the sound of that? I even have my own deck, one of those old-style jobs with woodcut-esque imagery and all the names in French, the one true language of gun-toting battle nuns. I can lay out a convincing Celtic Cross spread if I have to and no, that’s neither an interesting intimate position nor something Guinness-y to slap on your morning toast.
It’s safe to say the team responsible for this game (which includes none other than Kenji Terada, the scenario writer for Final Fantasy I – III) like tarot even more than I do: That physical collection of cards are more than just a neat promotional item, the back of the manual includes instructions on how to use them too! How many other games can boast freebies that help players lift the veil?
As for the rest of the game. Well. The soundtrack has more than a touch of Devil Crash about it, all wailing chiptune guitars and invigorating raw energy, which is just about the highest compliment anyone can give a game in my books.
Unfortunately it’s also just about the highest compliment anyone can give Texthoth Ludo at all.
That initial mystical draw very, very, quickly becomes the game’s biggest problem, dragging everything else down into the tarot trash with it. Every last action – from movement to special effects to monster summonings – are determined by tarot cards, and there are twenty-two of those in the major arcana deck.
Oh and as with a genuine reading sometimes they’re inverted too, imbuing them with completely different properties in the process – so that’s forty-four things to keep track of now.
Are you standing on an altar tile instead of using a card anywhere else on the board? Well that changes everything! Now then, is the card you’re thinking of using here inverted or the right way up? Yep, you now have eighty-eight different possibilities to keep track of. Joy.
Of course lots of other games have a library’s worth of spells to contend with but even the ones that go to the trouble of using really fancy made-up naming conventions that sound like they were written by someone who signs for their parcel deliveries in Tengwar usually only require a few minutes of effort as you work out whether “Heal” or “Cure” is the one to remove poison this time around. With Texthoth Ludo you’re asked to tactically weigh up the effects of an inverted Moon vs a standard Tower or an altar-located Hierophant card. Got that? No, neither have I. You can’t even rely on the inverted effects being the reverse or negative alternatives to the standard spells either – it’s not a blanket case of “Card the right way up means it heals me, inverted means it harms them” or whatever but a grab-bag of ideas that may not relate to each other or the general concepts behind the card that’s representing them either.
This is all before we get to the full set of minor arcana too – do you know your Wands from your Cups? Do you know these damned things have multiple uses and can be merged to form major arcana as well? Ha. Hahaha. Good heavens no.
And these battles all take place on one of those board game style arenas that invariably make Spaghetti Junction look like an orderly queue of old dears at the post office. Wahoo.
Your digital opponent (you can technically rope friends into playing a versus match with you but good luck keeping those friends afterwards) suffers from none of your pathetic meatbag troubles, and right from the first encounter there’s a distinct feeling that the CPU is doing its own thing; neither graciously holding back to give you a chance to gradually ease yourself in to the game but not doing you the courtesy of taking a great interest in foiling your muddled plans either. It’s like they’re just awkwardly existing in the same space as you do, two unfortunate souls who could be having a much better time elsewhere: You could be doing the dishes, or furiously scrubbing the grout in the bathroom with an old toothbrush, or subjecting yourself to reading some woman’s nonsense thoughts about videogames on the internet.
I like to think (think) I give games a fair shake and try to see what they’re aiming for even if it turns out they’re not my personal cup of tea, but there comes a point where even I have to accept that the effort put in isn’t going to be worth the understanding that comes out the other end, and Texthoth Ludo is one of those games. So I can honestly applaud the effort that must’ve gone into getting this idea off the ground and very real commitment to its love of tarot but it just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work as a game and it doesn’t work on some meta tarot-nerd level either. If you want a board game-ish RPG-ish sort of thing to pass the time on play some form of Culdcept instead – there’s loads of them and some are even in English too (handy)! Whereas this is a ghost of a good idea that’s got tangled in its own spooky bedsheets along the way. There’s no real reason why gaming couldn’t have a decent tarot-inspired title some day, but this isn’t it.