Nowhere Prophet has a fascinating mix of card game mechanics and choose-your-own-adventure strategising, with a crisp art style and a straightforward interface that makes it a breeze to play. While it’s still too early in development to know if it will end up being as deep as the great indie games it draws inspiration from, my initial hours with it have me itching to come back.
In Nowhere Prophet, currently in a closed beta on Steam with a wider release of this summer, you play as the titular prophet, roaming across a desert with a couple dozen followers in search of a mystical tomb. From that basic premise, the game builds outward using ideas from FTL: Faster Than Light, Slay The Spire, and Magic: The Gathering. The result is an apocalyptic adventure that is approachable while still offering lots of avenues for experimentation based on the narrative choices you make and how you use your followers in battle.
The gameplay is a nitty-gritty combination of risk management and deck building. Travel occurs by selecting adjacent nodes from an overhead map of branching paths. Some nodes might include fights, while others thrust you into open-ended narrative situations where you choose how to act. At one point I encountered a group of slaves under the control of a local tribe. I could try to free them or move on. Trying to free them then resulted in a fight which, after winning, presented me with new choices. I could try to exploit them myself, ask them to join my existing entourage, or go our separate ways.
In addition to each choice resulting in a different outcome, it also changes how your current followers view you. You’ll build up a reputation as someone who’s generous, pragmatic, or ruthless, with these different personas unlocking additional narrative choices during later encounters. Travelling from one node to another also requires spending some amount of food and hope, the game’s two main resources. Run out of either and you’re toast.
Nowhere Prophet’s most interesting innovations are in its combat system. When a fight does eventually break out, your followers act as the cards making up your deck. Each costs a certain amount of energy to play, which regenerates each turn, and has a certain amount of damage they can deal, as well as health. Some followers also have passive abilities like Provoke, which forces other enemies to attack them first, or First Strike, which allows them to kill enemies with health equal to or less than their attack without taking any damage in return. The battlefield itself consists of two opposing three by four grids.
You deploy your followers to one while your opponent sends their forces to the other. These units can attack the frontline of enemies across from them, or try to kill the other side’s enemy commander. Once the enemy commander is dead, the battle is won. Any damage you take lasts until you’re able to heal at one of the map’s campfires. Similarly, any of your followers who die during a fight will become wounded. If they die again before being healed, they’ll be lost forever.
This mechanic is one of the core things that makes Nowhere Prophet so intriguing. Unlike in other card games, where the creatures you deploy are best treated like pawns to be traded and sacrificed, doing so in Nowhere Prophet can leave your arsenal permanently weakened. In Slay The Spire, thinning your deck by removing lesser cards in order to increase your probability of drawing better cards is a key strategy. In Nowhere Prophet, when you run out of cards to draw during a given fight, you begin to lose health. Since battles can become mini-XCOM-like wars of attrition, having a smaller deck isn’t always an advantage, especially if the AI opponent has a deep bench of tough followers to throw at you. Almost every action that might help you win a fight or progress across the map comes with costs and risks attached to it, making the game feel unique.
Only the first two chapters of Nowhere Prophet are available to play in the current beta, so it’s hard to get a sense of just how much variability there will be in the types of decks you can make and strategies you can embrace in the final game. Based on what I’ve seen so far, the game has the necessary building blocks in place to mix-up the deck-building genre in some clever and novel ways.