The last few years have proven that cards can be used in far more ways than just the strategy of games like Yu-Gi-Oh! or Pokemon. Slay The Spire and Inscryption used them for compelling yet radically different takes on roguelikes, while I Was A Teenage Exocolonist and Voice of Cards weaved them into narrative-based RPGs. Even my more card-averse friends have been enjoying these without a single tap-for-mana or scry-one in sight.

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To add to this new, card-based renaissance is Foretales, which takes the deck-based shenanigans and turns it into a compelling adventure game that channels Monkey Island more than Magic: The Gathering.

Set in a world of anthropomorphic animals, Foretales follows the adventures of a young, roguish Hornbill called Volpain. Plagued by dark visions of the future, it’s up to him and his ragtag group of ne’er-do-wells to try and stop the oncoming apocalypse. To pull this off, you must work your way through various location cards hunting for clues, resources, and objectives, while fighting off the zombies, bandits, and guards that look to get in your way.

For as much emphasis as Foretales puts into these confrontations, it isn’t particularly compelling. Combat usually falls down to who can heal the fastest, or whether or not Karst the hulking gorilla can deal enough damage to get you to safety. Although the game does make a big deal of being able to work around these conflicts nonlethally, it just feels like combat with more steps. If the enemy is out of my way, does it really matter if I stabbed them or bunged them a bribe? While the rewards you get for sparing people are different, they’re used in identical ways – paying off the next enemy. For all of Leo the Tiger Ranger’s comments to the contrary, Foretales doesn’t do a great job of making sparing people’s lives feel worthwhile.

Instead, Foretales is at its best when it gets out of its own way and leans into its adventure game puzzling elements. For instance, needing to sway an orphan to help you carry weaponry from a smuggler’s trove, or raising enough cash to buy a scalper’s boat while fleeing an overrun city. After a few missions, I began to dread enemies popping up, because it just broke the flow of exploring the environments and seeing how each card interacted with each location. I don’t care about the billion ways I can maim a zombie; I want to know about all the smuggling locations Karst can find, or whether Volpain can eavesdrop some juicy little secrets for use elsewhere.

A particular highlight comes about halfway through the game, when trying to get a pirate off the hook for murder. By talking to witnesses and picking up alibis as resource cards, it turns from a combat-heavy slog into a gripping courtroom drama full of hilarious writing that feels straight out of a Lucasarts adventure. Instead of daggers and smoke bombs, your weapons are haughty Nobels you’ve coerced into testifying on your behalf and the rucksack of evidence you have at your disposal.

When Foretales hits its stride like that, it shines. The writing is witty, the puzzles are involving, and just plucking the cards that solve the problems from your hand is much less of a hassle than assessing stats or shuffling through your discard pile as you do in combat. It feels like the cards melt away, becoming just a vehicle for delivering the gorgeous world on offer. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single card I played, but I remember vividly my journey to Cap Ybara, or escaping through the mines from rabid infected with Volpain’s sickly father.

Aiding this is the stunning presentation. While it’s easy to see any anthropomorphic animal and immediately declare it looks like Disney’s Robin Hood, Foretales earns the comparison more than most. The clean character designs and whimsical locations offset a seedier, darker edge to it, just like Robin Hood’s world of cute animals subjected to abject poverty and corruption. It’s colourful and often amusing without feeling overly saccharine.

Card games can be a tough sell, especially in video games. The threat of mechanical complexity can put some off, while for others it just seems a boring choice when fully-animated adventures are just as readily available. Sometimes, Foretales doesn’t do the best job of countering this argument, as it can disappear up itself through endless, monotonous combat. And yet, when it puts down the dagger and lets you explore the world to work things out for yourself, it shows that we’re nowhere near close running out of engaging new ways to use small slabs of art.

Score: 3.5/5. Review code provided by the publisher.