For all the talk about innovation, it’s not always the uninhibited good it’s made out to be. Sure, sometimes it’s great to do something new! The Internet is a wonderful example of this. Sometimes, though, doing something new can also create new problems. The Internet is also a wonderful example of this. You can often both stay safe and produce great work by sticking with the tried and true, and we see that in spaceship-based deckbuilder Cobalt Core.
Let’s do the time loop again! After the core of the hyper-advanced starship Cobalt goes haywire, several members of the ship’s crew find themselves trapped in the usual timey-wimey-rewindy situation. With the help of their AI pal, cat.exe, they’ll have to take a far less well-armed ship of their own through dangerous sectors of space in the hopes of making it back to the Cobalt. If they manage to get there, perhaps they can do something about time coming unstuck, or perhaps they’ll just end up doing it all over again. That’s time loops for you.
Cobalt Core takes a couple of faddish game genres and mixes them into a tasty blend. You’ve got deckbuilders, as popularized to the extreme by Slay the Spire, so you’ll start off with a basic set of card-based tools and upgrade these over time to suit an evolving array of needs. You’ve also got FTL-style roguelikes, so you’ll navigate a starmap by weighing risks vs. rewards, then engage in combat against enemy ships using a component-based battle system. Very little about Cobalt Core is necessarily new, but it’s the way things are mixed together and presented to the player that make this game special.
Combat, for instance, appropriates elements from both deckbuilding and FTL space combat. Your ship is on the bottom, the baddies’ is on the top, and each turn you’re able to see what the opponent plans to do, which typically involves blasting away at your ship. You can respond in a few ways by spending energy to play cards: blast back with your own guns, build up dodge stacks to move your ship and dodge incoming fire, power up your shields and deploy drones, just as a few examples.
Your available choices vary based on your deck, which in turn varies based on the three crew members you choose for each run. The gunner, for instance, will add a set of damage-based cards, while the science officer is great at keeping your shields up, and cards in these themes will be offered as you continue to progress. You’ll unlock more crew members as you progress, allowing you to create even more specialized decks that suit your playstyle.
It’s the interplay of these options that gives Cobalt Core its unique feel. Dodging enemy shots can be helpful, but it might throw off your own aim. Launching drones can deal damage or shield your ship, but they also make great impromptu cover when there’s a big enemy blast incoming. Learning to creatively use what you’re given is key to deckbuilding games and it goes a long way here.
There’s just something satisfying about coming out of a seemingly impossible situation unscathed by using your cards creatively. It’s also particularly easy to do because of the simple symbol-based method by which card actions are explained in Cobalt Core; this is something other deckbuilders could stand to learn from.
Cobalt Core’s presentation also relies on tried-and-true classic choices. It’s pixel art! In an indie game! Who’d have thought?! Thankfully it’s pretty good pixel art, and the writing is both snappy and comedic while largely avoiding the Whedonspeak that plagues modern games. The real highlight of Cobalt Core’s look and feel, though, is the soundtrack – a lofi synth affair by Aaron Cherof that shifts up and down based on the situation. It’s pretty solid and does a lot to help Cobalt Core establish an aesthetic all of its own.
You don’t necessarily need to go fast and break things to make a good game. Sometimes, all you need is to understand what made previous games good, mix them together and try to improve on what comes out of the cauldron. That’s what Cobalt Core does – it’s a solid deckbuilder for a low price that’s bound to give you some memorable runs. That’s a winner in my book.