Like many working their way through the public school system, I had a years long fling with Magic: The Gathering. Besides piles of cardboard still littered around my apartment, what I took away from my time with Magic was an appreciation for all the little moving parts of a game, whether that game is physical or digital. The interactions between mechanics, the thousands of permutations possible between two decks, the arcane rules that cause both excitement and frustration—it's all fascinating to me. FORCED SHOWDOWN has a bit of that same magic, turning the power ups and items that fuel a roguelite's procedural systems into cards you can place into a deck. It's not perfect, but it is a neat twist on the genre that kept me engaged throughout my time with the game.
SHOWDOWN is a sequel to 2013's FORCED, which was a co-op puzzle game. The follow-up borrows the controls and the characters, but throws out the more mystical story elements and the gameplay at large. The elemental warriors from the original have found themselves as contestants on a deadly game show hosted by floating AI C-SAR. They must use their trademark weapons and a collection of upgrades and magic spells in order to overcome randomized arenas of opponents and win gold and prizes. There isn't much to the story, but the presentation of the show is spot on, with cheesy announcers and camera drones that really sell the premise to the player.
Once you get in, you'll find a serviceable isometric action game, with characters that specialize in both melee combat and projectile weapons. The core combat for each player stays the same from game to game, but it can be balanced in many different ways depending on what cards you brought with you. Just like in a traditional TCG, it's possible to give your deck different themes, like focusing on consumable items or character upgrades. With enough cards, you can even become a suicidal warrior that deals damage by taking hits. It's all very customizable, and people who get into building decks will have a field day min-maxing their thirty cards.
Each arena is short-lived, with a small group of enemies that you must kill in order to continue on. Certain elements can spawn additional enemies in, which can be trouble if you let one enemy wander away from a swarm of optional minions. I found the moment to moment action to be fun, but not gripping. FORCED SHOWDOWN is definitely a game that can be played while listening to a podcast or watching a video, even when fighting bosses. The customization and variety inherent to the design make up for that though, and it's nice to be playing a roguelite while not on the edge of my seat constantly.
Getting past a few rounds in a run can unlock gold that is spent on a trading card slot machine. You can acquire new cards pretty regularly, but not every card you get is going to be something that is immediately useful to your playstyle. In that sense, there can be times when playing the game can be a grind. There isn't that much to do outside of the main shows and a daily challenge, and the foundation that FORCED SHOWDOWN lays down is a solid starter set that cries out for more expansions down the line.
As you acquire cards, you get so see some of the keywords that the developers have come up with. For those who aren't familiar, these are abilities that appear on multiple cards and are shortened to allow for more complex rules to be imparted in a small space. For example, Reaction abilities occur when you are hit by an opponent. I've never seen this type of mechanic exist in video games outside of TCG adaptations, and I love how bought into the trading card vibe BetaDwarf was when designing their action game. If anything drove me forward in playing FORCED SHOWDOWN, it was the desire to play around with these abilities and create repeatable combos that could allow me to decimate entire arenas in seconds.
Artistically, the game is kind of messy, but I don't necessarily consider that a bad thing. It can initially be a bit gaudy to see your fantasy warriors mixed in with the zombie and soldier enemies, but it all pulls together in the end thanks to the quiz show premise and the humorous tone. The drawings on the cards themselves are a highlight, matching the quality of later day Wizards of the Coast offerings, enough so that it made me consider cracking open a booster pack for the first time in a while.
Less cohesive is the soundscape, which features one too many annoying barks from the announcer and player characters. It's recorded a few different ways, but you'll still never want to hear "Arena Completed!" spoken again after a couple of runs. As much as I enjoy cheesy one liners, here they act only as a detriment, encouraging me to play in short chunks rather than the longer sessions I'm used to with a roguelite.
FORCED SHOWDOWN does a lot right. Its arcade gameplay and card packs lends well to repeatability, and its lower difficulty makes it more approachable than other games in the genre. However, this casual nature also robs the game of that "just one more round" quality that other roguelites relish in. The game stands as a great entry point for players who could never get the handle of Isaac, but veterans with a Sliver deck stashed away in their closet will find some hours of enjoyment as well.
FORCED SHOWDOWN was reviewed on PC via Steam using a code provided by the developer.