I never took much time out of my Witchering career to play the head-to-head card game Gwent in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but the Gwent-based single-player RPG Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales was one of my favorite games in the entire franchise. Following in its footsteps, the new standalone spin-off Gwent: Rogue Mage got its hooks into me with its roguelike elements, tricky boss battles, and lightweight but intriguing story. That formula can eventually start to overstay its welcome given how long it takes to complete the story when there are only so many enemy decks to go up against. But it's a very enjoyable journey if you don't worry too much about the destination.
If you never played Thonebreaker, both it and Rogue Mage basically use Gwent as an RPG battle system, throwing you up against AI enemies and giving both sides some cards that would be hilariously unbalanced in its PvP counterpart. See, part of why I've always found standard Gwent a bit lackluster is that there are a handful of meta strategies that are very powerful, and putting together a deck with few restrictions can be tedious and intimidating. Thronebreaker and Rogue Mage work so well because their deck building restrictions, weird cards, and unorthodox match rules actually make them significantly more fun.
There isn't as much focus in Rogue Mage on a sweeping epic of war and betrayal like in Thronebreaker, as the story is mostly centered on a single character: the obsessive mage Alzur, responsible for creating the first Witchers centuries before Geralt's heyday. And that's exactly what you'll be doing: hunting down powerful boss beasties for their mutagens and injecting them haphazardly into human subjects until you manage to invent a brooding antihero to slay ghouls for fun and profit. Narrative flavor is delivered in little snippets and animated cutscenes along the way, and the writing and voice acting are as sharp as you'd expect from a Witcher game, even if they're not the main focus this time.
The card art and animations look excellent, as well, making it fairly easy to figure out what's going on even in complex battles. Navigating the play area and highlighting cards to read their rules is fluid and intuitive, with nice little sidebars to explain special mechanics. That's only if you're using a mouse and keyboard, though. The PS5 DualSense has been my PC controller of choice lately, and it absolutely does not work with Rogue Mage. The buttons are all mapped wrong, and from what I could tell, there is no way to fix this without an external program. It behaves a bit better on my ancient, reliable Xbox 360 pad, but overall, I was disappointed with the poor controller support and the lack of any kind of remapping options, as I usually like to kick back in my chair with this type of game.
Slay the Nekker
Rather than sending you on a linear, sprawling quest, Rogue Mage is composed of many roguelike runs across the monster- and bandit-infested hinterlands that usually take a couple hours or so if you make it all the way to the end. As you plot a path, you'll run into over 30 different normal, elite, and boss enemies, each with their own distinct decks and a potent leader card that gives them a very unique playstyle. Some are relatively simple, like a gladiator who can dish out a bit of damage every turn. Others are far more insidious, like a weaponmaster with a chest full of unique cards she can draw for free to power up her units.
The unpredictability of how you get cards is fantastic.
This variety really keeps things interesting early on, though once I got a couple dozen runs in, I started to feel like some of these opponents I'd faced many times were getting a bit stale. I'd figured out what their thing was and how to counter it, so the actual fights could come to feel like a bit of a formality. Especially given that you have to beat each boss several times to get to the end, and the luck of the draw means not every run will end in a boss kill, the variety doesn't quite make up for the amount of repetition. Maybe something like a random mutation that could change those encounters up from time to time would have been nice.
The randomness built into the player deck, though, makes sure I could never truly fall into a boring routine. There are three base decks which all have a strong theme, from buffing your own units to sacrificing them for more power (as well as a fourth "Chaos" deck that could contain any of the cards you've unlocked). You'll always start a run with the same cards based on the deck you selected, but can pick up more as loot along the way by defeating enemies, opening treasure chests, and completing events. This unpredictability is fantastic, keeping Rogue Mage fresh longer than its enemies alone could.
Gwent: Rogue Mage Screenshots
Randomized card drops and opponents who have weird mechanics that make you rethink every single hand are Gwent at its very best. And while I was a bit vexed at first that I had to throw away the awesome deck I had assembled at the end of every run and start over with a stock one, it also prevented me from becoming overly reliant on the same overpowered combos and forced me to think about new synergies every time. However, I did miss the clever thinking required by some of the more creative puzzle fights from Thronebreaker. There is less variety overall, and even the more elaborate boss fights in Rogue Mage are relatively straightforward compared to some of its predecessor’s weirdest and most memorable matches.
Still, when I compare this to something like Hades, another roguelike with a continuous story to unravel, there isn't as much of a sense of rewarding progression. Alzur actually becomes permanently weaker after the first time you make it to the end in a sort of "taking the training wheels off" moment, and everything you unlock from then on is merely a new option to try out. The possibility of new combos and powered-up versions of spells are great, but when everything feels like a sidegrade rather than an upgrade, any sense that I'm becoming a more badass wizard over time is lost. Almost all direct increases in the potency of your deck last only for a single run. That’s to be expected in a less story-focused roguelike, but I think there could have been a better balance with letting some upgrades carry over, like in Hades, when Rogue Mage has a larger “end” it wants you to reach. Even if it's just small things that increase your chances of success.
If you're really struggling, there is an optional "Archmage Mode", which eases the pressure by letting you recover a little bit after every battle. Your runs won't get posted to the leaderboard, but if you just want to see the end of the story, it's a much more chill and less luck-dependent way to do that, and the boost is small enough that it doesn't feel like it breaks the whole experience either.
I really enjoyed just about every run of Rogue Mage. The familiarity I developed with enemy decks later on was broken up by discovering combos and mixing up my playstyle with each of the decks, which is great fun, even if I also wished I could carry over some more direct buffs from run to run after a while. And while the lighter story may not hit the same epic highs as Thronebreaker, its character-driven snippets are delivered with strong writing and voice acting. As a fan of the Witcher universe and card battlers with wacky mechanics that upend the usual rules, I left feeling pretty satisfied.