Secret Shelf: Tales & Tactics is the autobattling debut from modding giants
Modding communities are the backbone of consistent engagement for many games. Whether it be Pixelcraft bringing Pokemon to Minecraft, the genius invention of roleplay servers in GTA V, and even fan creations that dwarf their platform like DayZ, we owe the persistence of many games to those who care so much about it that they're willing to build their own experiences based on titles that already exist.
Though there are some titles that will push back against this creativity, others welcome creation and make their hard work into but a stepping stone for further development (which in itself is a bold step), and it's these games that have welcomed the possibility of the future of the title being taken from their hands, and placed gently into the hands of well-intentioned fans. It's exactly this that has carried Slay the Spire into its next era.
Downfall, the super-successful mod developed by duo of developers Table 9 Studio, has garnered praise from not just fans, but the Slay the Spire devs themselves, and, with such accolades, it seems like the sky was the limit. And it's the sky that Michael and Edan are shooting for.
Table 9 Studio hasn't forgotten its roots
The history of modding has always been rife with brilliant content for players to rinse for even hundreds of hours, but even in spite of its successes, many modders are daunted by the idea of stepping out on their own - but thankfully, Slay the Spire's market is all but empty, and it made for an opportunity for Table 9 Studio to capitalise on. It was a big step, but not one that developers Michael May and Edan Ucetta were unprepared for.
Taking inspiration from the game that put them in the spotlight, Tales & Tactics looks to bring strategy to the board, with players summoning monsters to auto-battle foes at their own pace, creating a game that is open to the most frenetic fighters, and those who are keen to take a step back and monitor the situation before dishing out some devastating blows. You can see Slay the Spire in it - but that's entirely by design.
"Slay the Spire did something unique in that [it] was merging a card game with a single-player adventure," says May. "That was really its claim to fame, and then it spun off into two dozen clones in the last couple of years because of how brilliant that is. I had a similar approach - with the auto-battler genre, I thought the unit drafting and placing is just like drafting cards in Slay the Spire. You're building a deck, you're building an army."
There are familiarities present in Tales & Tactics that, miraculously, never seem to feel as though they've simply been ripped from other games. The gameplay is tight and concise, and it grants players plenty of opportunities to escape their fates with narrative threads that pop up in between battles, allowing them to accrue new units to take to the battlefield.
Similarly to Hearthstone and Inscryption, the rug can be pulled from you instantly, but in the same breath, you can yank yourself back from the brink with ingenuity and finesse. There's no doubt that players will recognise these traits, but that's a strength of Tales & Tactics, a lure to welcome you into a world you've never seen before with navigation that you can make sense of.
Tales & Tactics is the basis of a rife community
Much like Table 9 Studio's previous work, Tales & Tactics is a humble project, and when quizzed about their hopes for the title, its developers aren't aiming for personal glory - rather, it's a dedicated community that they hope to foster.
"I think I have more humble ideals than most," chuckles May. "I'm not going to say that I want it to hit Slay the Spire levels, because I think that's an unrealistic goal to set for oneself. I think that it can be just as successful hitting an audience of indie strategy enjoyers, and it does.
"I don't think it has to be 'Game of the Year 2023' in order to be a success in my eyes. I just want people to be happy with it more than anything."
"To me, we've already succeeded no matter what," concurs Ucetta. "I am ridiculously proud of the project. It's something I would've played if it existed and I hadn't been a part of it. No matter what, I'm very, very happy with where it's turned out."
It's the perfect genre of game to create the community that the duo are looking for, too - strategy brings out the most inquisitive players, and with a recognisability that helps to set it apart and the implied community of a board game setting, there is more than enough here to herd players into Discord channels and subreddits alike to create a dense fanbase.
And, with a game as compelling and exciting as this, there's no doubt it'll come to be.
Tales & Tactics is a humble strategy title for humble players
Despite the violence implied by an auto-battler, there's a cosiness about Tales & Tactics - it radiates the warmth of a roaring tavern fire, the refreshment of cold mead in a well-used tankard, and the inquisitiveness it takes to assess the weirdo in the corner who you're positive has some stories to tell and quests to issue.
The pace of the game is entirely up to you, and as such, it can be the whirlwind of glorious battle of your dreams, or the D&D-adjacent comforting adventure that lulls you into a world of subtle wonder. Tales & Tactics, as easily as it has turned its team from humble modders into fully-fledged developers, can turn you from an inquisitive nobody into a great warrior or bold adventurer - and the keys to the kingdom of adventure have been placed gently in your hands.
All it takes now is for you to take up Table 9's initiative and see it for yourself.