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Wednesday, August 30, 2023

‘Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood’ Review – Tarot-Based Game Is a Bewitching Piece of Interactive Fiction

Aside from its depiction in popular fiction, I know very little about tarot. Despite being intrigued by its gorgeous imagery and symbolism, I’ve never really taken a dive into the history of the subject. When Deconstructeam, the team behind pixel art narrative games like Gods Will Be Watching and The Red Strings Club, announced Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood, my lack of tarot expertise made me nervous. Everything about the vibes of the game made me want to check it out, but would the intricacies of its themes be lost on me?

In Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood, you play as Fortuna, a witch who’s been exiled to an asteroid, separated from the tarot deck she used to practice her fortune telling magic. After 200 years, she makes a desperate pact with a forbidden being in hopes of ending her punishment and regaining her freedom. This being helps her craft a new deck of cards, but only after making a pact with it that will eventually incur a great cost. After a short intro, you’re granted visitor privileges in your exile, so you spend the rest of the game being visited by various members of your witch coven, reconnecting with old friends and catching up on the current status of the coven at large.

While you do shape the narrative of the game through dialog choices like a traditional visual novel, a large amount of the story stems from tarot readings from your custom-created deck. When creating cards, you’ll choose from a series of images in three categories, each with a point value that’s tied to one of the four elements of magic in the game. You can mix and match these images as you please on the card with some simple tools, allowing you to create varied and beautiful pixel art with relative ease.

Based on the images picked and the elements associated with them, you’ll be given different interpretation options when the card is drawn during a reading, and each of these interpretations will award you a certain amount of resources when selected. This means if you find yourself leaning into more aggressive, fire element readings, your resources will be skewed to push you towards making those kinds of cards in the future. It’s an interesting system that sometimes encourages you to make a prediction you don’t necessarily want to in order to collect specific resources. I’m not usually interested in creating art like this in games, but the mechanics are clever enough that it never feels like you’re struggling from the paralysis of a blank canvas making it easy to find inspiration.

As the story progresses, one thing becomes clear about your predictions: you’re never wrong. Whenever you read the cards, you’re driving the narrative, often in very meaningful ways. This makes every draw feel tense, because if the card doesn’t offer the interpretations you’re hoping for, it could put a beloved character into a dire situation. This tension over the responsibility of power is the core theme of the game, permeating all of the major story beats throughout. There were definitely moments where I picked a reading I thought someone would like or that would help me out, but the person receiving the reading reacted negatively, leaving me feeling guilty.

The writing of Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood is top notch, painting a great collection of fellow witches that are all fully fleshed out. Aside from the occasional flashback, everything takes place on your tiny asteroid home, giving a very cozy vibe to the game as you catch up with old friends about the gossip you’ve missed. All the sweetness enhances the moments when things get serious, carefully balancing shifts in tone for maximum effect. Standout moments include a flashback where you’re making pizza for your friends (using an interface similar to the card crafting system) and helping a trans witch find herself both as a new witch and as a woman.

The game excels when it’s a series of vignettes highlighting its characters, but there is a shift that the third act takes that derailed the momentum a bit for me. Eventually the story turns its focus to an election to decide the leadership of the coven, adding new mechanics about tracking and affecting who’s in the lead. While this does make a lot of sense when exploring the themes of power and how you use it, the focus shifts a bit from the rhythm of meeting new people and doing tarot readings. The quality of the writing remains charming, but I was hoping this plot point would be a short diversion rather than the key focus of the final stretch.

To drive home the cozy vibes of the game, you’ve got a few side activities to do when you’re not interacting with other characters. You can study up on documents from Fortuna’s library or play a series of short interactive fiction text games that maintain the high writing standard of the rest of the game. You also have the option to sleep, which draws a card and generates a description of a dream. These offer nice diversions, making the setting you spend your time in feel more like a home.

Despite my misgivings with the third act, which may come down to a matter of taste, I think Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood is a very special piece of interactive fiction. Even though you never leave your asteroid home, it paints a complete world that’s full of wonder and discovery. It truly feels like a close-knit community, and their commitment to a diverse cast makes the game all the richer. After spending time interpreting cards and contemplating readings, I think I finally understand the magic of tarot and would love to see this concept revisited with DLC or even a sequel. I completed my playthrough in about eight hours, and I’ve already got the itch to go back and see how a new deck can push the story in different directions.

4 out of 5 skulls

The post ‘Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood’ Review – Tarot-Based Game Is a Bewitching Piece of Interactive Fiction appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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