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This new roguelike deckbuilder might be better than Balatro

Zet Zillions is a space imperialist romp that uses the best bits of FTL and Slay the Spire to bring its pulpy anime universe to life.

I have a confession to make: I am one of the three people on this planet who didn’t love Balatro. This is, admittedly, not Balatro’s fault. Traditional card games have never sparked any particular joy within me. The red-and-white procession of numbers and shapes is all a bit too dry for my taste, and my transparent poker face leaves me ill-equipped for psychological warfare. Balatro and OTA IMON Studio’s Zet Zillions may only be direct competitors insofar as they both let you throw cards around a screen, yet I have to commend the latter for being the first deckbuilder to turn my head in 2024.

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The general premise for Zet Zillions is delivered in a snappy opening cutscene that captures the same imperialist political satire of Helldivers 2 and Starship Troopers. Mankind has finally ascended to the final frontier and, naturally, decided to conquer it in the name of glorious progress. In this bloody campaign, I emerge as the Chaos Commander aboard the good planet-ship Baby Violence, a “sad desolate ball of war” that amounts to a hunk of rock with a pirate cannon strapped to it. My target? Thanatos, a colossal alien that’s approximately what would happen if the lovechild of Silent Hill’s Pyramid Head and Yu-Gi-Oh!’s Exodia the Forbidden One was thrown into a wormhole. No one ever said this card game was going to be boring.

Zet Zillions’ zany visual style speaks for itself: a collision between ‘80s cartoons and classic anime that favors bold lines and a vibrant color palette. OTA IMON Studios clearly understands that a strong art direction can turn heads; you only need to take a cursory glance at their inaugural title, Wolfstride, to see that – but Zet Zillions takes it up to eleven with that signature style saturated in blazing technicolor. An encounter with a dour-faced and sickly green moon precludes a tangle with a biker gang of red dwarfs, while asteroid lumps flash me a vacant smile as they prepare to punch me in the face.

It’s easy to give in to the reflex to pronounce Zet Zillions as yet another Slay the Spire successor, but that’s not wholly true. Sure, its turn-based system places me on the back foot and forces me to reconcile with the barrage of attacks, debuffs, and other shenanigans heading straight for my health bar, but how I respond to that is a slightly different story. Baby Violence is replete with junk and a living population that I can fire at my foes with impunity – and that’s exactly the plan. These human resources are more than just cannon fodder; they’re the key to Zet Zillions’s colonial mechanic.

Whether it’s a planet, baby alien, or anthropomorphic poop, all enemies in Zet Zillions have a population bar that I can fill to inflict a debilitating stagger, which presents a whole new strategy. I can mollify a horde of baby mosquitoes by overpopulating them just as easily as I squish them with a barrage of flat damage. Conversely, the cards I pull from my deck aren’t the only ones at my disposal. If I’m short on damage, I can fuse harmless Trash and Junk card to produce an asteroid Meatball or Big Jilm bomb. I can even fill my deck with copious amounts of trash to feed a showstopper play with a souped-up Fusion card, which is just as risky and gratifying as it sounds.

More card mechanics means more opportunities to build a successful deck, and this is perhaps the biggest divergence from heavyweight roguelike deckbuilders thus far. Beginner’s luck aside, I find Zet Zillions far easier than many other deckbuilders I’ve played. Slay the Spire is all about pulling victory from the jaws of defeat, but Zet Zillions is often the other way around. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s the ideal power fantasy; I’m walking into a card battle with little more than trash and walking away with treasure (or rather, pineapples – the prevailing space currency, naturally).

Without the constant fear of sudden death looming over me, I pay more attention to pulling off the perfect play. It’s not enough to just scrape by – any old Chaos Commander can do that. Instead, I find the challenge in closing out a turn without taking a lick of damage and pulling off needlessly ostentatious card combos.

This difficulty scaling fits the all-conquering space imperialist theme, but more importantly, it also compliments Zet Zillions’ story-driven format. Instead of continuously bashing my head against skill walls and boss battles, I reach the end of Chapter One almost entirely unscathed on my first attempt. I’m always tickled by roguelike games that attempt to address the genre’s repetitive gameplay loop, and I’m delighted to discover that Zet Zillions takes the Groundhog Day approach. I defeat Thanatos and go out in a blaze of glory… only for my crew to become thoroughly confused when the run resets at the beginning of Chapter Two.

On that note, a Chaos Commander is only as good as the squad they command, and Baby Violence’s crew is a force to be reckoned with. This trio consists of Foam Gun, a scrappy space general flashing a shark-toothed smile; Ziggy, a twinkish Roswell Grey modeling a bodycon outfit that’d make David Bowie proud; and Dok, a cigar-munching crocodile with an inexplicably thick Boston accent. When I’m not locked in deadly card-battling combat, I lead this merry band of space marauders across an astral map that’ll put a twinkle back in the eye of any lapsed FTL fan.

Space exploration in Zet Zillions flirts with the same imaginative storytelling as traditional tabletop RPGs. A node that grants me a free card is represented as saving someone stranded in an escape pod, and transforming cards requires me to drag a test subject to enter an abandoned lab’s mutation chamber. At their mechanical core, these events are standard for their genre. However, their presentation infers a universe that’s moderately more unpredictable and ‘alive’ than the usual gauntlet of map nodes I’ve come to expect in modern roguelikes.

OTA IMON also isn’t content to settle for the stock FTL framework, and my space exploration is enriched with optional missions. I might scavenge pineapples to help fund Dok’s scientific research or win a certain number of battles, while Ziggy and Foam Gun demand that I visit specific nodes on the map to carry out a successful bounty hunt or populate a planet. I’m free to assist whichever ally I choose, though my choice isn’t arbitrary. These missions grant a reward that scales in accordance with its complexity, and more often than not they present golden opportunities for new card synergies. However, with Thanatos hot on my heels, reaching the mission objective alone can present its own challenge.

Sure, Zet Zillions is a little rough around the edges. The spartan UI is a far cry from Balatro’s highly-polished menagerie of CRT scanlines, screenshake, and psychedelic backdrops (that, ironically, give me horrific motion sickness). Regardless, this indie game that’s crawled its way out of a cable cartoon network or the dusty backroom of a secondhand comic book shop has me devoted to the imperialist cause of Foam Gun and friends, while Balatro is left languishing like the deck of playing cards under my bed. Will I be playing Zet Zillions with the same lasting rigor as Slay the Spire? Probably not. But I have put more hours into it than any other deckbuilder this year, and that’s saying something.

If you can’t get enough of card-battling, keep up to date with the Slay the Spire 2 release date and install the best Slay the Spire mods to liven up Mega Crit’s landmark deckbuilder in the meantime. We can also tell you how to use the Balatro Blank Voucher if you’re poised to jump into 2024’s indie darling.