Cobalt Core review

 The crew battles an enemy spaceship in Cobalt Core.
The crew battles an enemy spaceship in Cobalt Core.

Need to Know

What is it? A roguelike deckbuilder set in spaaaace with ace spaceship duels.
Release date November 8, 2023
Expect to pay $20/£16.75
Developer Rocket Rat Games
Publisher Brace Yourself Games
Reviewed on Asus ROG Ally
Steam Deck Verified
Link Official site

Well, I’m doomed. I’m down to my last sliver of health and there’s an incoming attack aimed directly at my ship. Shields? Ha! Buddy, I haven’t drawn a shield card in years. Probably because I foolishly didn’t put any in my deck. I have no movement left, nor any dodge cards in my hand that will give me more. Time for my spaceship and its animal crew to bite the stardust, because there’s nothing I can-

Hang on. I do have a dodge card. Problem is, it might as well be a cyanide pill. It’ll give me the power to move a couple of spaces to safety, but it’ll also finish overheating my ship, killing me at the end of my turn. Hey, at least I’ll be out of the enemy’s line of fire so I can enjoy overheating to death in peace and-

Hang on. Didn’t I play a buff card several turns ago? One that cost me all my energy and basically got me into this mess? But it makes my main cannon fire every time my ship moves. So if I play this card, set my engines on fire, fly one space to the right, I’ll automatically shoot again and destroy their ship before my self-inflicted inferno cooks me. Will that… will that actually work?

Cobalt Core is a deckbuilder full of these triumphant moments. Sometimes everything lines up perfectly and you pull off the jammiest space battle victory since somebody noticed that the Death Star’s defences could have used a tune-up. It’s a series of wonderfully tense turn-based spaceship standoffs. You’ve got your little ship, a handful of cards that let you move, fire, shield, etc, and a limited pool of energy for playing them that refreshes every turn. This’ll all feel familiar to anyone who’s lost a lifetime or two to Slay the Spire. What sets Cobalt apart is the focus on movement.

Each turn you’ll see the enemy ship’s intentions, which are usually ‘shoot you’. You could build up your shields and endure the blasts. But wouldn’t it be so much more satisfying to strike and then dodge away before they even know what hit them? One ship can shift to the left or right if you use the leftmost or rightmost card in your hand respectively. Another has large gaps in the hull that you can try and line up with your opponents attacks so they fire through them harmlessly (it’s hard not to radiate pure smugness when you pull that off). Cobalt Core captures the thrill of a dogfight where you’re constantly barrel-rolling in and out of cover brilliantly, despite being entirely turn-based. That’s as impressive as it is absurd. Can the Starfield modding community un-retire and get this in?

A battle against a wizard spaceship in Cobalt Core.
A battle against a wizard spaceship in Cobalt Core.

(Image credit: Rocket Rat Games)

There are eight characters to unlock, which means plenty of trios to try, and a massive selection of interesting cards to discover, keeping fights feeling fresh.

You start off with a crew of three, each with unique cards and approaches (e.g. one is an expert in movement, another has great firepower cards that sadly overheat your ship). Finding a trio that works together is nearly as fun as hitting ‘randomize’ and finding success with a group that on paper shouldn’t work at all. After each successful battle you get to choose between three new cards to add to your deck. Soon the basic core of shield, dodge, and attack is built upon with fireable drones, missiles, a card that can hack the enemy ship so their missiles hit themselves (I love this one so much I’m considering proposing), and much more.

There are eight characters to unlock, which means plenty of trios to try, and a massive selection of interesting cards to discover, keeping fights feeling fresh. You can be scraping through a run, barely getting by on a lone drip of health, when the card your entire strategy has been banking on finally drops. Or, better yet, you have that eureka moment that makes the last ten minutes of staring gormlessly at your hand all worth it.

My favourite deckbuilders are essentially a constant series of agonising decisions, and Cobalt Core has plenty. Between battles you’ll encounter an NPC who’ll heal your ship (damage lasts between battles, unfortunately), upgrade one of your cards, or remove one from your deck. Do you dare miss out on a crucial health boost and hope that card upgrade was worth it?

Core memory

A spaceship football game in Cobalt Core.
A spaceship football game in Cobalt Core.

(Image credit: Rocket Rat Games)

After each battle you decide which route you take through the starmap, with each one leading either to a standard battle, a question mark (a random event, some incredibly dangerous, most incredibly silly), that aforementioned healer/upgrader, and a fight with an elite enemy. Challenging, naturally, but victory against elites is rewarded with a card and an artefact, incredibly helpful talismans that do things like starting your ship off with more shield and movement. I love how you can adjust the difficulty on the fly purely through the route you take and that riskier choices are so well rewarded.

Even when you’re on a terrific run where everything is working in harmony, you’re only ever a stupid mistake or two from being blown up, which keeps the tension high. One time I got a little too fond of a strategy wherein I’d inflict a corrosion debuff that slowly depleted the opposing ship’s health, then practise something that I believe Sun Tzu called ‘running away’. Great, until I had to fight a ship in a chokehold of a corridor with nowhere to flee to. Enemies stubbornly refuse to let you stick to a single strategy.

Forty hours in, I was still having a blast trying different crew combinations in my constant search for the perfect deck. It’s become my new podcast game of choice. Until I remember how brilliant the soundtrack is and turn the PC Gamer Chat Log off in disgust. Listen to the track below and imagine it possibly featuring in a bad game:

No ludonarrative dissonance here, these talking animals are enjoying these firefights just as much as you are.

Losing a run that you’ve sunk a good hour into can be devastating, but don’t bother mourning the crew. They’ll be back in a few seconds. It’s a timeloop game, see, a bit like Into the Breach or Every Game These Days. But a setup so tired it’s practically comatose is livened up by a cast who are taking this all rather well.

No ludonarrative dissonance here, these talking animals are enjoying these firefights just as much as you are. They’re easy to like thanks to the funny, punchy writing. Conversations are rarely more than a few lines long too, so they don’t outstay their welcome, getting you straight back to the action with a smile on your face. That silly, jovial tone is consistent throughout. At one point I was challenged to the stupidest game of football ever, with myself and another ship firing at the ball to inch it towards each other’s goals. Can we get this modded into Starfield too?

A successful run is rewarded with a flashback to events just before the timeloop. Each character has three memories to unlock, and once you’ve got them all, you’re ready to finish the game. There are a few difficulty settings you can crank up but this doesn’t have the absurdly long tail of a Slay the Spire or Monster Train. Yet. Cobalt Core only launched last November, from a dev team of just three people. Who cares if it isn’t currently designed to last forever? For a good forty hours, this is FTL meets Into the Breach meets Slay the Spire. If you don’t want to play that, then you’re probably reading the wrong website.