An earnest if slightly officious witch named Thea is asking me to divine the fortune of her future career. Thea works in arbitration for what I understand to be the governing body for cosmic witchcraft, a line of work that surely must have plenty of potential for growth and development. I shuffle the deck and, by chance, draw my most-recently designed card, depicting a scorched battlefield littered with funeral pyres and witches tied to burning stakes. The card is titled Genocide. I assign it to the space for bad news and ponder how best to convert this into advice.
In its first game since 2018, Deconstructeam has built on the foundations laid in The Red Strings Club, a cyberpunk narrative adventure game in which players mixed cocktails to elicit particular emotions in characters or prompt certain narrative threads. In The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood, a neon-lit bar is swapped for a floating asteroid, and cocktails exchanged for a deck of player-designed fortune-telling cards.
Though he doesn't consider himself a believer in the mysticism underpinning tarot cards, creative director Jordi de Paco told me the game stems from the cards' ability to prompt interesting conversations: "It's a way to interface with your friends and have conversations you wouldn't normally get to have just by sitting and talking to each other. Incidentally, we discovered that tarot was a great mechanic for narrative design: It's great to ask questions and having to draw cards to answer them, so let's build a whole game around that."
The story centers around the aptly-named Fortuna, a fortune teller exiled for divining the future destruction of her coven and sentenced to spend a millennium alone aboard a floating asteroid, stripped of both her tarot deck and her powers. Unable to stand the isolation, Fortuna breaks witching protocol to summon Ábramar, a behemoth, who offers to teach her to create her own deck of fortune-telling cards.
One thing is made clear from the outset: These are definitely not tarot cards. As Ábramar explains, tarot cards are "too human-centric to grasp the nature of the cosmos." Uninhibited by tarot traditions, The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood's central mechanic sees players create their own bespoke cards by hand, something that Deconstructeam believes will significantly increase the player's immersion in the story as a result.
Players use a rudimentary image editor to combine and layer lavish pixel art that depicts a vast universe of cosmic magic and science fiction. Delicious lore nuggets accompanying each piece of art hint at interdimensional post offices, armadas of space-faring pirate ships, Deerfolk paladins and witches enduring seven year-long orgasms--there is a lot going on.
The huge number of constituent elements from which to build your cards means a wealth of possible combinations, and it's easy to foresee players losing hours to designing their cards. Despite my total lack of skill, the card-creation mechanic is undeniably absorbing and, fortunately for me, the game does not seem to cast any judgment on the quality or traditional tarot-ness of the artwork you create. As an absolute tarot card novice, the artwork seems to lean toward the psychedelic. Most of my creations resembled the covers of pulp sci-fi novels or '70s prog rock albums more than traditional cards.
Each card is constructed from a sphere (or background), an arcane figure of some kind, and symbols, with each piece incurring varying costs to Fortuna's elemental resources of fire, water, air, and earth. These elemental resources are then generated in turn through drawing cards in Cosmic Wheel's other major mechanic: divination. Though much of the player's interaction is simple conversation, at predetermined points in the narrative, characters will ask Fortuna to perform a reading, prompting Fortuna to draw cards from her deck at random in order to divine their meaning relative to the character's queries. For example, thinking up a way to interpret the career trajectory implied by a card titled Genocide.
Fortunately for poor Thea, the player has some agency in how the cards are translated or contextualized to other characters. I chose to tell Thea she would have to kill a fellow witch at some point in the future which, all things considered, felt like a minimally traumatic reading. But therein lies an interesting wrinkle to The Cosmic Wheel's premise--as a fortune teller, Fortuna's divinations are destined to become reality, and so the player's decisions on how to interpret the cards can have material consequences for the direction of the narrative. The game hints at the deterministic paradox of this through its narrative; was Fortuna exiled unfairly for warning her coven of its impending doom, or exiled justly for condemning the coven to its fate by having predicted it?
As the cards are drawn at random, the potential for player control on the direction of conversations comes through deck-building. Cards that draw from particular elemental powers have different effects, and though these weren't immediately clear from the hour or so I played, Deconstructeam intends for players to be able to construct decks targeting a certain emotional or narrative direction: "To me it really adds to the game when you play for that and start crafting a deck which is more about conflict, or emotion, or community," said de Paco. "It's a deck-building narrative experience. It's a playful way to interface with that story."
Deconstructeam promises a branching narrative (though not one as divergent as the likes of Heavy Rain or Detroit: Become Human, according to de Paco) that covers not only Fortuna's cosmic voyage, but her history and the histories of her fellow witches, with the promise of a political edge to the centuries-spanning story, portraying the clashing ideologies within covens of witches who may have values stemming from wildly different points in Earth's history. Combined with the results of your divinations, these aspects of conflict and resolution between characters and communities have the potential to interact with the player's choices in myriad ways. "Characters are going to hate you or not, they're going to become your allies or not, or you're going to lose things or earn things," said de Paco. While the main plot might not change much based on your actions, it seems your decisions can have a dramatic effect on the characters and storylines contained within that central narrative thread.
Our demo ended with a tantalizing glimpse into Fortuna's pre-cosmic life on modern-day Earth, including an extremely charming retooling of the card design mechanic that I'm reluctant to spoil. This flashback hinted at a willingness to explore themes of sexuality and politics in the real world as well as cosmic witchery and, if the game can make good on its promise of marrying those two distinct settings in a satisfying way, it's easy to imagine the game finding an audience among gamers interested in knotty narratives that explore such potent themes.
The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood's release on PC and Nintendo Switch is foretold for 2023.