Card games are a tricky subject to look at and review, based on the sheer variety and style that are available in today’s physical and digital market. When once we had just simple trump decks that you built a combination of games out of, we now have a ton of collectible card games, on-the-fly changeable decks and games that rely on cards but could only work as a digital medium. Shephy, a card game that has now been released for the Switch, is a solitaire-esque experience that has been takes a relatively benign foray and catapults it into a different dimension with the narrative that a video game can dictate. Quite honestly, it’s one of the most bizarre and unsettling things I’ve had to play in some time, and I highly recommend the trip.
Shephy is already a bit odd with it’s core mechanics. You are in charge of growing your sheep population from a single ewe all the way to a thousand strong flock. You condense, multiply and carefully prune your sheep through single event cards in an effort to reach the golden number, and you can only play one card a turn. All cards must be played or dealt with, and you only have three chances at reshuffling the 22 card deck before it’s game over. As straight forward as it sounds, the rule “you must play all cards” is what will often be your downfall. A cautious player will find holding back on self-destructive cards will ultimately lead to nothing but tears as all you have left in your hand is a woolly massacre.
Without delving too much into the particulars of the different cards, I found that Shephy was a lot of trial-and-error as far as certain levels of success, mixed in with a healthy dose of luck. For example, the first time I played Shephy for just a quick play, I managed to get a couple hundred sheep onto the field before the evil overtook the land and I lost. The second play, however, got me to over-cull in just five moves and the game was over. Some could argue that a better strategist wouldn’t have gotten themselves into that position, and it’s entirely possible they’re right. But, as a player who was unfamiliar with the card game prior to jumping into Shephy, I didn’t have that level of exposure before everything was turned to ash before my eyes.
If you are a fan of the game prior to it’s Switch release, this may not necessarily hold the same level of appeal or incentive if not for the addition of Challenge Mode and Post Loves. Challenge Mode is basically a quest for the maximum number of sheep that could be fun in a competitive nature against friends and cohorts who are also familiar with the game. While certainly not a selling point by itself, it’s a nice touch that the development team added in order to really show what the digital separation could create. You see, it’s easy enough for Shephy, in it’s physical form, to have certain parameters and restrictions set in place by the owner of the game (much like every other card and board game, within reason). And yes, you could potentially just keep track of points by hand anyways, but having a tally board that you don’t need to maintain and preserve gives a higher purpose to the game at large. But that all pales in comparison to the importance of the story mode.
Post Loves, which is Shephy’s title for the independent narrative a player can embark upon, is what truly turns this otherwise creepy cute but otherwise harmless game into a nightmarish journey beyond good and evil and into the psyche and morality of a character who shouldn’t even exist. The entire storyline is created and emulated through a Japanese manga style (fitting, given the game originated in Japan) and it has a level of existential foreboding that reminds me of Samurai Executioner. Without delving and giving too much away, the sheep you have been meticulously multiplying have actually been given knowledge and wisdom by a shepherd who loved them too much to see them simply slaughtered for food. The sheep then are cast into a dimensional rift that takes them to different worlds and even a space beyond words, while the shepherd chases them across the void. The Shepherd, of course, has been transformed by his kinsfolk into a wolf who hunts them with bitter hunger in his heart, as he is now a natural assassin to those he once held dear.
There isn’t much else to say about Shephy beyond the central game play and tragic story line that you may not even wish to touch after reading the description. I still feel the game leans too much on chance and not enough on actual skill. The innocent, light soundtrack do well to pair with the games fluffy graphics and adds to the unease that comes from the darker elements of the game, but nothing about it is particularly standout or grabbing. All in all, Shephy is an interesting item added to the Switch’s library, and certainly one for fans of either card games or terrifically tense storytelling. For the gamer looking for the next action-charged challenge or in-depth RPG, steer clear and save your pennies for another title. Otherwise, indie supporters and classic gamers alike will find something enthralling about Shephy, and may even be drawn in beyond the macabre tale that lies beneath. And I certainly hope you are more skillful or luckier than I.