12 July 2018
Failing to escape the feeling that something's missing
There’s a wave of nostalgia sweeping through parts of gaming. Roleplay has the Old School Revival and retro-clones of early RPGs, and that anti-trend is spreading to other parts of the hobby. Escape the Dark Castle isn’t an RPG but it is a narrative card game that aims to make you nostalgic for British games of the early 1980s, particularly gamebooks like the Fighting Fantasy series. You can tell because it’s all black and white, the title uses the same font as the Citadel logo, and your characters are going to die a lot.
Escape the Dark Castle is a co-op game that works equally well solo or with multiple players. Everyone gets a card showing a character imprisoned within the Dark Castle, plus that character’s unique dice and a random item. The castle escape route is a pile of 15 random chapter cards, bracketed by the start card on the top and one of three possible bosses on the bottom. You turn these over like the pages of a book, read the text on them and make any choices or fight any fights they describe.
The six characters aren’t standard fantasy archetypes. Instead of fighters and wizards these are tailors, abbots, millers and cooks. The game doesn’t explain why they’ve been imprisoned here (‘wrongfully’ is all), or anything about them or the castle. You might hope the cards would work together to create the story of their escape, with twists and turns, callbacks and foreshadowing. You might.
Instead the encounters are a mishmash of fantasy clichés: drunk guards, hideous fiends, cursed mirrors, flooded caverns, giant bats, demonic warriors and wandering traders to name a few. This could be okay if the cards gave you interesting choices for what to do with them, but mostly they don’t.
If the chapter card reveals an enemy then they can only be fought or fled from. Most obstacles force you straight to a dice roll, and only a few encounters have an actual decision to be made. This is a real shame: what could have been a game of interesting choices turns into a series of random encounters, which the players can only resolve by rolling dice.
Thankfully the combat system is fun and, in the multiplayer version, brings some tactics to the fore. Things get hazardous fast, because if even one of your team is killed it’s game over for everyone. Special items introduce new variables, and fighting monsters can be tense and enjoyable – and repetitive, unfortunately, because the majority of the chapter cards are random baddies to fight.
Escape the Dark Castle calls itself ‘the game of atmospheric adventure’ and that’s not wrong: it gets the tone of early adventure-gaming spot on. What it doesn’t capture is a sense of narrative or storytelling. The chapter cards don’t combine to make a story, they’re a disjointed sequence of reasons to roll some dice. It’s enjoyable once, and is perfect for game cafés, but even its expansion Cult of the Death Knight is only more of the same. With so many great narrative games out there, this is a missed opportunity.
A bold attempt to do a solo gamebook with cards but, as Sid Meier said, a game is a series of interesting choices, and there simply aren’t enough in here.
Designer: Alex Crispin, Thomas Pike, James Shelton
Artist: Alex Crispin
Time: 30 minutes
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