Massive Darkness review
Who doesn’t love a good, old-fashioned dungeon bash? If you’re the kind of person who likes answering rhetorical questions, and your answer to that one was “Me, actually,” then you’ll probably want to skip Massive Darkness. Otherwise, keep reading: you may be in for a bloodletting treat.
This latest CMON/Guillotine Games big-box offering is the Zombicide gang’s stab at doing a straightforward high-fantasy hack ‘n’ slash adventure, featuring characters (wizard, ranger, barbarian) as stock as the monsters (goblins, orcs, giant spiders). Its particular similarity to Zombicide: Black Plague is undeniable, right down to the ‘spot the difference’ box art. But, as you might expect, it also draws from the likes of Descent (though this is pure co-op) and Super Dungeon Explore – albeit without the swollen-headed chibi stylings.
There are no real surprises during the unboxing. Lavishly-illustrated modular tiles? Check. Impressive minis? Check. A cascade of multi-coloured dice? Check. Numerous item, monster and event cards? Check, check, check. As in Black Plague, each player gets a nifty, card-couching plastic dashboard, complete with peg holes to track health and XP – though spending that XP requires a bit of old-school pencil-and-papering, as each class (tanky Paladin of Fury, roguish Bloodmoon Nightrunner, DPS-flavoured Pit Fighter Berserker and so on) comes with a box-checking sheet pad on which to mark your skill-up choices.
The gameplay unfolds either in normal mode (where each session’s a standalone run) or the tougher story mode: a non-legacy campaign that slows progress to a gelatinous cube’s pace by reducing experience gains by a factor of five. As you’d expect, every scenario is about tackling wave after wave of foe, while looting and item-managing like crazy.
The only big twist – and it’s a neat one – is the ‘Shadow Mode’ concept. Every character has special abilities that only trigger in the dark, as defined by the art on those beautifully-designed tiles. This allows for some intuitive strategies to play out; strike from, or retreat into, the unlit murk and you gain an advantage over your enemies.
What really elevates Massive Darkness above much of its dungeon-crawly brethren is the way designers Raphaël Guiton, Jean-Baptiste Lullien and Nicolas Raoult have taken the formula and refined it into to a satisfyingly sleek experience. The menu of actions is short without being restrictive. Movement and line of sight is quick and intuitive, with large-squared ‘zones’ replacing small grids or hexes. Combat is swift, maths-light and blissfully stat-free, with attack and defence dice tossed simultaneously. Item pickups are entertainingly generous; so much so, you’ll find yourself often taking the game’s ‘transmute’ action to trade up three bits of loot for a single new, improved item. Each game levels-up as a whole as you progress from tile to tile, rather than each character dinging individually – which sounds clumsy, but really works.
Thinking about it, even if you did answer “Me, actually” above, Massive Darkness might just win you over. Go on, give it a bash.
It’s not going to give the game-changing Gloomhaven a run for its gold coins and its fantasy setting is, frankly, industry standard, but Massive Darkness remains a bit of a treat thanks to some smartly streamlined and intuitively-executed mechanics.
Designer: Raphaël Guiton, Jean-Baptiste Lullien, Nicolas Raoult
Artist: Édouard Guiton, Jason Hendrick
Time: 90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.