This review is based on a retail copy provided by Themeborne. I have previously written a First Impression of the game after getting a demo at UK Games Expo 2017. I also backed the game and will write a seperate article dealing with the Kickstarter version of the game and it’s first expansion.
It’s cold in this cell isn’t it? The wind whips through the Dark Castle chilling you and your fellow prisoners to the bone. The freezing air carries with it the sounds of the castle: clanking old metal, the click of feet, hooves and claw against stone and all manner of noises from the many denizens that fill it’s corridors and rooms.
But what’s this? You’ve woken up this morning to find one of your fellow prisoners picking the lock to your cell. You are free, but will you ESCAPE THE DARK CASTLE?
Opening the box of Escape the Dark Castle you immediately realise that this is a very different beast to other games out there. No bright shiny art here, no tons of miniatures for no readily apparent reason, instead a black and white aesthetic permeates the whole game, dripping with a nostalgia for the computer RPGs and Choose Your Own Adventure books of the past. If you haven’t done so already I would thoroughly recommend checking out the advert the team did for the game, it’s superb.
Taking on the role of one of the six prisoners languishing in the cells of the Castle you pick up your character card and your individual character dice, the white ones in the picture above, and set off to escape from your captivity. First thing to note is that the representation of male to female characters is straight down the middle. Seriously I shouldn’t have to point this out, but it’s still not good enough in a lot of games and it’s worth praising those who address it.
The scratches in the wall behind your prisoner show what they are good at: will they flex their Might like the Smith, use their Cunning to trick and confuse as Tailors are well known for or use their years of Tanning experience to contribute Wisdom to the group. The number of marks shows you how many times the skill will appear on your special dice, a nice little visual aid to the game to come.
In order to ‘Escape the Dark Castle’ you are going to make your way through 15 of the large, beautifully illustrated chapter cards until you make your way to the final boss and hope to win your salvation. Let’s start with the first card, that doesn’t count as one of the 15 you will make your way through, that on it’s back simply instructs you to….
Turn Over to Begin
The game encourages you to read the text on each card aloud, and your first card sets the tone of the game well, giving you an item that could be anything from a partially rotten apple to a useful weapon. Marking down your starting hit points (HP) with the pad and pencils provided, another lovely nostalgic touch, you begin your journey pushing forwards as the sound of footsteps approaches!
As you make your way through the windy corridors, water filled caverns and cesspits of the castle you will be presented with a myriad of choices from each chapter card. Do you take that scroll from the obviously dead man’s hand, nothing bad could possibly happen right? Who should take on this particular trap test? Should you take a small or a big sip from the drink the weird person is offering you? Each of these choices is small but feels significant as if even one of you is eliminated your story will come to an end!
The person turning over the chapter card may take the brunt of a trap, be the first in the arena against the champion or merely dragged off down a corridor to be mercilessly tortured whilst your fellow prisoners search for you. This tends to result in the person with the most HP kicking open the next door but since that is going to fluctuate a lot everyone will get their turn reading some of the story out to their friends.
Naturally some of these chapter cards are going to throw a big old monster at you and sometimes you might even have to fight it. For instance, look at this fella:
First things first, how are we going to fight him? Surrounding him is more dangerous but potentially faster whereas staying together will take longer but he causes less damage each round of combat. On a round of combat each player will roll their character die, trying to eliminate the chapter dice that are brought into play by the symbols on the card, the little person symbol means you roll a die for each player in the game and add it to the others. One of the characters can sit out each round, gaining an HP back, but is that the best thing to do? Who can handle this monster best, should I take the rest this round or you? Again, simple decisions with significant outcomes.
When you strike down a monster in combat you get to draw an item card and then everyone can decide who it goes to. Relics, rotten cheese and potions of luck will appear before you, offering potential for success, but only if the right ones are taken as you are limited to carrying only a couple of items each. The art on these reflects the rest of the game and it’s absolutely perfect.
Doing More with Less
There you go I’ve basically told you how to play Escape the Dark Castle, not something I normally do in a review as I believe that delving into the mechanics should take a back seat to how a game makes you feel. I’ve made an exception in this case to demonstrate how little there is in the way of mechanics to the game, not as a criticism but to extol its virtues.
You see Escape the Dark Castle may be an almost perfect game for me. It’s advertised setup and play time are right on the money and it sets out to do what it promises with a totally focused mindset. It achieves this with a brevity of design I found fascinating and every turn of a chapter card showed me more ways the designers had thought to use their system. The game is full of simple yet significant choices which lends a wonderful feeling of control to the story that emerges over the course of a play.
Escape the Dark Castle is a short, fun coop story in a world heavily influenced by a nostalgia for games gone by. I am always willing to take it out and get an adventure in, and it has frequently been the case that I will take 2 or 3 runs through the game on the trot. That it is short is no bad thing as you can come back for more and I would always prefer that over an experience that outstays it’s welcome. As the first title from a new studio it shows an amazing amount of promise, confidence and vision and I guarantee that Themeborne are going to be one to watch.