The lights flicker on in your cell. The familiar hum of the space station in your ears, the smell of your fellow detainees pervades the room, the taste of last night’s insufficient meal in your mouth. The buzz of the force field is gone. You shake yourself awake. You pull the others to their feet. There is an opportunity here. If you can make your way through the station you might be able to get to your ship and Escape the Dark Sector.
Back in 2017 I attended the UK Games Expo in Birmingham, England. I was just really getting into criticism at that point and I had scoured the game lists to see if anything jumped out at me. My eye had been caught by Escape the Dark Castle, the first game from a new outfit called Themeborne games. The game was designed by Alex Cripsin, Thomas Pike, and James Shelton with art by Alex Cripsin. It evoked the choose your own adventure books of my youth, game books that arguably got me started down the road of gaming.
I really liked the simple mechanics and atmosphere of the game and ended up playing it a fair amount. When the team announced their next game was following a similar pattern but shooting off into space, I was onboard (boom tish). I got the Kickstarter during 2020 and have only recently had the chance to get it to the table enough to pass judgement.
The formula laid down by Escape the Dark Castle (Dark Castle) is adhered to in this follow up, Escape the Dark Sector (Dark Sector). 1 to 4 players will make their way through a series of chapter cards, turning them over one at a time to uncover traps, monsters, moments of respite and more on their way to the final boss and the way out. It’s a cooperative game with a simple dice mechanic making it incredibly easy to teach and play.
Escape the Dark sector doen’t rest on its laurels though. Despite the core skill test system being the same, Dark Sector ups the complexity by changing up combat completely. When in the dungeons of the castle you had only your wits and the occasional sword. Aboard the Space Station you will find guns. Lots of guns.
As soon as you get to your first combat in Dark Sector you will realise that you have a lot more agency in this game than you did in Dark Castle. The introduction of ranged weapons means that most of the time when you get in a fight you can choose to get right into melee or fire off some shots before rushing in.
Getting into a firefight allows you to knock off chapter dice of your choice from the enemy, once they have none they are done, and also get characters into a flanking position where they gain an advantage in subsequent rounds. All these choices come with potential trade offs, and of course the dice might not always go your way, but it feels massively more satisfying than combat in Dark Castle.
Away from the purely mechanical improvements, the arc of the story you will experience has also seen some refinement. In Dark Castle you just dealt a bunch of chapter cards at random and worked your way through them. This meant you could easily come a cropper early on in a difficult encounter before you had a chance to gear up properly. In Dark Sector the chapter cards have been split up into Act 1, 2, and 3. Act 1 encounters are relatively easy, hurting you less, and allowing you to gear up before you get into the real challenges in Acts 2 and 3. There is a great feeling of progression as you work your way towards the boss, and the chapter cards just feel a bit more interesting than in the previous game.
With Escape the Dark castle the main choices given to the players were about who goes into the next room first, as they are likely to get wounded, and about taking turns resting in combat. In Dark Sector you feel like you have much more control over your destiny. In doing this the game feels less arbitrary than its predecessor, the wins more meaningful, the losses more understandable.
Escape the Dark Sector feels like it improves on the Dark Castle formula in every way. More chapter cards, varied start cards, more bosses, loads of custom dice and a great box to store them all in just makes this a superior product to Dark Castle. I love the previous game, but Dark Sector is going to replace Dark Castle for me. The new mechanics are not that difficult to teach and really give a sense of tactical choice that was at times missing from Dark Castle. The game has much more variety in its core box and feels like a more complete product. It’s another absolutely solid game from Themeborne and I can’t wait to see what they do next.