Atmosphere plays an interesting role in tabletop gaming. In the case of tabletop RPGs setting the right atmosphere with lighting and music can be an important part of the experienced. With board games, things tend to be a bit harder for games which rely on creating an atmosphere, since you have to rely on people setting the correct sort of atmosphere for themselves. Escape the Dark Castle is an atmospheric adventure game from Themeborne about trying to escape from a dark castle, go figure.
Escape the Dark Castle has a lot in common with old fantasy choose-your-own-adventure books from the 80s, at least visually if not mechanically. You and up to 3 other players create a random deck of 17 cards total from a stack of 45 chapter cards, 1 start card and 1 of 3 different boss cards. Effectively what you do during this process is to create a castle filled with obstacles then have to try and get through the castle to escape.
The artwork is what gives Escape the Dark Castle such a choose-your-own-adventure vibe. Each card in the game is filled with art that looks like it came straight out of a Fighting Fantasy book circa 1985. Everything represented on the cards also adds to the attempt at creating a dour, depressing and generally just grim atmosphere. Each character has drawn faces and sunken eyes, when you come across another human in the castle they're often-times covered in wrinkles and scars, and even the items look ancient and battle worn.
The fundamental gameplay of Escape the Dark Castle is mainly about surviving a series of random obstacles, instead of attempting to choose the correct path out of the situation, which is the main way in which the gameplay feels different from a choose-your-own-adventure book. You have no agency over where you go or which path you take, instead, it's more about using your items in a timely fashion and making good decisions in combat to see your team through to the end.
In each round, or chapter, of the game one player is elected to pick up a card, basically entering a new room in the castle ahead of other players. That player often-times will suffer damage or some sort of effect, either positive or negative, and they may even have to initiate combat. Once you beat the 15 regular chapter cards you have to prepare yourself and face down the boss card to finish the adventure.
Each of the 6 playable characters has a specific die, each of which has different numbers of each symbol needed for the game. Basically what this means is that each character has different stats based around which of the three different attributes they're strongest in. When you and your team are picking characters, it is wise to try and pick a balanced team with all of the different bases covered.
Because you're forced to face the challenges in Escape the Dark Castle as they come, your own strategic choices are relegated to item use and how to react to combat. During combat, any number of players can rest while others take care of the combat. For each turn they're resting a character recovers HP, so if someone is badly injured during one challenge they can let the rest of the party cover them while they heal up. Using this sort of relay tactic becomes especially necessary during the final boss which often features special combat rules which make the fight almost impossibly tough.
Having said that the rules are very clear that this isn't the sort of game which you will be able to beat every time you play it. In fact, the higher chance of failing really adds to the oppressive dark atmosphere that the game is trying to create. Honestly, completing the challenge isn't the most part of the fun in the game. The most interesting factor is flipping over new chapter cards and dealing with different interesting story choices and obstacles.
The only problem with Escape the Dark Castle is that it does run out of steam pretty quickly. The problem with being a narrative game is that there are only 45 different chapters available, and because you can pick up and play the game in around 30 minutes, it doesn't take long before you've seen everything that the game has to offer. That's not to say that dealing with cards you've seen before can't be fun, and of course, the randomized nature of the game does help a little with re-playability, but overall the stories aren't all that interesting once you already know all of them.
The Bottom Line:
Escape the Dark Castle is a fun, dark adventure game that is so lightweight that it'd be the perfect game for newcomers to the medium. It can be learned quickly and set up in less than 2 minutes, making it also a perfect choice for those who are looking to fill up small gaps in a busy schedule with some gaming. There is also the huge amount of nostalgia the game generates for anyone who played a choose-your-own-adventure gamebook as a kid, which on its own will attract a certain type of player without fail. Despite any issues, it may have Escape the Dark Castle is great, dark, atmospheric and utterly enjoyable.Get this game if:
You ever played a Fighting Fantasy game in your life.
You want a lightweight adventure game.
You love narrative games drenched in atmosphere.
You want a dark adventure for yourself or up to 3 other people in less than 30 minutes.
Avoid this game if:
You're looking for 100s of hours of gameplay.
You don't like a game which often will result in failure.
You don't like games which rely heavily on luck as well as choice.
What do you think of Escape the Dark Castle? Have you ever played it or considered getting it? Let us know what you think in the comment section down below.
TechRaptor reviewed Escape the Dark Castle with a copy provided by Themeborne.