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Choose-Your-Own-Adventures seem to be making a comeback. Or maybe I’m just noticing them more as I get back into the interactive fiction scene. It’s the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon of game journalism. Once you learn about a unique new concept, its suddenly everywhere.
With that said, this week I’ve been having a blast with Weirding Woods (review coming soon) and Escape the Dark Castle which I’ve found a serious love for.
Escape the Dark Castle isn’t particularly original in mechanics or concept. Co-operative CYOAs have existed before and Gothic horror castles are cliches unto themselves. But Escape the Dark Castle carries itself with such confidence and with such awareness of its genre that its almost beautiful.
At the start of each game, you and the other players choose characters from a roster of unfortunate townsfolk-cum-prisoners. The miller, the smith, the abbot, the tanner, etc. each with their own stats. The smith for example has high strength while the abbot dump statted wisdom. And while there are only 3 stats to work with, group composition is surprisingly important as each challenge requires a mixture with a fair balance between every trait.
Once each player has picked a character, you shuffle 15 cards out of the sizeable castle deck and that will be your dungeon for this run through. (I misread that the first time and tried to get through the entire deck…) Mechanically, this is great as 15 rooms pushes you to the limit and requires a good combination of luck and strategic planning with items and decisions to get through.
Each room has a different challenge and from what I’ve seen, no two are the same. Challenges can vary from regenerating meat creatures, muggers, trapped corridors, and cave-ins. For most room challenges, the difficulty is in rolling the required stat in one attempt (though careful use of items can help here) however, where Escape the Dark Castle varies from its ancestors is its approach to combat.
Unlike Fighting Fantasy, you don’t get numerical values. Instead, each character die has a different number of each symbol with their highest 2 traits each providing a handy Double face which counts as 2 of the trait and blocks an enemy attack. When you come across a monster, it will have a set selection of traits that need to be rolled to defeat it as well as a player icon which means you have to roll as many die as there are players and add those results to the monster. This dynamic scaling works really well and makes you feel like you aren’t getting the short end of the stick, especially when you roll the traits your character has bags of.
The other main mechanic that Escape the Dark Castle brings to the table is the importance of marching order. As a group you must constantly make the decision as to who is going into the next room first. Usually you’ll be fine but often enough to keep it feeling like a nasty surprise, you will be subjected to some horrible effect. This could be a creature getting the drop on you or some trap going off in your face or getting into a battle where the enemy only goes for you.
Thematically, Escape the Dark Castle is grim. The whole concept is built around escaping from the dungeons of a Gothic castle and defeating a big boss at the end. And the designers never lose track of that theme. The narrative text is wonderfully reminiscent of Darkest Dungeons or Lovecraft and the art, while a little low quality, portrays the horror well.
Overall, an excellent dungeon crawler/CYOA that only takes about 30 – 45 minutes. I definitely recommend putting on some Cryochamber or the Darkest Dungeon soundtrack in the background as mood is critical to the enjoyment of this game.
There are 3 expansion packs available for Escape the Dark Castle and a horror sci-fi sequel called Escape the Dark Sector is on Kickstarter HERE
You can find Escape the Dark Castle for the best price (outside of second hand re-sellers) on the developer’s website HERE and can check out the trailer below!