Review: Tales from Candlekeep: Tomb of Annihilation23 Oct 2017 0
Review: Tales from Candlekeep: Tomb of Annihilation
Released 11 Oct 2017
It's been a long time since there was a new, official D&D video game. That universe is a little too sprawling, too rich to contain in pixels and algorithms. And you'd have to look hard to know we now have another since Tales from Candlekeep hides its brand under a bushel. The D&D logo is on the title screen but that's about it. You need to know a little lore: Candlekeep, Chult, the Tomb of Annihilation to spot the references.
Maybe that's because this isn't based on D&D itself but a board game spin-off. The Adventure System games are a series of co-op dungeon crawls based loosely on the 4th edition D&D rules. There are several of them, of which Tomb of Annihilation is the latest. And when you step back from them, their video game potential is obvious. They're co-op, so work well solitaire. The monsters follow simple AI routines written on their cards, so are easy to replicate on computer. And the game itself boasts stacks of cards, tiles and counters that are great for variety but which are an obvious target for automation.
In spite of the name, Tales from Candlekeep is mostly set in the steaming jungles of Chult. And as soon as you play the tutorial, another advantage becomes obvious. In place of the flat black and green tiles of the physical game, the virtual jungle is 3d and rich with detail. The canopy waves and steams and monsters shamble and pounce across the screen. There are audio and visual cues to herald many in-game events. The fearsome bellow and gusting leaves that indicate your next encounter is a fearsome giant ape is a particularly nice touch.
Play is simple, but challenges you with a constant series of light tactical decisions. Fail to uncover a new tile on your turn and you'll reveal a usually unpleasant event instead. New tiles, though, often have traps or monsters on them so you'll get a challenge either way. It's all about assessing the risks and taking the least dangerous route. Each hero has several abilities, some of which you can use each turn, some of which are one use only. Most are combat-related but some have soft effects, like the Ranger's ability to move through traps and enemies. Again, it's about using the levers at your disposal to operate the monster-mashing machine as safely and efficiently as possible.
Each quest you undertake has its own victory conditions. Often it's just exploring until you find a special tile with a boss monster and taking it down, although there is some variety. Some of the missions link together into a narrative about saving the continent from a mysterious plague, and this is a nice hook to keep you playing. The remainder are side missions you undertake for treasure and experience. You can re-play them all as often as you want, succeed or fail, although story missions unlock one at a time as you complete the preceding quest.
The rewards you get let you buy new stuff for your party: more slots for more heroes and ability upgrades for your existing ones. Plus you sometimes find treasure during quests that you can use like extra abilities. There's a wand of fireballs for a flame attack, for example, or a crystal ball which bypasses hostile encounters. Over time, this lets you customise a palette of abilities for a ton of interesting tactical options. One frustrating feature is that you can't swap treasure between characters to make the most of it. When my hand-to-hand Paladin picked up a bracelet that boosted ranged attacks, I had to scrap it for the gold value.
This does solve a long-standing problems with most of the board games which made it awkward to carry stuff between quests and had a very low level cap. Here, you can keep grinding for stuff and re-playing missions on harder difficulty levels for more rewards.
Why you'd want to, though, is an open question. Tomb of Annihilation is a fun game to play in small bursts. It's good to see your heroes develop, uncover the creepy secrets of the plot, gain access to new combos and abilities to beat harder challenges. But once you're done with the main content, there's no enough here to justify a replay. In board game terms there's an impressive line up of monsters, events and treasures to sustain interest. But by video game standards that variety doesn't look so impressive. Especially when you factor in how fast you can play through the missions compared to the table. What takes an hour in the real world takes ten minutes in the digital jungle.
This is a minor problem though, as one trip round is easily entertaining enough to be worth the cost of entry. Many D&D games fail because their limited scope can't match up to the promise of the role-playing game. Tomb of Annihilation doesn't try and is all the better for it. Instead, it builds on a successful board game by making it prettier, faster and more accessible and, in doing so, makes itself a success in its own right.