Saturday, October 21, 2017

Dave Reviews: Colossal Gargantuan Enormous Obscurity Gloom Twilight

Massive Darkness

Only in the world of Kickstarter can a $120 game end up with a name like Massive Darkness.

Massive Darkness is a dungeon crawling miniatures game that involves up to six heroes, a substantial collection of enemies (not used all at once, unless something has gone terribly, terribly wrong), and dungeons consisting of up to nine 3x3 tiles and a couple of adjoining bridges. In normal mode, players take a fresh character sheet, start at level one, and crash through doors, triggering guard spawns they have to take down while events potentially spawn roaming monsters every turn. You don't level up by gaining experience, but rather by moving forward; when the dungeon becomes level two, you can use level two abilities, and so on up to the max level of five.

Everything is affected by the dungeon level. Once you hit level two, enemies spawn at level two, you gain level two treasures, and so on. This affects previous tiles as well; any doors you haven't opened on level one, for instance, will spawn level two everything if you reach level two before going in. This can potentially be used to earn better equipment than the level of that tile would normally offer, as long as you can meet the challenge. Early on this is probably unwise, especially since a bad spawn combined with a bad event can be fatal to an under-equipped party, but if the dungeon is long enough you can usually skip stuff on levels two and three, go to level four, then come back and loot a bunch of better stuff.

What makes this possible is the equipment system, which is the ultimate roleplayer's power fantasy. First, while some classes have abilities that synergize better with certain types of gear, any equipment can be used by any character or class. Second, as long as you follow the most basic of equipment rules (range on different weapon types and only having two hands with which to hold things), you can swing anything you pick up, leading to conceptually bizarre but viscerally enjoyable scenarios like a battle wizard dual-wielding spears because they're the best weapons he has and the assassin, who's designed to dual wield, already decked herself out with plate mail and a fire bow. Third is transmuting.

Holy god, transmuting.

Massive Darkness only allows you to equip two hands worth of weapons/shields and one piece of armor. However, you can carry as much other stuff as you want. If some of it isn't useful—and this is going to happen a lot—you can chuck three items to get a draw an equipment card one level higher than the lowest card you discarded. You can do this in the middle of a trade, as well, which means players can huddle together, throw out whatever they don't want, and spread out whatever comes off the next deck to whoever in that zone can use it best without wasting extra actions.

Not only can you efficiently level up your gear this way, but you get a ton of random stuff. Every zone in a room has two or three treasures, or sometimes one higher-level treasure. When you start, you'll use some of that, but the new finds will replace starting gear which can be transmuted as well. You don't go to level two to find level two gear; you go to level two already carrying level two gear, looking for junk to level into threes and maybe fours. The first non-tutorial mission finishes at level four; it's not unreasonable to have a couple of level five equipment pieces floating around the party at that point.

"But that sounds overpowered," I hear someone say. It is SUPER OVERPOWERED! If you can work through level one without getting stomped out by some bad luck, you move to competence at level two and joyful murder in level three. If the dungeon lets you move beyond that and you complete whatever objective is available, you can put the whole thing on farm. You have no reason to stop that involves concern you'll get beaten down and lose. Rather, you'll push to the exit because you can't get any stronger, so spawning giant random monsters and watching them explode in a haze of spider intestines or troll mucus stops being as much of a joy.

A brief overview of the combat system: Every weapon lets you roll a certain number of red and/or yellow dice (red is better), while armor and shields give you blue and/or green dice (green is better). Attack dice roll swords, defense dice roll shields. Get more swords than they have shields, and you do damage. There are also two types of enchantments: small explosion symbols ('bams') and small gems (...'gems'). When using certain pieces of gear, these can offer additional effects, usually quite strong. Heroes also have special abilities which can only be used in 'shadow zones', squares without a light source.

What can make the initial level challenging is when you face an enemy that can potentially do solid damage to you on a bad set of rolls, or requires above-average rolls for you to damage them. The latter is especially problematic if the enemy is an agent, who calls in reinforcements at the end of every round if he's still alive. But get through this and it quickly becomes difficult to find an enemy who can withstand the better and larger number of dice you're throwing, since your equipment scales up faster than their power. You also buy skills with the experience you gain that lets you either even out the variability of the dice or gives you incredible power spikes under the right circumstances, both of which reduce the danger until you have to purposely do stupid things to be have any real risk of losing.

Basically, between the game's naming conventions and its power spikes, Massive Darkness' normal mode seems like it was designed by a seriously emo D&D fan on two Red Bulls spiked with crushed Adderall. Your Nightshade Rangers and Bloodmoon Nightrunners go from zero to bloody quagmire in a half-dozen rolls of the dice. From that description, a gamer looking for a reasonable challenge may not think that sounds like much fun. And once you're a little ways in, it isn't that much of a challenge. But the reason games moved away from relying heavily on dice was the frustration of losing to something so out of your control; this game lets you struggle for a bit, giving you a sense of achievement, before moving you into a position with plenty of dice randomness but minimal risk of losing as long as you're smart about character placement and line of sight. That's a lot of fun.

Of course, given the size of the box, and the tradition of fantasy roleplaying characters slowly becoming stronger over multiple sessions of play, there is the expectation of a campaign mode, which does exist. There are two main differences: first, and much more importantly, experience gained is 'micro XP'. Five micro XP equal one full XP, which means you gain experience at one-fifth the normal rate. Rather than having a majority of your class skills at the end of the mission, after your first campaign adventure, you might have two. Secondly, there's a town market phase between missions, where an assortment of items (some level one, some based on your heroes' levels) are available for trade. You can trade one or two of your items for one or two market items, as long as you're trading in at least as many levels of equipment as you're getting back; this is considerably more efficient than transmuting in the dungeon. After the market phase, your next adventure starts at the level of the highest-level hero (determined by their highest-level skill).

Both of these changes, while pretty cool in theory, are drastically undercut by the way equipment is doled out in the dungeon. Having only a couple of skills keeps things from being the kind of complete rout as you see in normal, but by the end of one mission you're still lugging around level four and five pieces of gear, so you're still obliterating almost everything. There's no reason to save items for the market because at first the highest you'll see is level one or two, so you need to transmute to get the best possible stuff. And when you go into your next mission, you start at level one or two with god-tier gear.

That doesn't make story mode bad. Some of the missions plan for this; for example, if you do the quests in order, the second one requires you to chase down an escaping giant spider who has a head start and a room full of enemies sitting between you. You'll be glad you're overpowered right then. And as the quests get harder, your skills are slowly increasing while your equipment doesn't have much room to improve. Plus, there's no indication this is supposed to be a serious, methodical challenge as compared to the riot of normal mode; it's just a bunch of quests strung together with a mechanic that lets your characters grow over time rather than in a short burst, with the same ability to smash everything in the face.

Enterprising folks could probably devise a way to create a true slow burn; a simple idea might be to disallow transmuting and make every tile level one in the first mission, to create relevance in the town market and make the characters grow in power in a more traditional fashion. The fact nothing like this was included may have been an indication the designers were really trying to keep the fast, fun atmosphere across all modes, but it would have helped in offering something to a wider variety of gamers, especially given the expense of the game.

And if there's a friction point in Massive Darkness, it's there, in the price. $120 is not what most people want to pay for light fun. It's more than that, of course; the game is based on Zombicide mechanics, and likewise relies heavily on having cool miniatures to play with, which costs. It's also important to remember that the game's modular nature makes it very easy for people to come up with new dungeons to challenge players who find the game too easy as designed. There are even programs that create random dungeons, which means effectively infinite replayability with the core set. If you want a deep, challenging game, however, this is not where you're going to find it.

That said, if you can roll dice, smash orcs, and be happy, Massive Darkness is pretty good. If you're willing to put some time into researching or devising house rules that make the game exactly what you want it to be, it might even be great. Since the house rule here is that games are reviewed only on what they themselves offer, we'll call it pretty good.

Score: Twenty-three bloody orc heads still on spikes out of the twenty-nine we set up last week.

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