Review: Tales from Candlekeep: Tomb of Annihilation
Review copy provided by publisher
Adapting a board game to a video game is not as simple as you might think. Systems designed to foster competition between players or add elements of randomness or risk often translate poorly into a different interactive medium. I can’t speak too much to Tales from Candlekeep’s authenticity to its source, but I can certainly criticize the result. As a game you’ll find this one far more punishing, repetitive, and imbalanced than whatever you might be expecting. I doubt it needed to be this way, but the design missteps are clear the whole way through.
The peninsula of Chult is suffering under a grim curse, which is basically catnip for Dungeons & Dragons heroes. Four adventurers have assembled to follow the trail of death deep into the steaming jungles, and eventually arrive at the Tomb of Annihilation. The path is not a clear one, though, so there will be more than a few favors to locals in exchange for information, the usual gathering mushrooms and destroying zombies and whatnot. While the main quest numbers a dozen quests or so, there’s a slew of smaller side tasks to take on for coin and treasure.
It’s a straight-forward pitch for an RPG, but don’t forget this is a board game. No matter what your quest is, the game plops you onto a field of tiles. Each tile is a 4×4 grid that you can move your heroes around on during their turn, but ending the turn on the edge of a tile adds a new one to the map. Starting from your two original tiles, you can expand the map in any direction by exploring the edges. New tiles can contain traps, treasures, monsters, or bosses, depending on the goal of your quest. This means you cannot progress directly towards whatever it is you need, but eventually the game will give you the necessary tiles to collect your mushrooms or battle your undead ape king.
The turn system is pretty obviously derived from the board game by its regimented phases. Every time one of your heroes gets to go, there are four phases starting with them moving and taking an action. If you end the turn on the edge of a tile, then during the exploration phase a new tiles is added. However, if you didn’t reveal a new tile (or the tile you revealed was unlucky), then during the challenge phase you face some dire event. These aren’t minor inconveniences either, these are your party getting attacked by man-eating insects or hit with meteors or ambushed by squads of skeletons. And immediately following that horror, the enemies that were activated by that hero get to take their turns.
In practice, this means that on a typical turn you can discover a new tile containing three enemies, all of whom get to immediately swarm your party with no recourse. Or you might be busy battling an enemy and not uncover a new tile, and instead your hero gets stunned and damaged by a challenge. Challenges can be dispelled by using adrenaline, a resource that builds slowly from combat and is used to provide important buffs, but you will never have enough to dodge every challenge or to use as a bonus. You also have healing surges to keep track of, which are revives if a party member is killed. They’re used automatically when the dead member’s turn comes around again, and if you come up on their turn with no surges left, you lose immediately.
After a few hours of these strictures, I was ready to call it quits. Everything you do in the game is fraught with penalties, too many to navigate without being worn down. If you explore, enemies get free hits. If you don’t, challenges wear down your resources. Every quest becomes a rush to complete the objective before the mechanics grind your team to dust, and no amount of strategy or skill is going to make it less of an uphill battle. Parts of the design itself are incongruous, like the treasure tiles full of traps that take multiple turns (and thus challenges) to navigate safely. Some challenges are completely absurd as well, like the one that casts a random spell that instantly killed a full-health hero because it fired off one of the strongest spells, or the one that has a chance to eat one of your valuable healing surges. I also lost one side quest out of the blue because I was supposed to outrun a death curse, but despite exploring every turn and keeping all my healing surges I never found the exit and apparently died to some hidden turn timer.
There are loads of stats and equipment to keep track of on your characters, and plenty of D&D holdovers that make an appearance like rolling initiative, but very little you have control over. You can shuffle around inventory items (mostly consumables) and pick your skills from a small set, but equipment can only be upgraded using the mess of materials and gold you earn as you play. This design in particular is obviously lifted from mobile models, sticking you with multiple resource pools that overlap in painful ways. Here it’s gold, because even when you have the materials to upgrade everyone’s gear you’re only going to have enough gold for one. You can always grind more by replaying quests on higher difficulties, but it’s rather telling that one of the DLCs boosts the gold earnings by 50% throughout the entire game. If a balance element is that noticeably out of sync, it’s pretty unforgivable to put a price on the fix.
If you can somehow look beyond the needlessly punitive game mechanics, there’s just not much here to find. I’ve been playing for over three hours and still every single quest is on the same jungle tileset, with the same enemies and traps. There are no unique map features to look out for, and quests are merely “explore X tiles” or “kill Y enemies”. The text when you select a mission describes witch doctors and traders and secret dealings but you never get to see any of it, it’s all just fluff covering the same gameplay over and over and over again. The only way I can see anyone having the patience for that is if they’re absolutely obsessed with the board game, because for everyone else this is little more than a bland, repetitive, imbalanced mess.