By Alec Meer on June 21st, 2013 at 4:00 pm.
Reader, I died. I died not in epic battle with nameless gods who threatened the very fabric of reality. I died not freeing an innocent from the curse which consumed her life. I didn’t even die fighting a bloody haunted suit of armour or a mad necromancer or something. I died opening a door. I died picking a wrench off the floor. I died from fright at something I saw in the mirror.
I died, died, died, died. Rarely heroic, always embarrassing – that is the dark fate of anyone who treads the treacherous hallways of Solium Infernum & Armageddon Empires creator Cryptic Comet’s roguelikelike-boardgame hybrid The Occult Chronicles. It is the most fiendish of videogames. It is unfair to a level that incites fury, outrage, hilarity, glum resignation and ultimately, steely determination to carry on, to try to beat the unbeatable. Even when said unbeatable is merely a locked door or a fat bloke in a chair.
Allow me to list just a few of my laughable fates:
- Losing my mind as a result of repeatedly failing to open a door. Indeed, death-by-door was my most common nemesis.
- Scared to death by a woman’s face in a bathroom mirror.
- Sliced in two by a hidden ceiling blade while attempting to pick an old wrench up off the floor.
- My mind torn asunder by a row of small, talking busts.
- Murdered by a fat, cigar-smoking man in an armchair. He didn’t even have to stand up to do it.
- Mauled by the musty, brittle claws of a stuffed polar bear.
- Died of fright at the sight of a woman in a red dress.
- Throttled by a rotting corpse in a bath tub – imagine if the Shining had ended so soon.
- Falling through the floor immediately upon starting my adventure, and being slowly gnawed on until death by the abomination I landed on.
- And, most recently, just when I thought I’d finally broken this devilish game’s back and was making good progress, zombies. Of course it was zombies. Zombies. Why’d it have to be zombies?
It might involve tarot cards and dice rolls, but roguelike malevolence beats through The Occult Chronicles’ dark veins. If you’ve played any previous Cryptic Comet games, this one is very different. There’s an element of strategy, but it’s much more about roleplaying-through-chance, and sets you as a single character creeping through assorted terror-stricken mansions. Deadly enemies from across the pantheon of horror fiction await, and you must defeat them by might, magic, mind-powers and even, on occasion, conversation. Enemies will chip away your sanity as readily as they will your health, and if you’re not able to stock up on items and upgrades regularly enough, you’ll face the dark lord Perma-death. (Optionally, at least – you can turn that off, if you’re a giant cowardly wimp).
In fact, you might well face the dark lord Perma-death on your very first encounter – I did, more than once. Sometimes I made it to the second encounter. Sometimes I survived several dozen encounters and accrued a raft of upgrades, only to immediately perform the occult investigator equivalent of accidentally choking to death on a peanut. It’s beyond brutal, and it’s only the fact that ultimate doom takes on such a pathetic face that spares The Occult Chronicles from being infuriating.
This is only the beta version of the game, so balance may well be tweaked before release, but to be honest I’d rather it wasn’t. Unashamed sadism has a lot going for it – hello, Dark Souls – and the sense of reward when surviving this game’s thunderstorm of cruelty, even for a short while, is enormous. “I think I’ve finally broken Occult Chronicle’s back!” I bragged to a similarly-struggling Adam earlier. Ten seconds passed. “GodDAMMIT.” (That was the zombies I mentioned earlier.)
Mansions of Madness and Arkham Horror are appropriate touchstones for this one, but I think it could only really exist as a videogame despite overt boardgameiness. While its huge, sprawling levels with each step you take potentially having a random effect could potentially be recreated in the medium of printed card and plastic tokens, it’d have to go into a box so large that carrying it would transform you into something as hunched and misshapen as the horrors you battle in the game. It also has a certain amount in common with that brief mid-90s haunted house game trend – Seventh Guest, the Legacy and similar Poe-inspired fare. Most of all, however, it shares the tendency of other Cryptic Comet games to have obtuse interfaces and appropriately cryptic rules. It took me a good three hours of play – each session lasting a maximum of half an hour – before I could really see what the game was.
Granted, it’s beta; granted, Cryptic Comet games have always required one to RTFM; granted, the boardgames it evokes have similar learning curves. So I’m OK with its initial impenetrability, and indeed once you’re past the initial hump it’s probably the most uncomplicated game from its stable. Understand the core systems – fighting, spellcasting, upgrading – and the challenge switches to trying to survive the onslaught of cruelty Occult Chronicles unrepentantly throws at. That said, a very brief tutorial would make a world of difference between utter confusion and quickly-destroyed confidence, as the manual doesn’t entirely clear things up with regard to the essential combat/encounter mechanic – the playing and seizing of pseudo-tarot cards.
I actually don’t want to explain this too much, as paradoxically I think part of the joy of this game is figuring the damn thing out despite the pain of it, but essentially whenever you try to fight, banish, communicate with or, in the case of those bloody doors, unlock an opposing force of some kind, both entities play cards. The number and type of cards available to you depends on what type of character you’ve built and how you’ve upgraded him or her (no real limitations on that front – name of your choice, pick an avatar from small set and male- and female-looking icons and a non-gender-specific background, such as police officer or mystic, with associated powers and stats), with the same going, if less visibly so, for whatever eldritch horror or peculiarly deadly timber oblong you’re facing.
You’re trying to play cards of the same suit as he/she/it/Ian Door plays, and if yours is a higher value you bag the pair of them and gain some points towards the victory target in this encounter. There’s a fair bit more to it than that, such as a number of far harder to grasp spells and feats which can alter the contents of the hand, and the importance of face cards such as kings and queens. You’ll figure it out. You’ll have to figure it out.
If it sounds dry in principle, in practice it’s incredibly tense. So much blood drained from my face so often upon seeing a King of Cups turn up on Spectral Handyman or whatever’s side of the table, while I miserably clutched just a two of Wands and a Page of Pentacles. The reason for this was the penalty upon losing – another card game, this time a straight-up gamble. Choose poorly and I’d lose harrowing amounts of health or sanity, pick up a game-long negative effect such as a permanent reduction in the number of cards I’d have in melee encounters or even the occasional instant death card.
And so it was that I’d try to open a locked door, find myself playing cards against it, and then meeting my end because it played a Queen of Swords. Locked doors remain my ultimate videogame nemesis whatever form they take, I suppose.
Staring at that screen full of face-down cards, knowing I need to pick five of them and that any one could spell doom is a horrifying thing. Yet I put myself through it time and again, because the inverse is true upon victory – there’s a chance I might win an amazing buff. I’ll admit to feeling a little maddened that the vast majority of the time every post-victory card will turn up blank, but then again to hand out too many rewards would be to negate the Machiavellian nature of this game.
Essentially, it’s strategic gambling every step of the way, with the sure knowledge that the odds are rigged in the house’s favour. I guess you can throw a little Talisman in there too, though so far I haven’t come across any opportunity to build up an unassailable advantage. What I have established is that initial character building is vitally important, and missteps there mean a messy, humiliating demise in short order. Don’t try and by an everyman, that’s all I’ll say – focus your skills in a particular area. Most encounters have options – for instance, you can try to smash a haunted mirror, psychically dismiss its occupant or converse with it in the hope it’ll be friendly and offer you a quest. Each one of these takes you to one of the Tarot battles, the cards in which are defined by your character’s abilities, so choose wisely.
Of course, it doesn’t really matter how wisely you choose. Before too long, one door or another’s gonna getcha.
There are things I furrow my brow at, which the innate challenge of the game doesn’t really excuse. For instance, the misery of remaining trapped in combat with a foe that seriously outmatches you, stuck waiting for what feels like a one in a million chance of the card combination that will let you at least slip away before it eventually kills you. More than once I simply gave up on a game/character because I knew I was doomed and didn’t want to just sit through the long punishment to get there. Also the spell casting and feats seem far too convoluted, involving multi-stage dice rolls and card swapping, requiring specific amounts of resources which are almost hidden by the UI and suffering from a lack of clarity about what situations they can actually be used in.
God forbid I call for a dumbing down, but I think such things might work a lot better as immediate, powerful, one-shot effects rather than drawn-out maths and box-clicking. As you can see from the most recent patch notes, Occult Chronicles is very much a work in progress however, so I’m confident that any aspect of it can be subject to change if enough user feedback requests it.
Indeed, I’ve no idea what’s still to come from The Occult Chronicles as it moves from beta to release, though it’d be lovely to see a little more streamlining and clarity in the UI and some animations to liven up the rather static board navigation. (As with it’s predecessors, it’s made in Director and it does show it at times). The card art’s good stuff though – there’s a touch of the Mike Mignola to it, which suits the gothic mansion setting well. Even in this apparently unfinished state, I think it’s already Cryptic Comet’s best since Armageddon Empires.
Despite initial impenetrability and despite the fact it’s absurdly, brutally unfair, it feels like such a complete design. It’s ultimately more accessible than anything in its stable too – a short, sharp, savage roleplaying adventure rather than the glacial, long-running cold wars of this developer’s usual fare. Like FTL, it’s the dark magicks of One More Go Even Though I know I’m Doomed compulsion, paired with that vital, gradual sense of understanding a little more each time I play, slowly, slowly, slowly reaching the point where one day, maybe, I might actually beat those deadly odds.
And hey, Locked Door? Better watch your back. One of these days, I’m coming for you.
You can buy access to The Occult Chronicles’ beta right now (which gets updated over time, naturally). I recommend it highly.