The Occult Chronicles: Death By Door & Other Humiliations

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.

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33 Comments »

  1. MuscleHorse says:

    Rarely have I been sold within so few sentences. This is one of those occasions.

    • haideestom28 says:

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  2. lowprices says:

    I feel I may have to investigate further. I’ve only ever played Dungeons of Dredmor and FTL when it comes to Roguelikelikelikelikes, and would like to play something with a touch more complexity, but don’t want to destroy my already withered, weedy eyes trying to interpret ASCII graphics. Also, and it’s such a cliche, but I’m a sucker for the Lovecraft thing.

    • Captain Joyless says:

      Not sure why anyone would call this remotely roguelike. It’s a weird card game with random events, that’s it.

      • Chris D says:

        Exploration, permadeath, loot, inventory management, a time limit pushing you on, character improvement in preparation for a final goal…

        That’s a lot of ticks on the roguelike checklist.

      • KirbyEvan says:

        If anything it’s a roguelikelike.

        • Soldancer says:

          Not to be confused with a Rogue Likelike, which may or may not eat your shield.

  3. Premium User Badge Lambchops says:

    Might give this a go. Reading about Cryptic Comet games I usually get the sense that they are games I want to like rather than actually enjoy (and this was somewhat backed up by when I tried the demo of Armageddon Empires) but this might be the one to buck that trend.

  4. Premium User Badge golem09 says:

    After some hours the card gameplay just felt tedious to me, especially since it’s the same for every possible interaction in the game.
    I’ll start it up again, but I think I’ll let some time pass till then. After all, Rogue Legacy is out next week

  5. Captain Joyless says:

    The “initial impenetrability” Alec mentions is indeed quite… resistant to penetration. There’s a manual, though (lol).

  6. 1Life0Continues says:

    Now, can it be rebirthed as a Cardboard Child?

    I for one would love to see a board/tabletop version of this. I envision hoards of fun as a GM playing against my mates in this game. The number of eagerly told tales it could spawn makes me chuckle gleefully.

    Perhaps it’s not a system that takes well to making a physical game of it, but damn it I hope they try.

    • protorp says:

      If you’ve not, you should check out Mansions of Madness…

  7. Kdansky says:

    Dear game-journalists of the world

    Please stop trying to sell to us the mistaken idea (originally made up by Namco) that Dark Souls is a really hard game. Dark Souls is a somewhat challenging game which makes a huge effort to never be unfair, but always pokes and prods you to become more skilled at the game.

    The problem isn’t Dark Souls, it’s the last decade of gaming, where quicksave (worst idea ever), regenerating life (second worst idea ever), auto-aim (literally pointless) and dumb-as-bread enemies make any comparison meaningless. You can get through long parts of CoD without ever firing your gun. Of course Dark Souls is harder than that, but that doesn’t mean it’s a difficult game, because Mine-sweeper is harder than that too.

    Try to get 200 lines in Tetris at the highest speed, or beat Fritz at chess. Now that’s hard. Dark Souls is just a bit challenging.

    • frightlever says:

      Name a hard game then, as opposed to difficult challenges in games that come with variable difficulty and which are initially relatively unchallenging.

      • jwfiore says:

        I’m actually going to go with Kdansky on this one. Dark Souls wasn’t half as brutal as its prequel (dying makes enemies more powerful, health potions are not recovered on death, etc). Despite its variable difficulty, Bayonetta (on “Normal”, let alone Hard or Nonstop Infinite Climax or whatever the hell it’s called) was a LOT harder than Dark Souls in my opinion, as it requires the same degree of mechanical perfection at about four times the speed.

        Dark Souls just has a reputation for being “the hard game” because other games that are equally or more difficult aren’t as accessible or popular. Most people don’t want to play a game they aren’t capable of finishing, and so bounce off the stuff that’s marketed for its difficulty.

        But dude, quick save has been around forever. I remember being 10 and quick-save spamming during Quake (or maybe Unreal).

        Edit: The first couple attempts at the Capra Demon though, HOLY SHIT.

        • Low Life says:

          “Bayonetta (on “Normal” …) was a LOT harder than Dark Souls in my opinion, as it requires the same degree of mechanical perfection at about four times the speed.”

          It really doesn’t (on normal), not even close.

        • JackShandy says:

          Yeah, completely disagree about Bayonetta. I finished almost everything in that game on my first try. How many times does an average person have to retry the first bit in Undead Burg, Vs how much they have to retry the first part of Bayonetta on normal?

          • Zeewolf says:

            Dying isn’t a failure in Dark Souls, though. It would have been hard if it treated death just like most games treat death, but since it doesn’t you can’t really say that dying a lot makes it hard. That’s the huge difference between Dark Souls and most games. In a weird way, Dark Souls is to action games what TrackMania is to driving games.

            (though I will agree that there are some areas of Dark Souls that are undeniably very hard)

          • JackShandy says:

            Death in Dark Souls sets you back further than death in most games. Yes, it gives you the chance to keep your experience, but that’s not the same as keeping your progress towards the next bonfire.

            Death isn’t even the most important part of Difficulty, though. Deus Ex and System Shock 2 are hard games, and they have quicksaves. Dark Souls, like those games, has very complex systems that it does little to explain, and demands that you master those systems before you can progress.

        • dE says:

          I think the whole difficulty thing comes from two different flavors of difficulty, which often work in unison but generally lean towards either side. One flavor is experience. The game is difficult because the player isn’t in possession of all the facts (you had one job, spider) and abilities. You get better as you play the game. This flavor includes motorskills, memorisation, Analyzing of situations and similiar abilities.
          The other flavor is numerical. The game is difficult because the numbers are stacked against you. It’s a case of bashing numbers until one side topples. Skill here means adjusting the numbers to improve your odds.

          The latter flavor is much more popular in recent years. It’s easily adjusted and scales really well. All players essentially play the same game, see the same moves, do the same actions and ultimately can beat the game. The difference is in the persistence one is willing to use, while bashing numbers. The problem with the former type of difficulty is that a player which for some reason or another can not get better at the game, will not complete it, whereas in the second flavor, persistence beats all odds. There is some scaling involved but generally if you get good at controlling the game, nothing scares you anymore.

          To use the examples, Bayonetta is a game that heavily relies on the first flavor of difficulty. You can’t stack the numbers in your flavor that much. A bunch of potions, but that’s about it. You need to learn the game. Dark Souls in comparison isn’t easier, it heavily relies on the first flavor but also mixes in large amounts of the second flavor. If you find yourself unable to progress, it is quite possible to stack the numbers some more, until you find the sweet spot where you can progress. And the popular comparison would be Skyrim. Skyrim leans heavily towards the second flavor while requiring very little of the first flavor. Your ability as a player don’t matter that much as it is almost entirely a question of bashing numbers.

          Case in point:
          On my first Dark Souls Playthrough I died a lot and levelled frequently (without grinding though!). But when I started the second Playthrough, I found I needed far less levels to progress, because I as a player got better. Until finally, I went with a starting level character and beat the game with it. Imho Dark Souls is the ideal approach, as it is most inclusive but also rewards experience.

      • Captain Joyless says:

        Yeah, I loved Dark Souls, but after hearing for a year how hard it was, I didn’t find it challenging at all when I actually went to play it.

        It’s not even designed to be hard. If you’re having trouble and can’t improve your gameplay, you can just grind a little more. People don’t seem to realize that the “leveling up” is just a built-in handicap system. It’s not even SUPPOSED to be hard. You play it until it sinks to your level.

      • Kdansky says:

        I remember the original Devil May Cry as being very difficult, though after seeing how easy the HD remake is, I wonder whether I just sucked or if they nerfed it. Warhammer: Dark Omens was crazy too, and then there is Nethack, Crawl and its like.

        Then pretty much any coin-eater arcade title. Metal Slug comes to mind, Ikaruga, the Touhou Project, or the just released DnD-related Chronicles of Mystara on Steam. They can all be beat easily by throwing money at the machine, but if you want to get through these with just one continue, you have to play incredibly well.

        Lastly, any end-boss of a fighting game by SNK. You either find a flaw in their AI, or they murder you in an unfair way, such as with a 1-frame startup, full-screen super move that does 40% of your health if you block it, and 80% if you don’t.

    • Arglebargle says:

      Sometimes I don’t get the Hair Shirt Brigade. Different people like different things in their games. Some like seriously difficult challenges, for some that’s not so fun. As long as these things are properly disclosed in advance, got not real issues there. But awful UI and obtuse and poorly presented mechanics are just bad game design.

      • chargen says:

        Who is the Hair Shirt Brigade? Some flash mob that causes discomfort in crowds in order to cause sympathy with Jesus’ suffering?

  8. Shiri says:

    Wow, I kinda like Solium Infernum, but this game is just shockingly bad. It plays itself largely without your mental input – you mostly just click through the stuff it makes you do, and then click some more to see whether it won or lost anything, and then hold the dpad to scroll so you can keep walking it along because it doesn’t even have mouse scroll or any such modern conveniences.

  9. Severian says:

    I’m really digging it, and I posted a few other comments in RPS’s last post about it. My biggest criticism is something I’ve experienced in a couple other Vic Davis creations: too many clicks. Inefficiency in UI design leading to So… Many… Clicks. This combined with the admittedly repetitive card game mechanic has left me wanting some basic revisions before dipping back in. But it really is a fun, evocative, narrative game that’s well suited for solitaire boardgamers.

  10. Kefren says:

    Sounds a bit like House of Hell (Fighting Fantasy book).

  11. Kefren says:

    Anyone know if it will come to GOG or the Humble Store on full release?

  12. Pippy says:

    This would be by and large impossible to do as a physical boardgame.Still easier than Arkham Horror though.

  13. njursten says:

    Was a bit unsure of the game, but after watching this video I am rather interested:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVycH01tN0Y

    Couldn’t really find any other gameplay video. This is all in French, by a slightly too talkative dude, but it does give you a good idea of how the game plays.

  14. Premium User Badge davidgilbert says:

    The best way to describe this is it’s a cross between a really well written cuthulu / lovercraftian story meets arkham horror (where else would you find armed to the teeth cultists, animate skeletons, and soul jars that are sealed evils in a can, and these just as an encounters) a good roguelike (that inspires dread as your wondering if you should try and open that door as you just ran away from that encounter from an ooze and don’t want to risk getting eliminated) but has the look of a classic tile based boardgame.

    I’m sure the encounters could get old but considering the maps are probably randomly generated its ideal as a quick drop in / drop out game.

    Expect to have to learn the rules of the cards however, which plays like the final round of a texas holdem hand against an unknown stranger most of the time, i.e. expect to be on edge but have to make tactical gambles.

    Needless to say I’m enjoying this immesley, as I like horror and this is there best game yet in my opinion (and I liked the survival vibe of their wasteland game)

  15. Dave Mongoose says:

    Actually managed to beat the first investigation, thanks to quite a lot of luck and burning two tarot cards to beat the final boss.

    The theme is brilliant but a single bad hand can ruin you because you don’t always have specials that can help, and certain challenges have an ‘instant death’ card in their failure draw.

    The character building is interesting and each increase feels like a decent progression, but these are also a bit too random – items like guns and heroic feats that use ‘ammunition’ can end up useless if you don’t get drops of the right type. Having said that, it’s not all luck: there is some tactical element to the game once you’ve got enough points to start levelling things and I’m sure there are some interesting builds you could put together with certain edge card combinations.