First, a confession: Yes, I am a grown man with an original 1990 copy of the Milton Bradley/Games Workshop board game HeroQuest in his closet. And yes, it is surprisingly difficult to get other adults interested in playing it with me.
So I was excited to see Dark Quest, the new release from Brazilian developer Brain Seal, hit the AppStore. One could say Dark Quest is “inspired by” HeroQuest, if one were aiming to appease Games Workshop’s famously ardent lawyers, but that might be something of an understatement. As symbolized by the nearly-identical font used on the title screen, Dark Quest aims to emulate the board game’s dungeon-crawling adventure. But a series of puzzling design decisions hamper its success.
Dark Quest, like most turn-based fantasy games, stars a party of adventurers out to rescue a village from an evil wizard. Zantor the Barbarian, Zerin the Wizard and Thorin the Dwarf (seriously? we’re not even pretending to not copy Tolkien anymore?) join forces to cleanse the dungeons of the sorcerer Azkallor’s monstrous minions. The evil wizard’s face appears as a hovering spectre over the village, mimicking the back of the Dungeon Master’s screen. Visually, it’s an appealing effort.
As in HeroQuest, Dark Quest’s dungeons are laid out in tile spaces, with each hero only able to move, act and see in a limited sphere. Naturally, each character has special abilities and equipment, although these are incredibly limited: You’ll likely only gather enough gold to purchase a few upgrades in the between-mission interludes. Like every system in the game, the economy is stripped-down to basics. Azkallor grants you only a certain number of turns to complete each of the (few) levels; this constraint is one of the game’s few creative ideas, injecting some tension into play. Still, since part of the thrill of dungeon-crawlers is exploration, limiting the player’s time in each level is a bizarre decision.
The challenge when translating a board game to the videogame space is determining where to make rules (and their adjudication) explicit. Dark Quest is a mess on this front, since it often fails to communicate information clearly. For example, important statistics like attack power are hidden within codex entries and not displayed on screen. Some strange mechanics are inexplicably introduced as well. Occasionally the evil wizard will interrupt play to force a character to “roll the Skull of Fate”; this could have beneficial or detrimental effects in theory, but in practice you’ll get screwed about 80% of the time, losing a health point or a turn. On several occasions I picked up a crystal ball, which prompted me to “make a wish” (although there was no way to specify said wish) and either be granted or denied whatever that wish might have been, with completely unexplained effects.
Dark Quest also has its share of technical warts. Your dwarf may detect traps, but poor pathfinding doesn’t stop characters from waltzing right into them. The odd auto-follow mechanic — if not explicitly instructed otherwise beforehand, characters automatically follow the party leader — makes the game feel not truly “turn-based.” It doesn’t help that it’s not always possible to move and then act; movement alone will end a turn. The broken English of the dialogue testifies to the developers’ lack of facility with the language. That’s a lot more forgivable than the nominal story’s ending, which is so absurdly dark as to be laughable.
The thing that drives me nuts about Dark Quest is how good it could be. With a more communicative UI, more thoughtful rule design and more level content, this could be a fantastic electronic version of the board game I’ve loved for years. As it stands, though, it feels like an incomplete, if eager, first draft.
Developer: Brain Seal
Platforms: iOS, Android
Release Date: 4/16/2013
Price: $0.99; $2.99 (HD)