Review – Descent: Legends of the Dark
|Designer||Kara Centell-Dunk, Nathan I. Hajek|
|Artist||Preston Stone, Gary Storkamp|
|Publisher||Fantasy Flight Games|
|Category||Cooperative Campaign Game|
In Descent: Legends of the Dark, players will dungeon-crawl and explore 3D terrain tiles, fight enemies with the help of the excellent companion app, and hopefully save Terrinoth from certain destruction!
Some scenarios are darker than others and include cults, demons, etc., but nothing as viscerally dark as what you might find in Dark Souls or even Gloomhaven.
Before beginning Descent: Legends of the Dark, players will click through cutscenes (some voice acted, some not) on the Descent app (required to play and available for free). This will be the case before and after all of the 16 missions. They’re fun, but they do take time, so plan on at least 2.5 hours for each mission (because you’ll be doing more than just playing a mission).
After all the set-up and dialogue and backstories (which are quite interesting), players will choose characters specific to the mission. Some missions are character-specific, so you’ll need to take certain characters along, which means you won’t be playing as 1 character for the duration of the campaign. This is actually a wonderful feature because you could play with 2 players for the first mission, then with 3 the next with no repercussions, so no one has to make every single Legends of the Dark game night. Also cool about this system is that characters will level up independently. Usually characters on the mission level up some, but you’ll also find items during each mission that can only be used by a certain character, encouraging you to try that character out next time.
Each mission will begin with some sort of objective for players to achieve. The app will tell you which tiles and objects to place where, and the app will expand the map as needed. This is dungeon-crawling without a DM, and it works great because if you’d rather not know all the enemy effects and go through all the math required in calculating hits, you don’t have to! The rulebook does give a thorough explanation of all the math behind the scenes, and the handy player cards also describe the different status effects as well. The app will move enemies, trigger events, and surprise players along the way. The app also gives a rectangular play area so, if you plan carefully, the 3D map won’t spill over the table (though you’ll need something like a 3.5ish ft x 4.5ish ft table).
Each turn, characters will get a free maneuver and also perform 2 other actions, which can include attacking enemies, interacting with 3D cardboard objects, maneuvering again, performing special actions, and readying cards. That last action allows you to flip a card, essentially switching weapons or XP abilities. Flipping cards is important because as you modify your actions with special abilities, you’ll place fatigue tokens on your cards. Negative effects will also be placed on cards, so flipping a card allows you to start with a clean slate. Flipping weapons is also important because enemies have specific weaknesses.
After each mission (and after the cutscenes), players will have the opportunity to explore Frostgate, the main town. There they can craft items, equip characters, and perform interactions with their party and citizens of Frostgate. Many of these aren’t necessary, but they are fun if you like digging into the story and upgrade systems.
The components are excellent. The cardboard 3D map items are wonderful and help create the best table presence for a game I’ve ever seen. Moreover, the storage is just as good: everything is self-contained in an organized manner inside the double-boxed box (lower box for 3D map stuff and upper box for cards and the 40 miniatures). Because of the enormous 2-story box, you’d think this would be a honker to set up. It’s really not, thanks to the storage solutions and the app.
The 6 characters the players will get to choose from are all interesting in their own way (my favorite is the dragon outcast). Each character has their own backstory, personality, and players will get to make fun choices that dictate how they level up and interact with other party members. Additionally, the way Legends of the Dark uses its enemies is incredibly frugal. There are 11 different enemy types included, but there’s also different-colored square bases you’ll place underneath each enemy, which marks its class within that enemy type (for example, you could have dagger-wielding bandits and long-range sniper bandits that would use the same miniature with a different colored base). This makes enemies feel both exciting because they’re new while ensuring they’re not overwhelming because, most of the time, players have seen them before.
This is a premium game, as the price tag would suggest. The app is really phenomenal. I don’t usually like board games with apps, but I do like this one. However, the strategic gameplay is lacking. Legends of the Dark is still an exciting and accessible narrative experience, but it doesn’t have the same level of depth as Gloomhaven or even Imperial Assault. If you’re looking for a dungeon-crawler with all the bells and whistles minus high-strategy gameplay, Legends of the Dark is the best one I’ve come across. Designers Kara Centell-Dunk and Nathan I. Hajek admirably chose high-accessibility (so long as someone has read the rules) over deep, strategic gameplay, and I appreciate that I can play Legend so the Dark with just about anyone who has played board games before. No, “Here watch this 20min video before our game night tonight” required!
Those were mostly preferences. My real critique of Legends of the Dark is the length of the campaign. I don’t mind 16-mission campaigns, but all 16 of those missions better be good. After a few missions, you’ll start to see a bunch of recycled level designs, which is a problem for a game where the experience is the point. In a game like Gloomhaven, where the combat is the focal point, this isn’t much of an issue. Here, however, it is an issue because Legends of the Dark doesn’t have strong, strategic gameplay to fall back on when the missions get repetitive. Every mission is still fun in its own way, but it certainly seems like they could have cut the mission count in half in order to maintain the high bar set up by the first mission.
Descent: Legends of the Dark has a lot to offer. The shared experiences, the accessibility, the story, and the ever-unfolding nature of each map makes for a very good time. While the gameplay lacks in strategic depth, and the campaign spans 16 missions (at least 8 missions too long in my opinion), don’t let that completely dissuade you from this exciting dungeon-crawler that also happens to have a great table presence and the most accessible gameplay thanks to all the heavy-lifting the app does. It can be a great experience.
If you’re intrigued by the idea of an app-controlled DM, but don’t want to sink in 16 missions’ worth of hours, check out my review of Destinies.
The Bottom Line
Despite the occasional repetitive mission, Legends of the Dark offers an exciting, accessible, immersive experience unlike any other on tabletop.