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Subject: A Path All Its Own rss

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Charlie Theel
United States
St. Louis
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Fantasy as a genre and concept grew from the idea of creating fiction and setting based entirely on spectacular wonder and boundless creativity. The burgeoning zeitgeist was built on imagination and no limits. Somewhere along the line this notion of free-roaming no holds barred morphed into solid boundaries of confining structure courtesy of riding on the coattails of J.R.R. Tolkien. Orcs, Elves and Dragons all were concrete ideas that formed regulations of sorts on the creative industry and held the genre back. That sense of discovery and awe was relegated to minute details and the grand scope and nature began to get downplayed and subverted.

Then something like Shadows Of Malice comes along and begins to restore one’s faith. This is a game that firmly accedes to the Mage Knight structure of tile exploration while pushing into encounters of varying threat. Travel and discovery are the key tenets while your band of adventurers clutch their blades and find hope in their ancient relics. It’s a dash of Wild West free-roaming Fantasy as iron and teeth are the only laws of note. What is most interesting is where this cooperative adventure game separates itself from its peer and completely embraces a more open ended narrative while leaning on the psyche of the players involved.

This title looks to create memories primarily by authoring a unique story that changes form from one play to the next. While your adventurers trudge across the map in one or more groups called bands, much of their fate will be decided by random chance. The beasts you encounter, the distance you may travel, and grand treasure you may hoard all arise from random generation of content via heaps of dice or mounds of card. There is definitely strategic and tactical choices involved but the game makes smart decisions to trade a portion of these elements for narrative prowess. The design decisions are aimed at the type of person who plays games to create memories and passionate emotional experiences over mentally engaging efficiency manipulations. It’s a thematic design that’s not embarrassed or afraid to embrace its true identity.

You will begin to see this relatively unique creative direction from the starting line as you don’t choose characters from pre-built templates or representations. Rather, each character is built from a random Mastery that offers a potent effect for that hero as well as a secondary ability that can be provided to other allies. This mastery in combination with your treasure and items form the background of your character, giving a sense of freedom to solidify that identity in your mind almost as if you were playing an old school roleplaying game. Similar to Masteries, the treasure you discover is drawn from a random deck chocked full of amazing items built on wide variety. There’s also a huge Fate deck that is comprised of random events of both a good and bad nature. All of these variables aid to ensure each play is very different than the last.

The goal of the game is to travel across one to four large tiles where you will descend into monster lairs, discover cities, enlist the help of mystics, and finally invade the crumbling strongholds of a fallen civilization. Each map tile contains three such strongholds that bear a single well of either darkness or light. The adventurers band together to vanquish the wild beasts and gain power before laying siege to these crippled fortifications and encountering the guardian entities within. If the heroes can discover the light well on each tile they will accomplish victory, although this path is a twisted and difficult one mired in seething terrain and malevolent lifeforms.

While the players are embarking on their journey of discovery the darkness builds in the Shadow Realm. A separate tile tracks the gathering of strength as individual shadow forms harness their dark power and build over time. Eventually they will break free and find their way into the natural realm where they will push towards the unexplored strongholds, looking to extinguish the wells of light. If this occurs prior to the heroes achieving their goal, the shadow lord Xulthul will be summoned and the impending dread will be realized. This pushes the game into a final cataclysmic state somewhat similar to the final encounter with a great old one in the classic Arkham Horror. Tearing Xulthul’s physical manifestation apart is a task that is extremely daunting and the participants must come prepared or defeat will rapidly be realized as the champions give up the ghost and fade into obsolescence dooming an entire world to a fate worse than the citizens of Alderaan.

The most interesting facet of the entire design is the context in which all of these feral beasts, ancient guardians and formless shadows take structure. Their physical embodiment and statistical makeup is organically manufactured from a clever set of tables that provide combat abilities, health and weaknesses. What this means is that a band of heroes may be riding a hot streak and parading across the wild lands in triumphant celebration as they attempt to enter yet another lair of an unsuspecting beast. However, THIS ferocious creature is unduly resistant with a large amount of life and huge modifiers in combat. Additionally it may have one or two completely unique powers drawn from a deck of enemy abilities. This provides a sustained heightened sense of tension and discovery as you encounter an enemy for the first time and are unsure of what you may run into. I’m in love with this mechanic as it provides a gentle framework for sparking your imagination while also pushing you towards that cautious sense of tip-toeing around that’s all too familiar in the classic Fallout video game series where you may run into something that can outright slaughter you with minimal effort straight from the get-go. The design does manage to walk that narrow path of avoiding too punishing of results by allowing you to retreat from any encounter before it begins, which is widely appreciated.

The brilliant creature generator in all its glory.

All of these mechanisms come together to form an old Dungeons and Dragon feel as if you’re tearing through some crazy unrestrained vision from one of the most creative dungeon masters in existence. When you combine that with the streamlined focus of modern game design you have a winner. When you then kick everything up a notch by including absolutely fantastic old-school art and graphic design you have a game that firmly plants itself on your forever shelf, refusing to depart. The artwork is very effective at capturing a retro feel similar to Legend of Zelda without taking the over used route of 8-bit veneer. It’s refreshing and highly appreciated, especially when you take into consideration this entire product was a one man show from design to production and it was handled without relying on the modern day wonder known as Kickstarter. Jim Felli was confident enough in his work to front the money and print the game up front without relying on the effort of others through artificially manufactured hype. This release is a serious undertaking and one which is beginning to pay off as the magic of this game continues to spread.

Much like Mage Knight, Shadows Of Malice works exceedingly well in the solo environment. However, this game was primarily designed as a Coop experience and functions in both contexts to provide maximum enjoyment. With beautiful components, unequivocally evolving narrative and a uniquely positioned atmosphere this game just works. It trucks along like a locomotive at top speed, although one unhampered by any notion of rails and thus knows no bounds or restrictions. The whistle is sounding and I urge you to hop aboard.

This review was originally written for To view other reviews written by Charlie Theel check out this Geeklist.
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