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RPG Codex Review: The Occult Chronicles and Elder Sign: Omens

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RPG Codex Review: The Occult Chronicles and Elder Sign: Omens

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Sun 20 July 2014, 17:15:56

Tags: Cryptic Comet; Elder Sign: Omens; Fantasy Flight Games; The Occult Chronicles

[Review by Gragt; edited by Infinitron and Crooked Bee]

Last year, two somewhat similar games were released for Windows within an interval of a few months. Both feature board game mechanics and settings inspired by Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. With such a unique premise, I decided to take the opportunity to try something a bit different and review both of them in the same article.

The Occult Chronicles

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The first of the duo is The Occult Chronicles by Cryptic Comet, released in August 2013. As fans of his previous games Armageddon Empires and Solium Infernum already know, Cryptic Comet pretty much means Vic Davis. Davis is a one-man designer/programmer team and a visionary who specializes in developing games for the very small niche best described as “board games specifically made for computers”. By moving tedious elements like bookkeeping and frequent calculations to the computer, these games are able to feature much more complex systems than traditional board games, without alienating players. Coupled with Davis’ terrific sense of style, this has allowed him to craft some great and memorable games, and his latest work is no exception. While his previous games were straight strategy games, The Occult Chronicles deviates from his canon by being a mix of board game and roguelike with a focus on exploration. Davis later regretted calling the game a roguelike as it apparently gave players the wrong set of expectations, but despite his feelings on the matter, in my opinion The Occult Chronicles is much closer to a traditional roguelike than many of the games that have popped up in recent years and claimed the genre for themselves.

The action is set sometime between the two World Wars. As an agent of the Occult Defense Directorate, your mission is to investigate reports of paranormal activities in an old isolated mansion in the countryside. The popular assumption on the Internet is that the main inspiration for this setting is Lovecraft’s famous Cthulhu Mythos, but this is not completely accurate. In fact, the general vibe is that of pulp fiction from the ’20s and ’30s as a whole, of which Lovecraft is the most famous representative, but which also includes other writers and Mythos contributors like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard. As such, those wishing for a faithful Lovecraft experience may be disappointed to learn that the game isn’t set in the Mythos proper, although it does borrow many elements from it: Cthulhu does not appear, but there is a sinister cult worshiping the “Tentacled Ones”; the teslarati are a race of terrifying aliens that borrow features from both the Elder Things and the Mi-go, including the infamous brain cylinders; some names like Azathoth or the Plateau of Leng pop up here and there, etc. Again this isn’t strictly a Lovecraft theme but a pulp fiction horror theme. It even goes a bit further by featuring various aspects of horror and fantasy from contemporary pop culture, with references lifted from Ghostbusters, Beetlejuice, Dungeons & Dragons, and The 7th Guest, as well as a few cameos that should bring a smile to horror fans, such as The Tall Man from the Phantasm film series. Sometimes the game veers into the bizarre, like when you encounter the crazy hunter from Jumanji, of all things. That mix may disappoint Lovecraft fans but it makes sense since 1) pulp fiction is a part of pop culture, and 2) the game comes out stronger because all these elements mix well together and help to establish the game’s identity. There are also little bits of humor here and there that help to alleviate the tension and frustration of failure. It won’t make anyone laugh out loud, but there’s a certain candid quality there that never fails to elicit a smile, like the various “you’ve seen worse” texts that you get when you pull off a horror challenge. It’s never overdone, which is quite refreshing compared to those games that shower you with bad jokes that feel forced. Just as Solium Infernum left its mark by being set in a Hell inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost (not your usual depiction of Hell in video games), likewise The Occult Chronicles borrows from various sources of horror and fantasy and wraps them all neatly in a ’30s pulp fiction setting to great effect. Vic Davis’ games may have their shortcomings, but the man consistently delivers great atmosphere in all of them, even when dealing with commonplace settings like post-apocalyptic or western. That he repeatedly manages to do this despite the technical limitations and limited resources at his disposal is proof of his talent in that area.

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When starting a new game you must first decide what type of mission you will embark on. Six choices are available, including stopping a cult of the Tentacled Ones (possibly the scenario closest to a typical Lovecraft story), hunting down an elder vampire, investigating UFO sightings, tracking down a grimoire, etc. While they do not drastically change the way the game is played, each offers variations on the possible events and random encounters, i.e., you won’t encounter cultists while hunting for the elder vampire but you will run into his servants and brides. It’s a simple but effective way to keep the game fresh after many hours of play, though most events can take place in every scenario. There is also a seventh option that creates a random scenario; perfect whenever you want a bit of surprise, it also features a hilarious description.

Three additional options can further affect the scenario: difficulty, story length, and permadeath. From what I understand, the difficulty setting mainly affects your maximum health and sanity, the number of character creation points at your disposal, and the difficulty of challenges. There are five difficulty levels, with the second as default; I found this level to be a good entry point. The third was more satisfying after I became more experienced with the game, while the first felt too easy, and the last two were a bit overbearing. The story length setting allows you to adjust the time limit to short, normal, or long, and it can also be disabled for those who dislike that sort of thing. Much like in Solium Infernum, after a certain number of turns there is a chance that a story token will be drawn, a chance that increases on every subsequent turn until the token is finally drawn. When all 12 tokens are drawn, the game ends and you lose. Time limits aren’t new to roguelikes; even the progenitor of the genre had one in the form of a hunger system, and although you could find more food, you still had to consider your actions carefully and not waste time. The Occult Chronicles takes a stricter approach, as it gives you a limited number of turns to complete the game with no way to extend them. This also gives the game narrative structure: each token comes with some bits of narration about events happening in the background, like the cultists going through the preparations for their human sacrifice or reinforcing patrols. These events aren’t just for show and have an actual impact on the gameplay; each one changes the difficulty of certain types of challenges while the story token remains in play. This usually won’t be in your favor, although sometimes you may get a lucky break. It’s an elegant way of generating a sense of urgency, and at the same time telling you about the sinister events unfolding in the background, weaving narrative and gameplay together. Lastly, you can choose to disable permanent death, that staple of the roguelike genre, here called Reaper Mode. If turned off, death or insanity will merely knock you unconscious and you will conveniently awaken in the foyer. I found death rather easy to avoid as long as you don’t rush things - which is where the time limit comes in. Time is your true enemy in this game, and it will make your experience a very tense one even on the slow setting. Permanent death adds even more pressure. Of course, this is a horror-themed game so it’s not supposed to feel like a leisurely stroll. In my opinion, disabling both the time limit and permanent death removes much of the game’s sense of satisfaction, but it’s good to have the option. I’m always in favor of giving people the ability to tailor a game to their preferences, whether they find the default settings too intimidating or too easy.

Next comes the character creation. Characters are primarily defined by their attributes, which in typical board game fashion are represented by symbols. In this case, Swords, Cups, Wands, and Pentacles, keeping in line with the game’s occult theme. The Swords attribute represents physical combat of any kind, whether it involves melee or ranged weapons; Cups is the measure of your physical fitness and how well you do in physical challenges, like evading a trap, resisting poison, or simply running away; the Wands attribute is related to your mental abilities and is used to resist horror, solve puzzles, communicate with other beings, and most importantly, to use your psychic powers; lastly, Pentacles is associated with arcane challenges like spells and sorcery. Your character also has a health score and a sanity score, and if one of these hits zero, you respectively die or go insane, marking the end of your adventure. Character creation itself is a simple process, in which you are given a pool of points you can distribute to your attributes, with each rank costing more than the preceding one — the first rank costs only 1 point but the second will cost 3, the third will cost 6, and so on. You can also purchase additional health and sanity points, for one point each, but since these are very easy to acquire in the game, I strongly advise you to increase your attributes first, and only assign what’s left over to them.

You will also need to choose a background, out of twelve possible options. Each comes with its own set of abilities (both passive and active) and equipment, as well a six-sided die called a bone. Each bone is tied to an attribute, and is used to determine the success and/or potency of various spells and abilities. Melee weapons use the bone of Swords; physical abilities use the bone of Cups; psychic powers use the bone of Wands; and spells are a special case, since they use the bone of Pentacles to determine success, and then use their own bone, provided when you acquire the spell, to determine potency. The basic idea is that each background is arranged around one of the four attributes and provides you with abilities along those lines. The Soldier is a Swords background, and thus comes with combat Edges (passive abilities) and Heroic Feats (active abilities) as well as a random firearm; Cups backgrounds focus on general physical defense, with a secondary focus on things like evasion (in the case of the the Circus Performer), or unlocking (in the case of the Thief); Wands backgrounds are more varied, with the Professor focusing on puzzle-solving and, humorously, the Accountant being resistant to horror and other sanity-taxing challenges; lastly, the Pentacles backgrounds are all about arcane channeling, centered around the three spell schools. Note that while weapons, Heroic Feats or spells can be obtained from many backgrounds, the Mentalist, a Wands background, is the only one to start the game with psychic powers. Additional abilities and feats can be gained during the game by collecting and spending expertise tokens. Tokens can also be spent to unlock two additional secondary backgrounds, providing you with additional sets of powers. Edges, on the other hand, can mostly only be upgraded as special rewards.

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The mansion is randomly generated, but always consists of three floors and three basement levels. The main floor is very large and sports many different types of rooms (salon, dining room, kitchen, dance room, hospital, laboratory, greenhouse, gardens, etc.), each with different sets of encounters tied to it. The first floor is similar, although smaller. It contains many bedrooms, while lacking some other types of rooms - you obviously won’t find gardens there, for example. The attic is the smallest part of the house, but beware, for there are dangerous threats that lurk in its shadowy rooms. As for the basement, it is a vast underground network of tunnels and caves, filled with many traps and assorted monstrosities, that offers a far greater challenge than the mansion itself. This is also where the final encounter room is located, so the general idea is to become strong enough to brave the basement by exploring the mansion first. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the final encounter room is found on the second basement level instead of the third as one might expect, though it may be necessary to go down to the third level and then back up again to reach it. There are also clues located randomly throughout the mansion that help to reduce the difficulty of the final challenge; while you do not need them all, they are certainly a great help for the endgame, provided you manage to reach it.

The mansion is filled with all sorts of events and encounters. Most of these lead to a fight, but some of the less hostile beings may be willing to negotiate with you and offer you quests. Quests may offer you greater rewards than simply dispatching whatever you meet, sometimes even unique ones, but they also tend to require a lot of backtracking. While this is a mere annoyance with the time limit turned off, it might very well secure your defeat even on the slow setting. This may irk completionists (such as myself), but it also helps to build up the tension and urgency that naturally comes with this kind of setting. I found it worthwhile to take notes about the quests, their required steps, and their rewards, in order to get an idea of which was worth pursuing and which should just be dropped. It helped me decide whether I should accept that demon’s quest to bring it a demon baby’s corpse, or simply blast it with my shotgun and be done with it. I know that taking notes and drawing maps isn’t trendy these days, but it’s fun to do when the game provides proper motivation for it. I’m glad to see a game complex and challenging enough to encourage its players to do that — and if you are one of those people who claim that taking notes breaks “immersion”, know that I despise you.

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Challenges are resolved through a card game mechanic featuring pleasantly illustrated tarot cards — probably the most typical board game element in the game. At the beginning of each challenge, you are presented with a number of cards with their faces down, called trick cards, and also given a number of cards in your hand. Your attributes come into play here, granting you more cards, both tricks and in hand, as well as lowering the target score to win the challenge. Clicking on a trick card reveals it, and if you have a card of the same suit available in your hand, you must play it on the trick. If the played card is of greater or equal value than the trick card you played it on, you win the trick and score the value of both cards (non-face cards are worth 1 point, Pages 2 points, Knights 3 points, Queens 4 points, and Kings 5 points); if not, you win nothing. Then you can reveal the next trick card and continue until you run out of tricks or cards to play. You may end the game at any time, but you must beat the target level in order to win. Whether it ends in success or failure, you are then taken to the results screen with 10 face-down cards. If you succeeded, you are allowed to turn over some of the cards and they will likely contain rewards (health and sanity gains, expertise tokens, upgrades, etc.), but if you failed, then you have to uncover them and suffer their negative effects. Punishment ranges from health and sanity loss, to wounds, which are permanent stat losses and challenge penalties that are very hard to get rid of, or even instant death or insanity. The instant demise cards only show up when you fail at certain risky events, but they are enough of a threat to make you reconsider whether crossing that bottomless chasm or playing chess with Death is such a good idea after all.

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The card game is interesting, but risks becoming dull very fast because of its reliance on luck. Fortunately, that’s where your weapons and active abilities come into play, allowing you to bump down the value of the trick cards, bump up the value of the cards in your hand, discard and replace cards, etc. This makes the challenges much more interesting and reactive, especially when they give you that feeling that you are “breaking the rules”. Your Edges, being passive abilities, help you by doing things like reducing the target score of a challenge, adding more tricks or cards, or guaranteeing that you will hold at least one face card in your hand. Additionally, since the game uses a tarot deck, it naturally features Major Arcana. Major Arcana are trump cards worth 7 points that can outscore any trick card. They are found as random and rare rewards for completing challenges, and it is usually a good idea to keep them for particularly difficult encounters. But being special cards, they can also provide a passive bonus if you hold them in your inventory, or trigger a unique effect when you play them, adding another layer of strategy and consideration to the game.

Now, the main problem with all of this is that you start the game with very few items and abilities, and even then they can’t all be used in every type of challenge. This does make your growth in power more satisfying when you finally get the good stuff, but until then, you are forced to play the card game in a very straightforward manner and, as mentioned earlier, that can get dull very fast. This also makes starting characters highly vulnerable to bad luck. That’s nothing new to roguelikes; a couple of my characters in NetHack have been lost by falling into a hidden pit on their very first and last steps, killing them instantly — fair game, I say! But in NetHack I could quickly move on and create a new character not one minute later, whereas The Occult Chronicles will rarely kill you instantly, instead making you continue forward painfully, in the full knowledge that you are doomed. In fact, it even features an equivalent of NetHack’s hidden pit in the starting room: a few of my paranormal investigators fell through a trap in the floor of the entrance foyer. But, instead of being killed on the spot, they found themselves in the basement. As I wrote earlier, the basement is a very dangerous place, and unless you are lucky enough to find a flight of stairs back up, you will almost certainly die there, and it will be slow, requiring you to play (and likely fail) many challenges before the inevitable happens. And even if you do manage to escape, you will have lost precious time and perhaps received a wound or two. If I’m screwed, I’d rather be done with it and start over again immediately, rather than drag on with no hope of turning the situation around.

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Active abilities can be powerful, but their use is limited by their charges and the use of a bone. Firearms use ammunition (which is apparently universal, as it fits both pistols and shotguns) but require no bone; Heroic Feats are powered by Courage and use the bone of Cups; and spells require Eldritch energy as well as a bone of Pentacles. They all have different names, but all of these charge resources behave in the same way, which is a bit boring. The two exceptions are melee weapons and psychic powers, which do not require charges of any kind. Melee weapons merely require the use of a bone of Swords, while psychic powers use a bone of Wands and generate psychic pushback. Psychic pushback is a hidden stat that increases the chance of drawing a bad card in the result phase of a failed challenge, or even a successful challenge if it’s high enough. Pushback diminishes with each turn, i.e., as you walk around the board. In practice though, psychic talents are powerful enough that pushback is a negligible annoyance. For one, they do not require charges of any kind, so you don’t need to worry about restricting their use. Additionally, they have some unique effects not found in other abilities: while other powers let you manipulate cards and change their values, psychic talents often allow you to simply roll a die and add the result to your score. Their only real drawback is that they do not apply to every challenge type (for example, undead and mechanical enemies are immune to psychic powers), but they can still be used in a large number of events. This makes the Mentalist the strongest starting background, as it starts with psychic powers and can obtain more over the course of the game. With the right choice of powers and sub-backgrounds, it can easily become a powerhouse in the late game.

Other backgrounds may not be as powerful, but still offer a decent chance of survival, especially if they start with a weapon. Spells, on the other hand, feel lackluster. Unlike other powers in the games, that tend to boost each other, I didn’t find that there was much synergy between them. And yet, they require you to spend a charge and some health before even checking for success. My experience with spellcasting characters in the game was not satisfying, though I welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong on this point. That said, I do not consider this imbalance to be a fundamental flaw. It is a well-known fact that most people try to play games, especially CRPGs, with the most optimal build — think of Arcanum and how new players are usually encouraged to make a melee or Harm spamming build instead of a gun specialist. That can no doubt be fun, but there is also some appeal to playing a sub-optimal build, be it for the sake of balance or as a self-imposed challenge (just because there is no achievement tied to it, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing!). That kind of design is also a staple of roguelikes — both NetHack and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, among others, have a large roster of races and classes, some very powerful, and others very inefficient and difficult to play. And it can be fun to play with a weird build and see how far you can get, just as it can be fun to steamroll everything in your way with a powerful class. My main complaint on this front is that the game’s various characters end up feeling rather samey, due to the fact that all of their different abilities are used in very similar ways, with very similar effects. A few elements unique to each background would have helped alleviate this. However, there are subtle differences that one can notice and appreciate after playing with several characters, so I am inclined to give the game a pass here.

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No, the biggest flaws of The Occult Chronicles lie elsewhere, and they should be familiar to anybody who has played Cryptic Comet games in the past. One of them is the manual. It is dry and boring, and though you’ll get most of the information you need to play the game, I am sure it could have been made more engaging. And then there’s the interface. Vic Davis still insists on using Adobe Director to create his games, which imposes some severe restrictions, like limiting the screen size to 1024x768 and probably adding the long loading times. I wish he would switch to another development platform, but I doubt he will after sticking with it for all this time. Sure, I’d rather see a Cryptic Comet game made with Adobe Director than none at all, but then again I’d rather be rich and healthy than poor and sick.

The interface looks good, but it is annoying to use, and the screen size doesn’t help. To be fair, Davis has added a few features over time to make things easier, but it still isn’t ideal. Movement could originally be done only with the mouse, which would become tedious really fast, but now we can also use the WASD keys. The screen doesn’t scroll along with your character, so you need to either move the mouse to the borders of the window, or use the arrow keys. The former is somewhat imprecise as the mouse cursor needs to be in a precise spot, while the latter has a tendency to lock the scrolling when you use the WASD and arrow keys together. And since the interface is mostly mouse-driven, you constantly need to move your hands between the mouse and keyboard. The map is also hard to read and doesn’t show you much. The simple addition of icons to the map would have made it helpful for locating quest givers and other zones of interest, and the possibility to leave our own markers and notes would have been the proverbial cherry on top, but in its current state, it just isn’t very useful. Another annoyance is that equipment and abilities are hidden away in tabs, and it is very easy to forget that some of them may be available for a particular challenge. Again, Davis addressed — or in this case mitigated — the issue by making the icon on those tabs turn green if they contain something that can be used at the moment, but it still remains too easy to miss. Something like a list of available options showing up on the side would be the best solution, but I do not think it will happen at this stage of the game’s life.

But the most glaring issue with the game is the presentation of your abilities. When you pick up a new feat or power, the game shows you a long list of possible choices. Clicking on one shows the description of its effects, but nothing about the conditions required to use it! It’s possible to deduce those from other, similar abilities, but you shouldn’t have to do that in the first place. I can only assume this is some kind of oversight, because I don’t see any value in hiding this information from the player. It is rather frustrating to pick up a new ability that sounds helpful, only to find out that it works only in special cases. Here are a few examples when it comes to psychic powers: Banish Spirit only works in Psychic challenges; so does Vaporize Mind, but that one also works in Combat challenges of the Humanoid, Animal, or Monster type; Dominate works in similar conditions to Vaporize Mind but with the addition of Eldritch and Demon combat types; Terrorize, on the other hand, can be used in the same challenges as Vaporize Mind and also in Horror challenges. This stuff should have been documented in the game, or at the very least in the manual, but it is nowhere to be found. There is no way of knowing when exactly you can use those powers before you get them, and therefore you are forced to take notes for future reference. I don’t mind taking notes, as I wrote earlier, but that’s for stuff that’s fun to discover, not for information crucial to character development.

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Compounding the issue, the abilities’ descriptions are rote and confusing. Say you want to acquire a new spell. You spend the tokens on your background page, and you get a list of six possible spells to choose from (for other types of abilities, this number can easily be doubled). They have names that are appropriate to the setting, like “Touch of Paracelsus”, “Vision of the Dreamer”, or “Lemurian Fire”. But click on a name, and you get a description like this: “Roll 1 bone and then select and destroy X non face revealed trick cards that have matching played cards. The played cards now become the revealed trick cards.” or “Roll 1 bone and select X non face cards in your hand and then switch them randomly with the X non revealed trick cards where X is the number of Pentacles rolled. Then draw a card.” Yes, it isn’t that complicated, but keep in mind that you often have to read a dozen descriptions like these whenever you get a new ability. Some of them may have the exact same description, but are used in entirely different conditions. By the time I’ve read the last one, I’ve forgotten the first, and lost a few sanity points in the process. I welcome complexity in games and appreciate Vic Davis’ efforts towards that goal, but this is just a complicated way of presenting information. For the sake of comparison, here are some of the perks you can choose when creating an Avatar in Solium Infernum: Inspirational Leader (“An aura of command eminates [sic] from you giving all legions under your command a +X bonus to their loyalty, where X is your charisma”); Infernal Cardinal (“As a Cardinal, minions bring more tribute to you. You gain +2 to all tribute rolls when requests for tribute are made”); Prince of Lies (“Even your own ears are fooled by your tongue. All deceit rituals that you perform gain +4 roll modifier”). Do you see the difference? The effects in these examples are simpler, but they also come with little bits of flavor that help to differentiate them from each other and give you a general idea of what to expect if you pick them. That is something that is sorely missing from their counterparts in The Occult Chronicles. Perhaps some option to filter results based on use condition or effect would have helped.

Aside from these problems, this is a terrific little game. It features no animation at all, yet manages to convey a tense and heavy atmosphere thanks to its excellent design. Zane Reichert’s drawings illustrating the various events fit the game’s pulp fiction atmosphere very well, striking a good balance between comic-book and creepy. The slow and brooding music by Stian Stark, who also composed the music for Solium Infernum and Six Guns Saga, is perfect for this kind of game; there are no memorable tunes to speak of, but it sets the tone without intruding. While every adventure follows the same basic structure, there is a decent amount of randomly generated content to experience, and I am still surprised to see events that I missed, connected to quests that weren’t available before. As a horror and occult-themed roguelike, I guess the closest thing to it would be the bona fide roguelike Infra Arcana, but the board game aspect makes it fairly unique. If you can get past the clunky interface and obtuse ability descriptions, there are many hours of quality entertainment to be had. A game takes only a few hours to complete, the atmosphere is thick, the challenge is high, and the different backgrounds and scenario options keep it replayable.

Vic Davis is known for providing extended support for his games after their release, so there might be hope for new content and/or improvements to the interface in the future. That said, the game came out back in June 2013 as a beta buy-in and received a steady flow of updates with bug fixes and improvements up until the official release in August 2013. It then received one additional update in October 2013, and since then only silence has followed. It is unknown at this point whether Vic Davis is still working on the game or if he has moved on to another project. Still, in its current state the game plays well despite its annoyances, and offers a tense challenge. Fans of board games, roguelikes, and horror should find a good source of entertainment here.

Given its status as a niche indie game that isn’t available on Steam (where trading cards are apparently a good enough reason to buy every mediocrity available), The Occult Chronicles didn’t get much coverage in the press. The most prominent article about it was probably the one published on Rock, Paper, Shotgun and written by Alec Meer. It was incredibly childish and full of hipsterisms, and took only a perfunctory look at the game’s mechanics, glossing over its strengths and flaws. Meer even took the lazy approach of purposefully not describing the card game in detail, claiming that “You’ll figure it out. You’ll have to figure it out.” Gee, thanks! Instead, he decided to focus on the ways one can get killed in this game, repeating ad nauseam that he was driven insane by a locked door. Yes, it is stupid, but stupid deaths are part of roguelikes. I remember being killed by kicking a door back in NetHack. So what? There is a bit more to the genre than the ways one can die, but I guess that sort of thing is to be expected from a website where the average paragraph length is five sentences. Meer’s article also only covered the beta, and while it was very similar to the finished game, there were quite a few changes in the official release; wouldn’t that warrant, if not a new article, at least an update? In the end it does what most reviews do: go by the numbers, show little critical thinking, and leave the intelligent reader unsatisfied. Both The Occult Chronicles and yourself deserve better than that.

Elder Sign: Omens

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The second game is Elder Sign: Omens by Fantasy Flight Games, released for Windows in November 2013, a mere three months after The Occult Chronicles. This is actually a port of the 2011 game for Android, Apple, and Kindle Fire. Now, it may seem weird to review a game with such a dubious pedigree, but humor me for a while.

The reason it is reviewed here alongside The Occult Chronicles is that both games share many similar elements, from theme and setting to the board game-like gameplay. Of the two, Elder Sign: Omens plays the closest to a traditional board game, which is par for the course considering it is an adaptation of an actual board game, Elder Sign. There are some differences between them, but for the most part Omens is quite faithful to its cardboard sibling. This also makes it a much simpler game than The Occult Chronicles, if only because it could be easily set up on a table with cards, tokens, and dice, whereas The Occult Chronicles, just like other Cryptic Comet games, would be a nightmare of cyclopean proportions to play that way. The basic scenario has you control a team of four investigators in the ’30s, of various backgrounds and talents, who must prevent the awakening of an Ancient One from the Cthulhu Mythos. To achieve this goal, you must explore the Miskatonic University Museum at night to gather supplies and artifacts, including the titular Elder Signs required to seal the cosmic horror. This time the game makes direct use of the Mythos, and you will encounter familiar figures like the Deep Ones, Ithaqua and even Cthulhu himself. Truth be told, the Mythos is used here more as a coat of paint to give a strong and familiar theme to a horror-themed board game that is light on plot, but it does the job rather well. It may not be as involved as Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, but it's good enough to give you your Lovecraft fix as long as you don’t expect a great plot, great characters, or great dialogue — which isn’t something usually found in a Lovecraft story anyway.

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You start a new game by picking one of seven scenarios, each focused on defeating a specific Ancient One. This also acts as a difficulty slider: Yig takes the easy spot; Tsathoggua and Hastur the normal one; Azathoth is the hard difficulty; Cthulhu and the Dark Pharaoh/Nyarlathotep are very hard; and finally, Ithaqua is labelled as insane. The first four scenarios, ranging from easy to hard, all take place in the museum and thus feel very similar despite the differences, but the last three are more developed and have more content to offer. In fact, the Cthulhu, Dark Pharaoh, and Ithaqua campaigns were initially released as DLC for the mobile version of the game, but are included by default in the Windows version. These campaigns are the biggest difference compared to the board game and pretty much the main reason to pick this version.

The first one will have you wander around the Pacific, searching for clues to the location of R’lyeh, and finally confront Cthulhu there. The squid-headed deity will lock your powers unless you collect the fragments of the amulet that negates its influence. Also unique to this campaign are special artifacts, unfortunately so powerful that they make the adventure too easy if you acquire them. The Dark Pharaoh campaign takes place in Egypt and has probably the most unusual structure of all: you spend the first two days in Cairo, hiring allies who can provide you with additional powers, and then, ready or not, you are sent to the desert in search of a pyramid where the Dark Pharaoh, one of the avatars of Nyarlathotep, lies. As for the Ithaqua campaign, it is the hardest and the best of the bunch. It starts in the now very familiar museum, but, instead of Elder Signs, you collect boxes of supplies to help you survive the next phase: Alaska. There, your team will fight for survival against taxing encounters and monsters, such as wolves that summon other wolves at midnight, quickly overrunning the board. Ithaqua will also manifest his power by moving his Icy Winds randomly on the board, adding new negative effects and possibly throwing your plan of action out of the window. Alaska quickly turns the game into a desperate race against time to collect the Elder Signs and face Ithaqua in a very tough encounter. Completing a campaign on hard difficulty and higher will unlock an extra investigator, up to a total of four. They aren’t extraordinarily strong, but have a number of interesting powers.

The objective of the game is always the same: collect the target number of Elder Signs before the Ancient One awakens. Elder Signs serve as victory points awarded for completing adventures, typically the tougher ones. The Ancient One, on the other hand, needs to collect a certain amount of Doom tokens to awaken and instantly make you lose — this is different from the board game where you can still attempt to fight the Ancient One when it awakens.

Omens features a time limit of sorts, albeit much more forgiving than its counterpart in The Occult Chronicles. Whenever one of your investigators finishes his turn, three hours pass; as soon as the clock strikes midnight, several effects, called Mythos Effects, may happen. The most common one increases Doom tokens, but monsters may also appear during this time, or you may get lucky and nothing may happen. It is worth noting that the board game features a much greater variety of Mythos Effects, including lingering effects that last until next midnight, or even choices between two effects.

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The board always consists of six adventures, each composed of a number of tasks. A task is represented by one or more symbols, standing for the steps an investigator must take in order to accomplish it. These symbols are lore (a scroll), peril (a skull), terror (a mass of tentacles), and investigation (a magnifying glass, the only symbol that comes with a number from 1 to 3). When attempting an adventure, you roll six green dice (called glyphs in Omens) with these symbols on their faces, and check the results. If you have all the symbols required to complete a task, you move them on the task and roll the remaining dice to attempt the other tasks in the same way. If you fail to complete any task with a roll, you must declare the roll a failure, discard a die, and roll the remaining dice again. As compensation for failing a roll you may "focus" a die, saving its result to make the remaining tasks easier. Once all tasks of an adventure are completed, you receive the adventure’s rewards, your turn ends, and the completed adventure is replaced by another. If you run out of dice or decide to preemptively fail the adventure, you must suffer its penalties and your turn ends.

Rewards come in the form of items and spells to help you resolve further adventures, Elder Signs, or in rare cases a Reprieve, which removes a Doom token. It is also possible to open a portal to another world, adding an Other World adventure to the board. These act just like regular adventures, but provide greater rewards and bypass the six adventures limit; they aren’t, however, replaced when completed. A successful adventure will also reward you with trophies, i.e., points you can use to buy things at the store. Penalties typically include health and/or sanity loss, but may also trigger monsters or a Doom token. It’s a rather abstract way of dealing with adventures in the Cthulhu Mythos, but it works thanks to its simplicity and evocative quality. And then there’s the magical quality of having you push your luck despite the odds. Adventures also feature bits of flavor text, but these are short and throwaway — though they can also be enjoyable at times.

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Some adventures make things harder by featuring an entry effect, a terror effect, or a midnight effect. Some may even lock dice, preventing you from using them until you complete the adventure. As you may have guessed, the entry effect is simply a negative effect you suffer when starting the adventure. The terror effect is a bit more complex and dangerous: it activates each time you fail a roll and one of your dice shows a terror result. It may be repeated during the same attempt and may cause a monster to appear or you to fail the adventure outright, lose health, sanity, or dice, etc. To no one's surprise, midnight effects take place when the clock strikes midnight. They are, as a rule, very bad, to the point that removing adventures with such an effect will usually be one of your top priorities. In some cases you might even be unlucky enough to finish an adventure just before midnight strikes, only to see its replacement feature a midnight effect, in which case there is nothing to do but suffer the effect and attempt to remove it the next night.

Naturally, Elder Sign wouldn’t be too fun were it to rely solely on the luck of dice rolls. I saw the game described as a Cthulhu-themed Yahtzee, but that isn’t very accurate. Most of the fun comes from figuring out how to use available resources to shift the odds in your favor and reduce the impact of luck. That’s where equipment and investigator powers come in. Equipment is also treated in an abstract way, split into Common Items, Unique Items, Spells, and Clue Tokens. The board game introduces allies that can give an investigator extra powers, but these are absent from Omens — and even though the Dark Pharaoh campaign does feature allies, they function differently: you can recruit two of them by completing adventures in Cairo, and they basically act as reusable items in exchange for trophies, granting you re-rolls and extra dice. Items from a given category typically share the same effect, but there are always exceptions. In general, common items allow you to use the yellow die, unique items give you the red die, and spells let you save a die result even if you have to re-roll. Here, they only work for the current adventure, but in the board game spells also allow you to save results for other adventures and may be used by other investigators, immensely increasing their usefulness. But there are some exceptions, so that you may receive a common item that grants you the red die, a spell that restores health or sanity, etc. The yellow die differs from the common green one by replacing the terror with a 4 investigation, and the red die is even better, being similar to the yellow one but replacing the 1 investigation by the Wildcard, which can be used to show any result. Clue tokens are some of the most useful things to have, since they allow you to re-roll any dice you want.

If you feel that your current equipment is inadequate to attempt the available adventures, you may want to visit the museum entrance. It acts as a of home base of sorts, providing you with services, often for a fee. The Souvenir Shop lets you exchange trophies for Clues, Common Items, and Unique Items, but only one per visit. The First Aid Station will heal 1 stamina or sanity for free, fully restore stamina or sanity for 2 trophies, or completely restore an investigator for 4 trophies. Lastly, the Lost and Found bin lets you gamble and possibly win items at the risk of losing sanity or stamina. Since any action at the entrance takes the regular 3 hours of a turn, it is often best to leave it alone and attempt an adventure instead, unless your odds of success are just too low.

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There is no character building at all. Each investigator starts with a different health and sanity value, some equipment, and a special power. These come in different shapes and are what makes an investigator unique. Some alter dice rolls, like the professor being able to change a terror into a lore once per roll, or the gangster to change a terror into a peril. Others have to do with items, like the archeologist receiving one extra unique item for every one he obtains, or the detective being able to re-roll twice for each clue token instead. Others can ignore certain effects, such as terror, or prevent monsters to appear during their turn. The game lets you pick the 4 team members individually from a pool of 32, and it is a great way to build up synergies between investigators, but there is also an option to have your team assembled randomly. I am of the opinion that it is more challenging and entertaining to go with a random team, as it forces you to adapt your strategy to available resources instead of always going for the strongest investigators and falling into the same pattern, but there is no penalty for designing your own team if you are more of a power gamer. Interestingly, you can also choose to have a team of less than 4 if you want. This might actually make the game easier, because investigators can’t share equipment, and thus a single powerful character would be able to hoard all rewards, making the future adventures much easier. In fact, depending on who you pick and barring some extraordinarily bad luck, it might even be impossible to lose that way.

The presentation is very good. The artwork, by various artists, looks great on a computer screen, certainly better than on the smaller screens of phones and tablets, and fans of the Cthulhu Mythos, or just horror and the occult in general, will most certainly appreciate this, be it a creepy museum exhibition or a deliciously repugnant monster. The screen is mostly static, although there are some simple animations and effects, e.g. icons moving around or portals opening. It may not be visually impressive, but it fits the minimalist approach. The campaigns also feature a number of short videos with a bit of story. These are nothing special but competently done, with voice acting that ranges from good to below average. If anything, they make for a decent introduction, but it is unlikely that you will want to watch them every time they play. The sound effects are solid and punctuate the various actions in a satisfying way. As for the music, it consists of tracks by the ubiquitous Kevin McLeod, which fit the dark atmosphere despite not having been composed specifically for this game. There is no manual, but the rules can be consulted in-game through the help menu, with some videos explaining the mechanics and some text. It’s not the most exciting thing in the world, but it gets the job done.

Elder Sign: Omens is another solid little game, not as complex and deep as The Occult Chronicles, but easier to get into and faster-paced. It is also the more polished of the two, even if one can tell that the interface was primarily designed for a touchscreen. But while the lack of keyboard shortcuts is an annoyance, I never had to struggle with the interface, and it provided a smooth experience. It’s also a much easier game overall. I’ve read complaints from players who deem the game too difficult and relying too much on raw luck, but in every case this can simply be traced back to poor understanding of the rules and mechanics and/or inefficient use of the items and powers available. If anything, I find the game too easy in general and, when playing the board game, often enforce house rules to increase the difficulty, such as always adding a Doom token at midnight. I also regret the low number of Ancient Ones in Omens, even including the DLC campaigns, and a dedicated player could easily see the whole content over a week-end. In that sense, I can see the game working better on a portable device where it could be played on and off during short breaks, but it’s also a decent light board game experience on the PC with a fair amount of replayability. I’d also recommend looking into acquiring the actual board game if you are interested in this type of game, since even though it never leaves the museum, it offers a decent amount of content, especially with the Unseen Forces expansion — on that note, it would appear that some elements of the expansion were first featured in Omens, making it a fun case of the digital version inspiring the development of the “real” version. Yet Omens is the cheapest option available, and the Cthulhu, Dark Pharaoh, and Ithaqua campaigns are very fun to play, and even worth a look from those who own the board game. Elder Sign: Omens may not be for everyone, especially those who desire something similar to the flawed but memorable Dark Corners of the Earth, but as a fast-paced solo horror board game it does an honest job.

I also hope that this foray into the PC side of things will encourage Fantasy Flight to convert other titles of their catalogue to a digital format and give them online capabilities, akin to what Days of Wonder did these last few years with their Ticket to Ride or Small World series. In particular, I’d love to see a version of Chaos in the Old World I could easily play online, but I do not see that happening soon, or at all.

***​

Both games have their flaws and merits, and while none ascends to greatness, they are well worth a look, especially if you need a fix of horror and Lovecraft pulp fiction. The Occult Chronicles is the more ambitious and challenging of the two but also the roughest, while Elder Sign: Omens provides a very smooth ride but may leave you hungry for more. Both deserve your interest and complement each other by offering a different take on the same theme. I can think of worse ways to spend an evening than fighting slimy horrors by rolling dice and playing cards.

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