Tales from the Candlekeep: Tomb of Annihilation Review
Disclaimer: PC Aficionado was provided with a code for the purpose of this review. All thought and opinions expressed in the review are the writers own and are not influenced by the developer and/or publisher in anyway.
What surprises me the most about Tales from the Candlekeep: Tomb of Annihilation, is that it isn’t a mobile game.
I was sure it was. I spent time looking, convinced that this was just a port and I’d been duped into spending 10 hours with another vapid mobile port, bereft of any player agency, propelled through superficial means and largely a hollow experience. Large icons, loot chests everywhere, no mechanical complexity, it even badgers you for a review after several hours of playing. Those are mobile game things to do. All it’s missing is ingame transactions and a three-star rating system for missions.
But no, PC only. Go figure. Review prompt worked, credit where it’s due.
Core gameplay is such: Using a premade party, take on missions that involve exploring a certain amount of tiles, killing a certain amount of enemies, taking down a boss, or some other condition. It’s turn-based, and each turn involves either moving twice or sacrificing a smooth move for an action – attacking, unlocking a chest, disappointing your parents, or disarming traps. You roll a dice for each turn, backalley gambling style, and hit over a number to perform the action and not shoot yourself in the foot. It’s got an emphasis on being accessible, simplified, easy to approach, likes long walks on the beach or however you’d call it, so all the actual number action is confined to a feed in the lower left and it just jumps to whether you’re successful.
Now the game is also tileset based, where you’re playing on a faux board of sorts, and “pop in” new tiles by moving a unit to the edge of an existing tile. This is all fine, and well, somewhat novel premise, and seeing those first few board pieces pop into existence is quite nice.
Now here’s where the first of many problems rears its ugly head.
See, the core gameplay loop of this game is easy. Enemies die in 1-2 hits, your unit’s armour-class tends to be high enough to avoid most of the damage coming their way and missions tend to be over in 20-30 turns. Not exactly mechanically challenging, not that dicerolls have ever been challenging unless the GM has taken a particular disliking to your character’s limbs. So pop quiz – how did the devs balance this?
• Incorporating more complex mechanics such as unit direction and group coordinated buffs, debuffs, movement displacement, board verticality, et cetera
• Making the player take a hit every turn they don’t discover a new tile
• Making the player take a hit sometimes if they discover a new tile anyway
• Giving the enemies the first hit all the time, every time.
If you answered everything but the first, you’d be right. Tomb of Annihilation is dedicated to being simplified, to which it’d rather pester you than bother you with mechanics. Here, just roll not to get hit in the face with a spell out of nowhere.
The operative word here is annoying. It’s annoying having to roll every round to take a hit from the divine hand of Bob. It’s annoying to having to waste a round to try and disarm a trap to unlock an exit to take a hit from Bob, take a hit from the trap itself, and then take a hit from the exit when an “encounter” triggers anyway and there’s some enemies on the other side who also get the first hit in.
Far from being one outlying mechanic that’s fairly inconsequential, this happens every single turn. Unless you are on the Forest tileset, exploring a new tile every turn and not running into enemies or trapped ends, you get this. This is a deeply rooted design decision that drags down the entire game’s pacing and makes the entire challenge aspect more into a case of dealing with an apathetic wasp stinging you in the face every few seconds. Not malevolently, but still happening.
You know it’s not even hard. Least on Normal, which you might think is self-explanatory but I’m making a point here, bear with me. I’m not going through it again on Hard, I’m done with this game. But it’s balanced fairly well, I failed like one mission and that’s the one that requires you to just wander around “before the Death Curse finds you” and that’s only because I triggered like eight enemy spawns in 2 turns and wasted too much time fighting through them. That’s my admittance to this AA session.
You won’t die. You’ll just be annoyed. You’ll be annoyed that bosses essentially get a move for every move that a party member, and I won’t even spoil how the final boss is going to annoy you, because that’s a special kind of annoying, but I will say that they leave an impression.
Are you annoyed by how many times I’ve said annoyed? Me too. Let’s move on.
Character progression sucks. You’ve got a premade party, which is fine, whatever, even if 3/4 characters are just wearing unchanging ugly rags. Your character progression is entirely stat-based, and you inch up these stats by grinding until the cows come home. Go through missions and levels to earn gold-drops and chests that drop materials (or farm that one treasure-hunting mission), and then you craft upgrades. Upgrades that give you a different coloured icon and a stat increased by one. Leveling up just gives you a chest which gives you more materials – but if you hit a milestone level you’ll get a slightly better chest!
Your character skins do not change from upgrade to upgrade. Nothing changes. You’ll take your one increased stat, and you’ll like it. It sucks. Not much more to say about it.
Now to their credit, they did patch out the whole “crafting upgrade failure rate” thing, which is a shame because I had a whole paragraph prepared to segue into complaining about that, and they did finally patch in being able to view enemy stats. Kudos where it’s due, and it’s a nice segue into saying some nice things about the game.
No real glitches, runs smoothly on a toaster, the tileset mechanic is both novel and overall just enjoyable to play with (as well as an admirable way to handle procgen). Production values remain steady throughout – character models have a respectable amount of detail to them, the two environments are easy on the eyes along with the enemy variety. The enemies do cover all the bases you’d expect them to – skeleton with sword, skeleton with two swords, zombie gorilla, velociraptor.
Didn’t see any Beholders, but maybe they show up on higher difficulties. Fingers crossed.
Now there’s no story beyond dialogue prompts by some mystery person who I couldn’t tell you who they are, some background information on the party members, and the general premise of kill the BBEG in the dungeon. This isn’t really a problem, it’s an oldschool RPG where you don’t really care about story, but DnD takes an incredible, almost perverse amount of pride in being as dry and rote as humanly possible.
If a GM handed me a campaign this forgettable and dry, I’d get a different GM.
Who is this game for? Who is this audience? People who really wanted a boring mobile game with lootbox focus, only they’re not making any extra money from it and it’s PC exclusive? People who were so terrified of mechanics that they’d rather just take a poorly paced tedious chest-grinder? It’s just baffling. Everything wrong with this game is on a design level, as a product it’s more than competent and does fairly well with what it has.
But in it’s final state? Far from failing to be compelling, it’s annoying. I’m never going to play this game again, and I’m not going to suggest that anyone else play it. It’s not fast enough to carry being simple, or complex enough to carry the constant stopbreaks and how slow it is. Go play pretty much any other sRPG or dungeon-crawler, there’s nothing for you here.
- Novel Premise
- Decent Presentation
- SFX/OST Didn't Grate
- Constant Tedium
- Mindnumbing Simplicity
- Overall Just Not Compelling