In our modern, workaday world, where big budget RPGs like Skyrim and Diablo III dominate the gaming landscape, it’s easy to forget that the forebears of the RPG genre came not from computers or consoles, but tabletop gaming. Miniatures, dice-throwing, and hours upon hours of pretending to be a dwarf might seem a quaint anachronism to today’s gamer, but back then some dice and a healthy imagination was all anyone had. A throwback to these humblest of beginnings, Dark Quest brings the spirit of classic dungeon crawling boardgames like TSR’s Dungeon! and Milton Bradley’s HeroQuest to a mobile platform. Indeed, Dark Quest is almost blatantly derivative of the latter for its game mechanics and aesthetic, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
For those unfamiliar with these games, here’s a basic rundown: you start off with the brawny Zantor, a generic barbarian stuck in a gridded dungeon which gradually reveals itself as he delves deeper into it. Between your barbarian and the dungeon’s exit is a swarm of monsters to be smote, traps to be avoided, and treasure to be pocketed. On each turn, Zantor can perform just one action (open a door, move up to five spaces, attack a monster), and total turns are limited in number. Use up all your turns before reaching the exit and lose the game.
At some point you’ll add a dwarf and a mage to your party. Each has his own strengths and weaknesses, but overall the additional party members essentially triple your efficacy per turn. From time to time, the game randomly stirs things up by forcing one of the characters to roll the “Skull of Fate,” a wheel of fortune as likely to heal as it is to harm. Finishing a dungeon sends you to town, where you’ll have the opportunity to spend all that newly-plundered gold on weapons, spells, and potions. Then the process starts all over again with a new dungeon.
While it’s been over twenty years since the original HeroQuest hit stores, the gameplay holds up quite well to posterity. Dark Quest’s flavor of dungeon crawling may seem primitive compared to the new school of RPGs, but its simplicity belies a certain elegance unusual to the genre. In the least, it’s a welcome respite from the frantic button-mashing we’ve come to expect from modern RPGs. Seeing as how your toughest character has just six hit points maximum, “careful” is the watchword of the seasoned dungeoneer—planning your moves and adapting to your environment are both paramount to survival. Every single action matters here, and for combat that means character placement and tactics trump any sort of powergaming or stat min-maxing. In fact, there is no actual character advancement aside from the purchasing of abilities. Despite its lite RPG elements, Dark Quest is really a strategy game at heart.
While the graphics and sound aren’t going to win any accolades, there’s no real issues here and both the music and sound effects fit neatly with the theme. As mentioned before, the game’s visuals are ripped off from HeroQuest, but what they lack in originality they more than make up for in polish. The control scheme also works just fine; granted, it’s almost impossible to screw up controls for a game like this. I suppose my one gripe here is the absence of an undo button, as the occasional finger slip can produce disastrous results, but the omission is more annoying than game-breaking.
The game’s biggest fault is that it’s just too short. There are only five dungeons in all and I was able to beat every one in a little over two hours. The ending also seemed like such an awkward cliffhanger that I get the feeling the devs have more content waiting in the wings. Whatever the case, priced at a measly two bucks I think the shortness can be more or less forgiven. This is a fun, nostalgic excursion into an all but forgotten genre, and I hope to see more like it in the future.
Though suffering from brevity, Dark Quest is a solid translation of a classic board game, and a great means of wiling away a rainy afternoon.