Written by Michael Hatcher | Edited by John Gerritzen

A fun RPG with strong tabletop theming held back by poor AI, repetition, and lack of clear signposting.

A Squad-Based RPG

The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes is a squad-based RPG built on The Dark Eye tabletop RPG, Germany’s most popular tabletop role-playing game.  If you have never heard of it, think something along the lines of Dungeons & Dragons.  Players begin by choosing between four races, twelve playable professions (classes), and selecting a series of background cards that build your character history and form your main quest for this character arc.  From there you have the opportunity to sculpt your character somewhat by choosing classic character details like hairstyle and eye color as well as a few more in depth sliders that alter your cheekbones, chin width, and things of that nature.  All of this ends with you taking a character portrait- and then you never really see your character’s face again outside of that portrait in the corner of the screen.

All of this is stylized as if you are sitting with a fortune teller by a fireplace in a cozy wooden inn and choosing tarot cards that represent each choice or background item, which I thought was very clever and a cool way to give the game this “You meet in a tavern…” atmosphere that tabletop games are famous for.  The Dark Eye earns a huge win here for me, as you can create multiple characters that each have a different personal quest which allows for a ton of replayability from the start, as not all characters that you will create will have the same personal quest.  At the end of your character creation, you are presented with your character sheet- The Dark Eye style, which is very similar to a Dungeons & Dragons sheet if you have ever seen one.  Your ability scores such as perception and strength, your class and race, and your ideals are all populated based on your card choices earlier.

The Tavern serves as your main base for the game.

This is where you choose adventures to go on either solo or by joining a party online, where you purchase skill upgrades from the same old fortune teller who you created your adventurer with, where you buy and sell loot, and where the crafting options are found.  I have to say, this was a neat way to break up the quests—I would much rather have an interactive main screen like this than any set of menu options any day, as it really helps set the overall atmosphere of the game from the second you launch from your desktop.  There are even a few patrons in the tavern to interact with, and of course the ‘ol innkeep to serve drinks.

From here, things get a lot simpler.  We leave this awesome setup and gameplay becomes a point and click RPG adventure.  You click, you move.  You right click, you interact.  You select an enemy, you attack.  You click an ability, you click the enemy, you hope it hits.  No rocket science here.

A true tabletop based game

By that I mean that everything has a dice roll associated with it that appears on screen when you attempt the action.  You want to search the area for something useful?  Perception check.  You want to attack the goblin who hasn’t seen you yet with a ranged attack?  Roll to hit.  You want to open that chest?  Whoops!  It's a trap!  Roll to see if you saw it.

If you have ever played an RPG on Roll20 or some other online platform, or even in person, then this should sound pretty familiar.  It quickly becomes a game of playing to your strengths and avoiding anything that you aren’t good at because you most likely won’t be able to do it.  This makes it a particularly difficult game for me, because I tend to play with ranged spellcasters or rogue types who don’t have a large pool of hitpoints, or in this case a high DC score.  So what is the problem, you ask?  Computer controlled allies.  In the first two adventures, which were threat level 1, I had to be revived probably ten times.  Your squad follows you and attacks things they see, and sometimes will search for loot for you, but many times hang back and make the mage, glass cannon player character enter the room first, or open the trap, or knock on the door.  I discovered after some reading and fiddling that you can command your squad to an area on the map to attack or explore, which made my life a lot easier because then I could simply follow the heavies around and started to die a lot less.  You don’t have a ton of control over what happens when they enter the room, but at least you won’t be the first target inside once you get there.  Sometimes they will walk right past the enemy and attack one in the back, immediately surrounding themselves with foes.  Sometimes they will attack the first and allow the rest of the group to catch up and join in.  Sometimes, you have to tell them three or four times to enter the room before they budge an inch.  It really depends, and that makes combat less strategic in a lot of scenarios, and frustrating in many others.

Solve that quest

Another element that will take many gamers nowadays some getting used to is how you will go about solving the quests.  I say solving because many times you are given an objective of, say, “Kill the bandit leader.”  Where is he?  You will have to look.  What does this mysterious stranger sell on the way?  Guess you will have to spend a huge amount of coin to find out.  How do I exit this forest?  Well, I guess you will have to keep clicking random things until you find out.  What do these materials craft?  Time to experiment.  The actual puzzles themselves are relatively simple, usually something like a pressure plate used to open a door.  

It’s a shame that it was harder for me to find the exit than to actually complete the quest objectives.  I walked through a cleared forest for ten minutes on my first adventure only to find out that some horses I found were the “Forest Exit” I was looking for—unmarked, no signage, no arrow, no nothing.  I’m not the type who needs a glowing exit sign, but even a hint that the horses- who weren’t glowing, couldn’t be selected, and were less in number than my party- were my secret dungeon exit.  That was a little frustrating.

A Board in the Tavern

Quests are chosen at a Board in the Tavern, and are each assigned a “Threat Level,” which is The Dark Eye’s way of assigning difficulty.  The levels themselves are randomly generated, which adds a little intrigue, but are sort of bland otherwise.  A dungeon will have the same six or eight rooms repeated randomly throughout.  A forest will have the same six or eight set pieces arranged randomly.  You get the picture.  The randomness doesn’t save the repetitive nature of the dungeons or the quests themselves, which typically boil down to “Go here, kill that, leave.”  Occasionally you will get a classic escort or fetch quest, but that’s about it.

Save your progress, come back later?

Another issue I have with the adventures is the inability to save your progress and come back later.  If you need to leave in a hurry and you are in the final moments of the dungeon, you’re out of luck.  You can’t save your progress and return later, so you will just have to start over when you return.  Granted, the quests are only about twenty minutes long or so, but anyone who has lost even ten minutes of gametime before can attest to the frustration that provides.  Seems like an easy feature to include, and I would be interested to know why it was left out.

I attempted to play online with other folks, but there was never a host available.  I imagine it could be a little more fun with some more strategy involved if you could organize your squad with real brains, but I can’t comment on what that could have been like more than that.  My worry there is that unless you have two or three other friends to play with, The Dark Eye may be more aptly named “AI Dungeon Babysitter” if the player base never picks up.

Instead of leveling up, your character is rewarded tarot cards at the end of each successful quest.  You take these cards to the fortune teller from the beginning of the game and purchase them as upgrades for your player character.  They can be upgraded before being added to your sheet for some coin, and boy is that worth it.  One card gave me a single extra AP, but when upgraded gave me a new spell and 4 AP.  Definitely worth it, especially starting out when skills are hard to come by.  This is not very well explained in the tutorial, but I would strongly recommend saving the first two or three cards you get until you can upgrade them to add to your adventurer, as the upgraded cards are exponentially better than the base versions.


The Verdict: Flawed

In the end, this is a neat RPG with strong tabletop elements that is easy to pick up, looks nice enough, and has a few redeeming qualities such as the randomly generated maps and the Tavern home base. However, I don’t think I will be returning very often unless I can find some friends to play with. Things just tend to be so repetitive, the playerbase (at least at the moment) is not strong enough to support online play, and the maps themselves are not very unique. I found myself wandering with bad AI and trying not to die more than victoriously charging into battle with the gods at my back. Additionally, a few irritating bugs really put a damper on my experience, such as my character’s hair disappearing after creation or the stubbornness of the AI to follow my commands. So while I wouldn’t say this is a waste of money, I will say definitely wait until you can get it on sale, which I imagine will be in a few short months.

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