I was a fan of Themeborne’s Escape the Dark Castle. Sector is the same core engine with a few new wires and screens soldered on. Perhaps you already knew this, perhaps not. While there are numerous fans of this series, there’s also a solid contingent of hobbyists who condemn it. Because well, this is barely a game.
BoardGameGeek and the cardboard collective tell us a proper board game has heft and density as an effect of bountiful strategic choice. Serious games must hurt our noggin, they say.
Here’s what I say: Escape the Dark Sector is a game. And it’s a pretty damn good one.
What’s difficult is that it’s hard to really classify this. It’s part Choose Your Own Adventure but reasonably only in spirit. You take your small crew of escapees and run through encounter cards, however the collection of challenges you face is entirely random. So a particular decision you make when facing a patrolling soldier won’t really have a downstream affect on what happens after – no, that bitching space centipede was coming up next in the shuffle regardless as you have little narrative agency here.
Within the confines of a single encounter you will often face decisions: “Do you want to sneak past the scientist working busily in their lab or assault them and swipe their experiment?” It works and the decisions do have cascading outcomes in terms of the gear you acquire and your health status tumbling downward.
I do describe Escape the Dark Sector as a narrative game, but that can be misleading. There’s no scripted story to encounter or parse through, rather it’s an amalgamation of isolated scenes requiring you to piece together an overall arc. The story is created from your play as opposed to being discovered by your play. That’s an extremely important distinction as those not desiring this style of adventure will find this game about as thin as the office toilet paper.
The engine is simple. You flip the next card and either roll a skill check to perform some feat or whip out your blasters and dance. I do enjoy the changes to these systems as Sector includes a new ranged combat mechanism which provides a touch of depth. You are given more options in flanking and need to decide how long to hang at a distance while worrying about ammo and your foe’s abilities. I also dig the cybernetics which provide for character special abilities.
Mostly though it’s the same cooperative game as Escape the Dark Castle. That’s not a derision as these works are heavily content driven. The story is gripping due to a sense of wonder, imparted both by the prodigious gothic atmosphere as well as a swollen deck of encounters. Once you start seeing repeat cards that touch of mystery washes out.
That will happen after a few plays here unfortunately. If you devour this release it will burn bright and then begin to fade in succession. In an ideal state this game would ship with thousands of encounters and you’d be spared the encroaching sense of repetition, but that’s not realistic.
Because this title is so heavily content driven a new standalone release doesn’t feel quite so recycled. This isn’t radically different, but rather it feels like another adventure that hits the same smothering dark overtones of its predecessor. I do have a fondness for the shift to the cosmos as it provides an excellent metaphorical backdrop to your hopeless journey.
You can see the devotion to this setting through the production itself. The graphic design and artwork function in unison to provide an all encompassing ambience. The touches of motion tracker and circuitry card-backs really set the tone immediately, giving way to those simple yet rich illustrations on the flipside of the cards. I also can’t help but smile at the health tracker which has you charting your declining status on an EKG-like graph.
The encounters remain well written and strongly evoke the situation you find yourselves in. There is one significant change in the conflict structure that pays immediate dividends: resting has been significantly nerfed. This is a very positive alteration as the game would previously lead you into this dominant strategy of alternating characters with rest actions. That felt like the smart way to play as it would allow you to revitalize wounded protagonists and buy some time.
Resting is much less efficient here. The mechanism has been replaced with a medical drone that allows only a single use per encounter. If you’ve played the previous iteration you can sense how large of a change this is.
When you combine the removal of the Rest with flanking, ranged combat, and stims, you can see how the tactical depth here begins to expand. Again, this isn’t ever going to be a design you seek out for mental exertion, but it does provide a more carefully crafted experience that reliably delivers an eerie adventure.
Escape the Dark Sector is a satisfying game. It’s primarily concerned with crafting a specific player experience, one whose mechanisms provide a streamlined skeleton for atmospheric discovery. It’s a difficult cooperative design, one which begs repeated sojourns to best the included five bosses and bust out of the floating prison. From a design standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with iteration, particularly when the result is improvement.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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