A couple of years ago I was driving through Memphis and I had the radio cranked to a level of volume best described as distortion. I was listening to a classic rock station; timeless cuts like “Fortunate Son” and “Jessie’s Girl”. The car was bumping.
Then something strange happened. “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes sparked across the airwaves. At first I was into it. The White Stripes are one of my favorite bands and that absolutely thick main riff dances down the spine. But elation broke to a sinking feeling of dread.
Getting old isn’t much different than getting young. If not for your body constantly berating you with pain, you’d hardly know the difference. Except for moments like a “classic rock” radio station reminding you that time is cruel.
Sword & Sorcery: Ancient Chronicles is the standalone sequel to the 2017 Immortal Souls from Ares Games. Its bloodline extends even farther to the excellent Galaxy Defenders, a sci-fi skirmisher whose rich AI system has been iterated upon and wielded like a sharpened blade by this fantasy series. It doesn’t stop there.
Look deeper into the void and Sword & Sorcery hearkens to something else. Something which is terribly old yet feels like it shouldn’t be.
Sword & Sorcery is carrying the torch for Descent. I’m talking about 1st edition. A game that’s nearly been forgotten as the rubble has been scorched and built upon over and over now.
But this game makes me feel old. It seems we’ve reached a turning point where Heroquest is no longer the nostalgic touchstone designers are aiming for. It’s now become Descent: Journeys in the Dark.
The dungeon crawler genre has been stuck in a weird position where the upper and lower ends of the spectrum seem to be catered to. You have titles like Gloomhaven and Perdition’s Mouth which are predicated on resource management and puzzle-y optimization leaning heavily into the conceits of modern Euro-style designs. Then you have the torrent of Zombicides and Massive Darkness style titles that go for entirely the opposite approach where you churn through hundreds of plastic bodies while shotgunning a beer.
The middle ground has been somewhat neglected.
Ancient Chronicles is complex and messy. It boasts an enormous rulebook with plenty of exceptions and interesting sub-systems. There are components for days. It’s going to take a bit of work.
But the mental process of the game is entirely tactical immersion. Positioning matters nearly as much as identifying all of your character’s abilities and modifiers to dice pools. It’s a very heady game in this sense, but not one focused on math or card management. Instead your eyes dart between the board and your character’s artifacts and abilities. Then you collect a fist of dice and aim your dagger towards the minotaur’s eye.
The AI system also performs much of the heavy lifting, providing for dynamic enemies that feel alive and actually interested in rending your throat. This is a pretty nifty change of pace as these games often tend to throw countless speed bumps your way in a war of attrition. The programmed antagonist behavior here is very risky and aggressive at times. There’s a persistent feeling that if you drop your guard that swarm of spiders will engulf your Elf and the darkness will win.
Working through the branching behavior logic can be obtuse, however. There is simply a lot of heads-down card referencing as you consider various if/then statements. With elaborate action comes involved process.
This is the second game in the Sword & Sorcery series. It’s mostly the same system fans have come to appreciate, but besides cleaning up some rules and presenting new content, it also includes an entirely new overland travel system. Over the course of the campaign – the main way to play the game – you will explore a wider subterranean world via the world map. The setting is a bit R.A. Salvatore but that does offer a distinct impression from the first S&S title.
The journey system means, in addition to the standard dungeons fraught with danger, you will stop at towns and settlements where you can purchase gear and upgrades. It feels less a distraction from the main proceedings and more an appreciated breather allowing the mechanisms to reflect upon the boons and scars attained in the previous fights.
The pathing and the overall narrative arc are very linear unfortunately with only a few lightly branching paths. It’s also reliant on exploration which consists of triggering story beats from a script booklet, which means you’re not likely to return to the game once completing the campaign. The ride does happen to be one offering exhilaration and thoughtful conflict which takes the sting off. It also is a lengthy ordeal, lasting in the neighborhood of 30 hours.
As you progress through an individual dungeon you will come into sight of a token highlighting a point of interest. This triggers a paragraph found in that aforementioned story manual. Legitimate shock can materialize and often resistance occurs. The game as a whole does a fantastic job of framing your incursion as invasion of a pre-existing ecosystem like a virus hellbent on establishing a new vector. It feels lived-in and organic.
There is a great amount of cost to this system. Besides rules overhead, setup is rough. Good organization is a requirement as the variety in tokens and card types is substantial. In addition to the dungeon itself, several decks must be constructed from scratch for each play. By offering unique events and tailored enemy activations the atmosphere shifts with each session. It buys a great deal of personality for the encounters and helps to foster moments that stick around beyond the table. But it also eats up your game table and free time.
The most significant flaw remains from its predecessor: the game does not allow you to fail-forward. The lack of ingenuity in solving this issue is a huge drag. Trying to best a lengthy scenario on the second or third attempt feels a waste of precious time. It may push you to fudging results or easing up the difficulty level occasionally, which is a shame. Being forced to alter die results is akin to being put through the ringer with an incapable GM.
Compounding the issue is that this is still a very long game, perhaps even longer on a per session basis than the previous iteration of Sword & Sorcery. It earns its attention as a sophisticated design offering a very specific experience, but you will need three or more hours to complete most sessions with a group of friends.
Much of that time will be dedicated to conflict. Combat is dominated by the parsing of dice pools. Again, with a nod towards that previous Fantasy Flight classic, you must spend symbols to trigger abilities and modifiers as you work your way through the icon equation. While occasionally arduous, this central tactical decision space offers a sense of immediacy. All of your focus lies on utilizing your abilities in terms of the present. You’re not forced into an agonizing resource puzzle with long-term challenges, so the tone of play is more stylish and urgent.
The commitment towards that distinct Descent experience is the heart of this game. It’s a very treasure-heavy design which is markedly foreign to the standard crawlers lining the shelves. Combine that with scripted narrative unveiled over time, absolutely deadly AI enemies, and a very robust dice-based combat system predicated on ability management – all of this adds up to a very effective ruleset with a great deal of charm.
It’s vital you be able to overlook the previously mentioned flaws and put up with the occasional reset after a TPK. If you are capable, then the goodness of the remaining bits will provide a commensurate payout.
Nostalgia is a critical function in constructing joy. Ancient Chronicles pulls no punches. It doesn’t hide behind a misleading veneer or make promises it can’t fulfill. Some will absolutely detest this style of play. Others, such as this critic, will find themselves yearning for a specific moment in history and wondering where the time escaped to.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.