I was sitting in a bar enjoying drinks and food with some wonderful people, as you do. Then this guy walked by, and my brain knotted up trying to remember. It took a second, but his name appeared in my consciousness, delivered through chemical wizardry.
I sat behind Dan in several high school classes. He was a good person, someone who I wouldn’t exactly call a friend, but maybe someone who I should have.
We shared a lame inside joke. In political science we exchanged greetings with over-the-top quotes from the Texas v. Johnson documentary we watched earlier in the year.
I departed my table and walked up to Dan, wondering if he would remember my name faster than I remembered his.
“Red, white, and blue, we spit on you.”
Dan slowly turned, and after one of the longest seconds of my life, he said: “you stand for plunder, you will go under.”
Here’s the thing about Cryptic Explorers, really most crowdfunded games – I forget they exist. This is with purpose as the anticipation can be too much. It’s not good for any of us.
Then the thing arrives and all of these memories and emotions come flooding back. In this moment of splendor, I wonder if the game will remember me as I remember the game.
I played and reviewed a prototype copy of Tempest Tome Games’ debut release nearly three years ago. That’s a long time. That’s pre-COVID. It’s almost surreal.
I rarely review releases prior to publication. I don’t find it particularly satisfying and it comes fraught with risk. I also don’t want to ever be accidentally confused with the crowdfunding preview mill and have never taken money for any such work.
But I was concerned Cryptic Explorers wouldn’t make it. Its first attempt on Kickstarter failed, and I thought it would be better to get a glimpse of this game and experience it, at least in its infant and unfinalized state, as opposed to regretting missing the opportunity. So I played it. Several times. It kicked me in the ribs and gnawed on my skull. It’s one of the most evocative and sharp dungeon crawlers I’ve played. All of this came flooding back to me when the final product re-appeared in my life.
Now I’ve played this completed version.
I’ve changed enormously since 2019. We all have. Cryptic Explorers hasn’t.
I’m surprised at how tight and finished the prototype was at the time. It had been in development for years, sure, so maybe I shouldn’t have been. But it’s difficult to remember what varied between that previous adolescent edition and this glorious final production as they’re so similar.
Yes, the components are improved. Not the illustrations, as those were always appropriately hellish and immersive. I don’t recall the really slick spot UV embellishments on the boards – I absolutely love these dungeons – and the overall professionalism of the package is impressive. Hell, the novella which serves no game purpose at all is even creepy and endearing. The writing is solid and it’s very enjoyable as some kindling for the game experiences to come.
The modularity of this game is still one of my favorite features. You select one of four boards, each offering a full-fledged environment with a page or two of special rules, features, and objectives. They have character, far more than your typical modular dungeon whose layout is wholly irrelevant.
“The Bog of the Lizard Witch” is my favorite. It’s a swamp with Bog of Eternal Stench vibes, blasting your crevices with liquid excrement straight from Satan’s hole. But this map also has Gashnoradon, a bitchin’ gargoyle which was penetrated by the aetheric fluid of the swamp and has since animated. This huge beast is controllable by the Goddess player – the “one” in the one vs many setup – straight from the hop. As a team of Cryptonauts, you’re being hunted immediately. It drastically alters your strategy and flips the tension paradigm.
Every board is a separate scenario teeming with life and hatred. Four of these fuckers that want to eat your soul and vomit it back up.
Then you have all of the goddesses. These each have their own suite of monsters and playstyles. You can raise legions of undead creatures or explode your opponent’s flesh with vile spores. If you pick up the expansion you will be spoiled with choice.
Finally, you have over 30 Cryptonauts to build your squads. If playing with the ideal player count of three, two players will each build a squad of three characters. This is not similar to Zombicide or those other faffy games that couldn’t be bothered to scale properly. Here, it’s a feature as each character has multiple special abilities you unlock through play, and they often combo with other Cryptonauts allowing you to create squads of well-oiled demonic killing machines. Finding these emergent synergies is a significant factor and it’s truly rewarding to see your theorized potency materialize in this fictitious reality.
One of my favorite additions to the final version is the optional story-driven Otherworldly Encounters booklet. In a typical game the Cryptonauts are looking to accomplish one of two objectives found in the realm board, as well as amass three Knowledge of Death cards. These represent occult information gleaned from your exploration and tie directly into the overarching setting.
With this option you now reference the Otherworldly Encounter booklet whenever you acquire a Knowledge of Death card. This presents a heavier-handed story blurb with branching story selections that can pop unexpected events. It’s rather wild and over the top, while managing not to soften the design’s core emergent narrative with a proscribed layer of story. I would absolutely not utilize this variant in every play, but it’s a meaningful experiential bonus that can heighten the atmosphere with veteran players.
While I am infatuated with Cryptic Explorers, it’s important to recognize that this is a very harsh experience, one which may prove too unruly for many fans of the traditional crawler. I’ve had sessions where the Goddess player fumbled about trying to find the strategic approach of their particular selected power set. There is certainly more pressure and challenge heaped on this role as many of the effects and abilities are subtle and difficult to determine without really studying each asymmetric deck.
The randomized order those cards are drawn can also result in lopsided delves. I believe the balance is fairly strong in this game – perhaps extraordinarily so for the number of interactions and content – but stumbling into a particular sequence of power cards can result in tactical challenges that are difficult to navigate for the less experienced. This can occasionally result in a play that ends not long after it begins due to the cascading nature of the design and how quickly things can go awry.
Additionally, the core rules are surprisingly simple and direct, but the overall weight of the game is rather heavy. This is not easily identified until you start integrating the various modular systems of goddess abilities, realm board, and player powers. It’s even easy to imagine a group being overwhelmed by the process of selecting a handful of ‘nauts before the conflict begins. There are many such fissures to get lost in, and some players will never make their way out.
I find none of this too troublesome. In some ways it supports the indie nature of the game, providing scaffolding for the raw and brutal nature of it. I adore the combination of black metal aesthetic with sharp and uncompromising gameplay. There’s a synthesis here like malignant notes emerging from a wall of distortion and fuzz.
In many ways, this demeanor of hostility is the most compelling quality of Cryptic Explorers. The environments feel truly horrific. The capabilities of the goddesses are remarkably potent. And the fragility of your Cryptonaut squad is felt. This is not other dungeon crawlers. You don’t mow down enemies as emboldened super heroes. Goblins and skeletons don’t flee in terror. It’s not your day.
But this is all astutely weighted within the scope of the design. This is why you field squads of three marines, each capable of immense feats once powered with souls. It all comes together so well that after a tense session, I can’t help but lean back in my chair with the mental equivalent of a full belly.
My head is banging and the horns are up.
This is simply an artistic work that is uncompromising, and one which speaks to my bones.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.