Widely regarded as one of the best table-top dungeon crawlers on the market, and sitting pretty at number 3 in the all-time list on BoardGameGeek.com, Gloomhaven is a hugely influential board game. It also boasts, quite frankly, an obscenely large box to contain everything within. So, a digital version is not just welcome on consoles, it’s a space saver.
I’m not a board game expert by any means, but I know my Heroquests from my Talismans enough to consider myself competent at them. So I foolishly thought playing on easy mode and jumping into the main campaign with only the text pop-ups to guide me into Gloomhaven would be enough. And whilst I grasped the basic concept of the game, I still got my arse handed to me relatively quickly.
For beginners, knocking Gloomhaven down to Easiest difficulty is the way to go. Even then, expect a challenge.
Don’t let the difficulty put you off though, as there is a very faithful recreation here with a ton of content.
Gloomhaven arrives on consoles after a successful digital recreation that launched on PC a few years ago. This offering is the same campaign as that in the original board game; some 95 quests to go at in just the base game. The version on Xbox also features the Mercenary Challenges, another 17 quests that up the difficulty even more so, as well as the first expansion for the board game, Jaws of the Lion, available as a paid expansion.
And if all that wasn’t enough, Gloomhaven also features a digital only campaign known as Guildmaster. This condensed version allows players to fully grasp the rules in a tutorial as well as playing through over 100 new missions, without a lot of the mercenary management side that is in the main game.
Both of these also contain a narrator of sorts; text boxes that fill in the story details in between missions to really give you that table-top experience.
After jumping straight into the campaign and failing spectacularly on the first mission, I realised that Guildmaster is the best place to start to at least get an understanding of how things work in Gloomhaven.
The basic gist involves you controlling a band of mercenaries through a dungeon in turn-based combat. Each mercenary has a set of ability cards and before each round of combat begins, you pick two of these cards. Each one is assigned a number and these indicate turn order, taking your first chosen number into account. The lower the number, the earlier your turn.
Sometimes, a viable tactic is letting the CPU enemies make the first move…
Each card is also split into two halves, top and bottom. When it is your turn, if you choose the top half on one card, your second action must be the bottom half of the other, and vice-versa. Of course, there isn’t enough time for me to delve into specifics of each and every action listed, but just know that every action is determined through these cards and knowing which ones to use – and when – will help you navigate through this tough as nails dungeon crawler.
Gloomhaven plays exactly like the board game does: difficult and tactical. If you are into that kind of gameplay, you will find it just as rewarding here as with the real thing. Wrestling with your own thoughts over which cards to play, and then which action from each card never gets boring. Trying to second guess your opponent, baiting them into going a specific direction is all part of the charm of a table-top like Gloomhaven, only here you don’t need to worry about packing everything up afterwards.
One interesting thing Gloomhaven does is forces you to experiment. Unlike other table-top campaigns where you take one character through from beginning to end, mercenaries in Gloomhaven are given a Hero’s goal during creation. Once they complete that, they are shipped off to the retirement home to live out the rest of their days in peace and can no longer be used in your questing at all. Your reward for this is often a new mercenary class to experiment with. It may not sound like much of a reward at first, but it prevents things from getting stale and, much like everything else in Gloomhaven, keeps you out of your comfort zone just enough to still be enjoyable.
One area that lets Gloomhaven down is in the visuals. Gloomhaven has a cel-shaded look to it, which is fine. It is nothing to write home about but does the job effectively for the most part. It is in the character models where things drop in quality, particularly when moving around the map. There appears to be an incomplete stepping animation for mercenaries, so their movement appears rather jagged and staccato, far from smooth.
And, also related, we now get to the part where we discuss the UI and controller scheme for a previously PC-only release. As you’d expect, there is a lot of information to display here, with button prompts all over the place. Sometimes it feels like it would be easier to control a cursor on screen with the controller, but it doesn’t take long to quickly get a feel for the controls. That said, there is a bit of heavy duty on the shoulder buttons with so many actions done via them; the poor face buttons aren’t as utilised as best they could be.
Stick with it and Gloomhaven is a very rewarding experience. If you’ve ever had a passing interest in the board game, or indeed are a Gloomhaven expert, there is something here for you. With two full length campaigns spanning over a hundred hours, there is no shortage of things on offer. A bit of polish on character models and movements would have been welcome, but hey, at least these ones move, right? Something the board game counterparts can’t boast.