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The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk is a French audio series built around the idea of poking fun at all sorts of fantasy and RPG tropes. It follows a party of underqualified adventurers on a series of epic quests that have a tendency to go off the rails. The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk: The Amulet of Chaos is the series’ video game adaptation described as an epic and challenging tactical RPG filled with humor, surprises and silly encounters.
When the game was initially announced, I was mostly just mystified by the fact that audio dramas, or audio comedies in this case, were still a thing. But in the end, this project managed to pique my curiosity, since a party-based RPG that combines turn-based tactical combat with light-hearted comedy is very much right up my alley.
Going for the Eyes on Hell’s Kitchen
From my understanding, the game follows the first season of the audio series where the party has to retrieve an unpronounceable statuette from the eponymous dungeon. This ambition quickly loses its urgency when the heroes find themselves cursed by the once again eponymous amulet. Eponymous, according to the game’s snarky and oftentimes groan-inducing item descriptions, is a word the writers really like.
But, back to the dungeon. It’s not so much a dungeon as it is a tower populated by all sorts of zany creatures. You have your drunken orcs, ice-skating goblins, undead librarians, and so on. There’s even a dark elven rock band in there somewhere. In an attempt to lift their curse, the heroes will have to deal with all these creatures with varying degrees of prejudice.
This brings us to the game’s core loop. You enter a floor, get a feel for its overall theme, and start clearing it out room by room while looting everything that’s not bolted down. Some of the rooms will treat you to a combat encounter, and occasionally you’ll get to solve some simple puzzle or a riddle.
Overall, the game is fairly linear, but occasionally you do get to explore some side passage. Side quests are also way more numerous than it initially appears, you just have to regularly revisit the game’s NPC hubs to actually pick them up. This results in a fair bit of mildly annoying backtracking, though.
All of this is interspersed with frequent conversations between the heroes, and their interactions with the dungeon’s denizens. And while a lot of the game’s humor didn’t exactly land for me, these interactions never failed to amuse.
The core of your party consists of the Ranger, the Barbarian, the Thief, the Wizardess, the Ogre, the Dwarf, and the Elf. These serve as both their names and their classes. Later on, you get to recruit the Priestess, the Paladin, or the Minstrel. You can only add one of them to your party, and the choice is permanent.
Most of these characters seem to come directly from the audio series, and I'm assuming that's why it's so fun to listen to them bicker, despite their less than original archetypes. The Barbarian, for example, is unashamedly an over-the-top version of Arnie's Conan. The Dwarf is short, mean, and belligerent. The Elf is perky to the point of being nauseating. You get the idea.
But all of it is played with such honest enthusiasm, you can’t help but root for these characters and wonder what trouble they’ll get themselves into next.
However, once we leave our audio series party and venture into the video game realm of talking to NPCs, getting side quests, and what have you, everything stops looking quite so rosy. The writers seem to love their jokes a little too much and keep iterating on them for no good reason.
There’s Gordon Ramsay, for starters. I saw the celebrity chef mentioned numerous times in different contexts. The infamous Skyrim arrow to the knee joke also makes an appearance. Twice. And don’t even get me started on Baldur’s Gate and the inarguable importance of going for the eyes. All this low hanging fruit stuff feels beyond lazy.
Maybe it’s that thing with comedy being subjective, but to call the game’s humor uneven would be an understatement. The same can be said about the voice acting. The English version features some prominent actors, like Felicia Day, some perfectly acceptable and fun performances, and some real stinkers, all side by side.
And in general, uneven is the name of the game here. This particular title has a fascinating ability to combine great ideas with some really stupefying blunders.
It has some really nice quality of life options, like reversing camera rotation and deciding whether or not you want your minimap to rotate as well. But then, you have to do all that rotating with the keyboard, as there's no way to rotate the camera with the mouse at all.
The game has no shortage of voice acting, to the point where you can even pick between two different narrators. But then, there’s also a number of unimportant NPCs with maybe a few paragraphs of text between them and no voice acting whatsoever.
There are options to determine the frequency of character barks during exploration and combat, and you can even individually mute certain characters. But then those barks happen seemingly at random, with very little connection to what’s actually happening on the screen.
The game is permeated with stuff like this that makes very little sense and prevents it from realizing its full potential.
For such a zany, light-hearted title, the game boasts a fairly impressive turn-based combat system. In fact, even if you absolutely can’t stand all the jokes, you might still enjoy this title purely thanks to its combat. True, it can’t quite match the great encounter design and variety of Blackguards or the tense pacing and resource scarcity of Dungeon Rats, but it can at the very least be mentioned in the same ballpark as those games.
And while on the surface it looks like your standard 2 Action Points, cover-based experience, there’s a good deal of creative mechanics and unique solutions to common design questions here.
Take initiative, for example. The turn order is determined by the Courage stat. Given the same Courage, Agility is compared. If that's the same as well, the higher level goes first. And if the levels are the same, only then do you get a random roll.
And in general, while there’s plenty of randomness in the combat system, I found it to be very fair and measured. Not only is the game pretty generous with skills that always land, every time an enemy manages to dodge or parry your attack, their chance of doing so gets cut in half for the rest of the turn. This gives you another thing to consider when planning your turn and ensures that even if an enemy has a natural 90% dodge chance, you can still get him.
And even should you fail, it’s not the end of the world. The game has a special party-wide “Randomia gauge” that fills upon things not going your way, like when your attack critically fails and instead of setting your enemies on fire covers the battlefield in chickens. Fail enough times, and you’ll get access to some special skills that grant you extra turns or let you heal your entire party.
Underneath all that is a fairly straightforward but not too simplistic ruleset based around six primary attributes and a good dozen of secondary stats. On top of those, each character has unique active and passive skill trees separated into five tiers.
Take the Ogre for example. His attributes and skills make him sturdy and surprisingly fast, and second only to the Barbarian in dealing damage. But then, he also has a special interaction with the Dwarf that’s a lot of fun. And while exploring, he can bust through certain walls and lead you to some extra loot. Stuff like this helps better define your heroes, and in my opinion, more than makes up for the lack of custom characters.
The game also has an interesting Support system. If one of your characters is facing an enemy and another one attacks it, the second character will get an accuracy bonus determined by the first character’s Charisma. That’s on top of the bonuses provided by flanking or backstabbing. And beyond even that, each character has some passive skills built around the idea of being adjacent to others, making smart positioning even more important.
You’ll really want to figure all that out, as even on the default difficulty, the game isn’t a complete cakewalk and will throw some challenging encounters at you now and then. However, if you really want a challenge, you should jump straight into the hardest difficulty.
There, most of the early encounters will feel like a desperate fight for survival. Things will become easier once your heroes have gained a few levels and you’ve managed to equip them with some half-decent gear, but you’ll still get an occasional fight where everything is stacked against you, and you have to use every resource at your disposal to win.
Now, the unfortunate thing about the difficulty is that to some degree it feels artificial due to the game's itemization. With how the game is structured, you don’t get a lot of choice in where you can go at any given point and so, for the most part, the loot you get is set in stone. And with every party member using gear that’s unique to them, this leads to a situation where some of your characters are destined to be underpowered at certain points.
And this leads us back to that whole uneven thing. Unfortunately, the game’s combat design hasn’t managed to escape its curse. As mentioned previously, there are plenty of unique mechanics here, and while some of them are quite nice, others range from mildly annoying to entirely pointless, like the Retreat system that for all intents and purposes might as well not exist.
Other systems of dubious impact include long-term health management (you can always trek back to a tavern to heal), energy regeneration (battles tend to end before you run out of energy), consumables (it’s always better to just attack than to spend a turn applying a minor buff), harmful surfaces (when direct attacks can deal dozens if not hundreds of damage, it’s very hard to even notice minor DoTs), and the list goes on.
Some other things are outright just clunky. Like how you can’t cancel a move before finalizing your turn. The UI can also give you minor troubles, and in general, everything isn't quite as smooth as you'd like it to be.
The game’s AI once again falls into the uneven category. Overall, it’s quite decent. It goes after your squishier characters, tries to cancel your overwatch shots, and frequently destroys your cover. But then, at times it can simply decide to skip its turn or run through a bunch of opportunity attacks for no good reason.
One last thing to mention here is the fact that the game lets you respec your characters. Usually, I’m not a fan of respeccing and prefer to live with the results of my suboptimal choices, but I don’t get too bent out of shape when a game lets you redistribute some skills.
Here, though, respeccing can easily break the intended skill progression. Basically, to advance to a new tier of skills, you have to invest a certain number of skill points, both active and passive. Upon gaining a level, you get one active and one passive skill, you spend them, and after a few levels, you unlock a new tier.
The thing is, the game only cares about the total point investment. So, after getting a few levels, you can go buy the respec potion, spend a bunch of passive skill points to unlock multiple tiers at once, and then only pick the strongest active skills. It honestly feels more like a bug than an intended interaction.
And this leads us to the big elephant in the room. Bugs. There’s too many of them to count right now. In fact, for a while, I couldn’t even finish a playthrough. I got as far as Chapter 8 on the pre-release review build and then the game essentially soft-locked itself during a story battle. I then started a new playthrough once the game was actually out, only to get stuck again, this time around Chapter 6.
I was actually about to post this review without having completed the game when a patch hit and fixed the issue. But, even though the game can actually be completed now, it still has plenty of less critical but nonetheless annoying bugs that range from attributes and skills not working as intended to missing strings of text and animations.
Beyond the bugs, this is a Unity game, and it does the Unity thing where the further you get, the longer it takes to save and load. And while spending three or four seconds to save the game isn’t too bad, this same processing bloat for some reason extends to the AI, resulting in it taking forever to resolve its turns in the later stages.
Other than that, the music and visuals are pretty decent and fit the game well, and the save system is adequate and has everything you’d want from a save system.
Oh, and since this is a Unity title we’re talking about here, do make sure to enable VSync or limit the framerate in some other way if you want your GPU to live a long and productive life.
In the end, while the game is definitely playable right now, it really needs at least a few more months in the oven. Then, even though the developers don’t seem to know how to get out of their own way and separate their bad ideas from the good, the combination of those good ideas will surely make The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk: The Amulet of Chaos worthy of a playthrough or two. Especially if you're someone who enjoys zany humor, challenging tactical combat, or some combination of both.