Descent: Legends of the Dark finally lives up to the franchise’s full potential

Fantasy Flight’s Descent was one of the first modern board games that tried to provide an experience similar to a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The game’s second edition, Descent: Journeys in the Dark, improved on the experience by providing a greater variety in mission objectives to make it feel a bit less like a hack-and-slash dungeon crawl. But, it still required one player to do most of the work of challenging the others. Now, Descent: Legends of the Dark has truly fulfilled the series’ promise by providing a tabletop experience with the tactical and narrative depth of a pen-and-paper role-playing game, while letting a computer run things.

Set in the fairly generic fantasy world of Terrinoth, the game’s campaign unites six heroes to fight off all manner of threats from ruthless bandits to mad wizards. The required companion app guides players through missions, informing them how to build a 3D map and populate it with treasure, traps, and monsters.

The game is physically imposing, requiring about an hour of work just to fold and assemble all fine cardboard pieces. You’ll need a huge amount of table space to lay out the maps, which expand as your characters explore new rooms. The app allows the game to surprise you, forcing you to navigate labyrinths or seeing rooms shrink over time as they’re devoured by flame. Often the app will provide hints as to how you should navigate a situation or deal with a dangerous foe, and you should pay careful attention.

Descent: Legends of the Dark contains a comic book-style visual novel filling in the story behind every mission, and decision trees for each of the characters, which impacts not only the current scenario but also future encounters. These features make Legends of the Dark feel very familiar as a video game, even if I think its designers could have leaned into that medium a bit more. Some voice acting would have been nice, since there’s so much exposition and dialogue that can be hard to share if you don’t have your computer synced to a screen big enough for all the players to see. On the other hand, having players take turns voice acting their characters does add to the feel of being part of a TTRPG.

After the app shows you where to initially place each monster and your party members, it’s up to the players to track their movement on the game board. However, the app will point out who an enemy is attacking, and track random occurrences like special enemy defenses or triggers on a player’s weapon that can do extra damage or apply debuffs. Most challenges, from swinging a weapon to picking a lock on a chest, are handled by rolling dice, with players inputting the results into the app. The result is all the kinetic pleasure of playing a tabletop game without needing to do as much math. It also better enables secret information, like the difficulty of a challenge or what weapon types an enemy is vulnerable to.

The characters all feel very mechanically distinct and there’s a satisfying challenge to coming up with ideal party composition. Most missions require that a specific character come along to complete some part of their personal plot, so you’ll need to learn the nuances of playing each of them.

That complexity mostly lies in a clever system of fatigue management. Do anything special — like add extra success to a roll, or use an ability such as letting an ally move or enfeebling an enemy — and you’ll add some number of fatigue tokens to one of your cards. Some enemies will fatigue you just by hitting you and you might also take fatigue for completing quest objectives like hauling people out of a burning building. If you become too exhausted, you’ll start taking damage.

You can take an action to flip a card and remove all those tokens, but every card has different abilities on each side. The result is that you have to constantly be changing tactics, even when it might seem like a winning strategy to just keep slamming into an enemy with the weapon you have equipped.

The app really shines between missions, when the party heads back to base to rest. The city screen offers a shop with a constantly changing inventory of crafting materials, recipes, and equipment, plus workshops where you can forge your own gear. Potions, armor, and trinkets are represented by cards you keep in your play area, and these can provide you with powerful effects when used wisely. Trying to scrounge up enough money to get everyone healing potions before embarking on the next mission really felt like playing D&D.

Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

In the city and during your travels you can also play through narrative events and hit random encounters that might give you more rewards or help flesh out the player characters. While the plot may rely on broad fantasy tropes, the characters are charmingly individual, like the kind-hearted rogue, Chance, who loves to steal from bad people, and the overly optimistic wizard Syrus, who dotes on his phoenix familiar. The game isn’t especially linear, giving you access to multiple quests at once so you can choose whatever seems most exciting to you or requires the character you’re in the mood to play.

While the game lets you play solo, it’s best to have a full party of four even if that means having a player control more than one character. Keeping track of multiple actions ramps up the complexity, but the game just doesn’t scale down properly for smaller groups. Big groups encounter more foes who are also individually tougher, but the real limitation on success is often action economy, as your characters need to gather quest items while dealing with timers created by respawning monsters or collapsing terrain. It’s also harder to manage your health and stamina when the bad guys are all ganging up on one or two characters.

I’ve only played four of the campaign quests over my approximately 10 hours of play, but I’m eager to get through more. The app seems like it would make it easy to add new content since it already provides stats for multiple types of monsters and environmental effects using the same physical components. Plus, this is only the first act in a planned series. Like a really good D&D game, I’m expecting this adventure could last years.

Descent: Legends of the Dark was reviewed on Windows PC using a pre-release copy of the physical game and app provided by Fantasy Flight Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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