Middara: Unintentional Apple
At this point, there almost isn’t much to say about Middara that hasn’t been said about a hundred other games.
Four years since it funded on Kickstarter. Preposterous production values counterbalanced by preposterous quantities of miniatures and cards and words. Those words, bound up in a 480-page adventure book, weaving a tale that speaks much while saying little, despite being only the first act of something grander and longer-winded. A gorgeous aesthetic that will certainly leave some people questioning why this fantasy world’s women feel such a universal need to bare breasts and thighs, and others responding that bared manly muscles make all fair. A dice-heavy combat system that’s simultaneously expansive and that’s it?
It’s dungeon crawling as a microcosm. All the excesses and shortcomings and triumphs and stipulations of the genre, compressed — or, more accurately, expressed, expanded, blown outward — into the confines of a single box that could serve as the cartoon anvil in a real-life homicide. Even the title tells you something important. This isn’t Middara. This is Middara: Unintentional Malum: Act I.
Brace for impact.
Think of Middara: Unintentional Malum: Act I as a city teetering atop three pillars. None of these pillars alone are Middara, but without them Middara would not exist. More immediately, playing Middara is to travel the circumference of these pillars, one after the next, in a cycle as certain as day, night, and some other crepuscular period that bridges the others.
We’ll begin with the least stable of these pillars, the adventure book. Weighing in at over four pounds, this thing accounts for only a fraction of the box’s total heft, but still remains the single bulkiest component. If words were ounces, it would have the approximate density of a collapsing star.
This size alone isn’t a problem, not exactly, but it’s certainly indicative of one. Following the adventures of Nightingale Arsen, Zeke Jeong, Rook Lars, and Remi Moretti, the book details — and details, and details, and continues detailing — these characters’ everything, from their wisecracks to their worries, from their wardrobe adjustments to their descriptions of off-camera armories and ambushes. To begin the first scenario, a training room where our heroes hope to demonstrate their magical adroitness, the adventure book presents three broad pages of tightly-clustered columns of text. Successfully graduating treats you to twelve more such pages. When you fail a critical scenario and lose your campaign, it isn’t sufficient to cough up a descriptive paragraph followed by, “YOU LOST, TRY AGAIN.” Instead, the adventure book belabors the point. It explains your disappointment. It dissects your failure. Having to repeat a scenario isn’t humiliation enough.
To be clear, this isn’t a comment on the quality of the writing. It’s very much not my sort of thing, filled with teenage angst and pubescent blushing and unnecessary snake’s hands at nearly every turn. Bad, however, it is not. It’s simply too much, a symptom of a narrative experiment that kept blossoming outward without subjecting itself to any pruning. This is, after all, only the first act of this thing. To quote Regina Spektor, “You can write, but you can’t edit.”
Of course you could, in theory, skip past the story’s most enthusiastic digressions, like hammering the button that will bypass a video game cutscene. It’s a solution that makes me wonder why we should bother with an ongoing narrative at all — I want to learn about these characters and their world and whatever ails it, only without wasting quite so much of my time — but at least it lets us move on to what the adventure book gets right.
Namely, almost everything about preparing and uncovering its scenarios. Like everything else in Middara: Unintentional Malum: Act I, these are lavishly produced. The map tiles have a particular gloss to them that makes them pop on the table, treasures and triggers are clearly labeled, and the adventure book doles out both in dribs and drabs. This is mostly accomplished via a red plastic lens that shows you only the snippet you’ve unearthed. This is a pain to decipher in low light, but also so unnecessarily nifty that it fits right in with everything else crammed into this improbable box. Certain scenarios expand their boundaries mid-battle with the aid of yet another booklet, and important moments are lovingly illustrated, generally with underdressed characters who don’t seem to realize they’re scouring frozen caverns and insect-choked swamps. Check your common sense at the door; Middara has no need for it.
With the narrative in your rear-view and the map arrayed before you, the game finally releases you into its strongest and best-rounded pillar: character setup.
I’m going to spoil the final portion of this review by saying that combat itself isn’t much to write home about. Oh, there are decisions to make and abilities to deploy, and the whims of the dice provide all the thrills of a fickle deity bestowing its grace or scorn. But for the most part, Middara resembles a particular breed of action RPG, more about uncovering the best kit, tinkering with abilities, and ultimately striking a min-max Goldilocks Zone than the fights that follow. It’s about shaping these characters, despite their predestined natures in the text, into whatever form you please. After that, the battles are a matter of tossing your characters into a random number generator and witnessing how well their abilities and inventory pull them through.
For those who take joy in the act of preparing for a tough dungeon, this is paradise, easily consuming multiple hours if you’re thorough. Weapons provide different colors and quantities of dice, each shade deadlier than the last, and enough “tags” — special conditions — to fill four columns in the rulebook. There are weapons that pierce armor, weapons that provide finesse bonuses when paired properly with other equipment, weapons that counterattack and weapons that permit non-magical magic-alike bonus actions. And those are just the weapons. Between these and everything else, the cores and armor and relics and accessories and consumables like arrows or throwing knives or healing juice boxes, all spread across multiple rarities from mundane all the way up to powerful unique tools — well, there’s plenty to consider.
Your possible range of abilities is similarly legion. There are five disciplines, each with multiple levels packed with abilities, and for the most part there’s plenty to distinguish them. The modified attacks and mitigated damage of the Martial discipline function vastly differently from the summoning of Assemblage, and the same goes for the risks of Cruor, the sneaky tricks of Subterfuge, and the protection of Sanctus. And nicely, there’s a great deal of fluidity to how these abilities are assigned, letting you pick and choose from any discipline you want, provided you invest in previous levels to reach the cooler stuff.
This is very much the heart of Middara, as well as a diagnosis. It’s a treasure trove of stuff that’s often more fun to look at and arrange than it is to employ.
It’s almost a sin to arrive at this point in a critique of a dungeon crawling game without having talked much about the combat. That’s because it’s one of Middara’s shakier pillars, but also the culmination of the other two. After gnawing through the narrative and kitting out everyone’s inventory, the game has already been on the table for a while. More than once, I wish it had ended there.
For the most part, this is because Middara only rarely distinguishes itself from the cavalcade of dungeon crawlers that have already paraded past. Certainly there are so many items and skills, alongside so many enemies to bop them against, that the sheer volume nearly makes up for the combat’s lack of depth. By the time you’re a quarter-inch into the adventure book, each character will sport a dozen cards denoting abilities and modifiers and upgrades. Sometimes it’s easy to get lost beneath that bulk, to mistake the satisfaction for more than a bellyful of empty calories.
It works like this. Every encounter begins with a randomized initiative track of goodies and baddies. When a hero rolls around they spend stamina to move and/or attack and/or — well, those are the main things, plus the occasional stamina to empower an attack. When a monster’s turn rolls around, they follow a simple script that usually has them attack, make a ranged attack, or move into range for an attack. When they do something else, it’s quite the thrill. In all cases, you roll dice, with different strengths and conditions for different types of spells or attacks, check those against a target’s conviction and defense, and—
Here’s the thing: I’m getting a bit fuzzy in the head just writing about it. There are some truly interesting moments, like the risk of whiffing an empowered spell and therefore blasting yourself in the face, or certain abilities with weird outcomes, or bosses who require careful party rotation and metering of powers and resources. Those moments exist. But they’re exceptions, the things that happen when you’re not rolling dice back and forth while at loggerheads with some cave trash.
Much as with the adventure book, this isn’t necessarily bad. But after all that buildup, it’s somewhat disappointing. All these items, all these abilities, all these enemies, all this hubbub, and the result is heroes and monsters plinking at each other. Tried and true. Also tired.
Part of my problem might be attitude, since very few dungeon crawlers have excited me. It also might be timing. After all, Middara’s competition is no longer limited to a dozen variants of Descent, Warhammer Quest, and Wrath of Ashardalon. Its competition comes in the form of another overburdened box with phenomenal production values, one with heaps of ambition and a keen eye for charting its own course.
I’m speaking of course about Gloomhaven. It isn’t a fair comparison on a couple of levels.
The main issue is that Gloomhaven really isn’t a proper dungeon crawler. If anything it’s more forward-thinking, more innovative, less reliant on dice without sacrificing chance, less programmatic even as it imbues its enemies with careful programmed behavior. It hews closer to a puzzle, your hand of cards managed and parceled, your characters’ brief pauses as integral to the action as swinging a sword or casting a spell. To stack it up against anything old school is like a street race between a Mustang and a restored Model T. Same company, but not intended to be showcased in the same way.
At the same time, however, the genie is out of the bottle, and where Middara stumbles, Gloomhaven sprints. Its adventure book is less florid. Its character outfitting is far less involved, but also more streamlined and immediately impactful. Most importantly, it has a tremendous sense of variety, with a surprisingly diverse range of enemies, characters, and scenarios. When I play Gloomhaven, I can’t wait to see what happens next. In Middara, I know what next entails, regardless of the beauty of the map, the array of my team’s equipment, or the shoulder width of my opponents.
When you get right down to it, Middara: Unintentional Malum: Act I wears its allegiance on its sleeve. This is a trashy dungeon crawler with incredible production values, a sprawling adventure book, some excellent character customization, and overly familiar and repetitive combat. In some ways it feels like a passion project that missed its window to truly stand out, and instead of promising innovation it guarantees to bury you beneath a mountain of cards and words.
Like I said at the beginning, Middara is dungeon crawling pushed to the limits, both good and bad amplified to their furthest extremes. It earns its Unintentional Malum: Act I and then some.
A complimentary copy was provided.