Alone in the Dark Sector
The door swings open to reveal a board game critic. Slovenly, pretentious, angry at the world for none of the right reasons. He turns his wild eyes on you. “Hey. Wanna hear my theory about how the important but muted role of Catan’s robber pawn represents the erasure of Narragansett Algonquins from New Englander awareness after King Philip’s War?”
You must choose one option…
Agree: You acquiesce and sit across from the critic. Roll seven Vigor in three attempts to stay awake or lose 2HP.
Evade: Ask if the critic has heard of Monopoly. Begin Close Combat…
Then turn the next chapter card to read on.
It’s hard to fault Escape the Dark Sector for doing exactly what it sets out to do. Role-playing rogue-stuff in forty-ish minutes. Grungy monochrome artwork. Lots of dice. Punitive failures strung together like rotten pearls on a wire. Soloable. Or social. Either way. Escape the Dark Sector doesn’t care. It doesn’t care about a lot of things.
It does, however, care about dice. Which is a good thing, considering how often you’ll roll to see how something shook out. Combat is common. Skill checks, more so. Not that every chapter card requires a roll. Some ask you to choose between a roll or discarding an item, or between rolling and taking damage. Depending on your outlook on life, those might be the same thing as forcing the dice into your palm at gunpoint. In one instance, we approached a foe from behind. We had the option of tiptoeing away to the next chapter card rather than engaging in a fight. Tantalized by the promise of loot, one of my friends insisted we take her down. Unsurprisingly, we were soon beaten senseless. “How could I have known an engineer would be so tough?” my friend protested once the dust had settled and the hit points losses were tallied. We stared at him. Everyone had known it. Because everything in Escape the Dark Sector is dangerous, vicious, liable to leave you more ragged than before.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Escape the Dark Sector is a sequel to Escape the Dark Castle, a game I didn’t play, although a glance through that game’s rulebook reveals Sector as the better rounded of the two. Here you’ve been abducted to a rustbucket of a space station, the kind with gladiator pits and alien incursions and a hundred rolling firefights at any given time. Also “pleasure pits,” two words that don’t belong within kicking distance of each other let alone adjacency. Fortunately, your crew isn’t quite the easy prey your captors assumed. Thanks to implants rather subtly rammed into your foreheads, you’re empowered with rerolls and other dice-based benefits. When the power shorts out in the detention block, there’s nothing stopping you from fighting into the control room and arming yourselves.
Now you’re in command of your own destiny.
What follows is an escape through a thickly applied paste of charcoal tar. You’ll fight guards, sure, but also aliens and gangbangers and a guy named a “stim-freak” who I swear I’ve encountered every single time I’ve played. You’ll pass through traps, security grids, and scramble down massive ventilation shafts. Repeats happen between plays but not very often, and repeats in sequence almost never, thanks to the way the game pushes you through its chapters. The gist is that you’ll always face a few chapters in the detention block, then a few in the next zone, and so forth until you either roll over the final boss or he rolls over you, at which point it’s game over for better or for worse. To the credit of its art design, one encounter leads fluidly into the next even though smuggler bars operate directly next door to alien leeches sucking the energy from the bulkhead. To the credit of its writing, it’s sparse enough that it never grows tiresome. And lest you think I’m damning it with faint praise, more board games could afford to skimp on the exposition.
Bad news first: Escape from Dark Sector is frustratingly linear. Each chapter card is its own island, and you progress from one to the next without deviation until you win or die. Plenty of chapters afford choices, but such decisions often ring false, usually an option between rolling for one skill or another.
In their better moments, these decisions offer trade-offs between one sacrifice and another. Such moments are suitable, given the game’s meat grinder approach to character progression. Character degeneration, really, since your pool of hit points is in steady decline from the outset, even as your equipment improves. Runs filled with such compromises are interesting, forcing players to pick between an array of nasty outcomes: damage, lost equipment, even avoidance of conflict altogether when a fight would result in much-needed item cards. These are the game’s best moments. It’s when the weaker cards appear in sequence that the facade cracks, evoking less the sense of creeping through a sprawling accretion of space junk and more that you’re braving the unbranching corridor of a haunted house.
And then there’s the dice-chucking. It’s good. Great, even.
Not all the time, mind you. Skill checks are skill checks, the one inclusion Escape the Dark Sector seems to have acquiesced to rather than remaking in its own image. The best thing anyone can say for them is that they’re over quickly, like a shot in the arm.
Combat is more innovative. For one thing, it’s split into two separate systems layered over the top of each other. Ranged combat comes first if it happens at all, and is usually brisk and brutal. Each player rolls whatever ammunition dice they’re expending, plus another roll for the enemy’s incoming fire. This does a surprisingly good job of evoking a two-way blister of projectiles and energy bolts, while also allowing the occasional tactical breadth for a flanking maneuver. Then there’s melee combat, more measured and precise, usually spanning two or more rounds. Both share the same goal of whittling away the enemy’s pool of dice, while featuring their own options and mitigations. Ranged hits, for example, can peel away any enemy die you want. Close combat goes the other way, using your character’s personal die to hopefully match your foe’s remaining hit points, but letting players switch off for a breather or swarm your target all at once.
Escape the Dark Sector is one heck of a ride: engaging, even exciting, but still very much a ride. Summed up, it compresses the best and worst of lesser adventure games into a bite-sized block of minutes, which in its own way shaves off the genre’s excesses. Exciting and punchy combat, done in a way that’s worthy of emulation. Corridor-scooting, but concluded rapidly and thankfully absent of range calculations or line-of-sight. Skill checks, but at least you know there won’t be too many of the things. If I’m lukewarm on the result, that’s a result of the genre it’s compacting more than through any fault of the game itself. Not to worry. It’s short enough that even those of us who don’t love it won’t be doing much bellyaching.