The world of pop culture is a huge place, which means it is entirely possible for a piece of popular fiction to go unheard of for huge swatches of its potential audience. Le donjon de Naheulbeuk is emblematic of this: a long-running French internet audio series, at least 15 years in the making, has been turned into comics and novels, but never translated into English. It is a parody of tabletop RPG settings and Tolkein-esque fantasy, skewering them on their own cliches and poking ribald fun at the artifice of its amalgamated setting.
Its obscurity presents a problem in that it may have been striking and novel back in the day to new readers, but it’s played out and trite now. There have been plenty of Fantasy parodies, from Terry Pratchett’s exemplary Discworld series, to the popular webcomic Order of the Stick, which have far more traction with an English speaking audience. All of this is to say that The Dungeon of Naheulheuk: Amulet of Chaos feels extremely tired and overwrought to someone that is experiencing its world for the first time, after having consumed a decent amount of fantasy and fantasy lampooning.
The comedy writing is incredibly on the nose, and leans heavily on the vulgar and bawdy elements of fantasy: the dwarf is an angry Scottish drunkard, and the elf is a shrill busty bimbo – it’s nothing groundbreaking, and it’s frequently irritating. This is exacerbated by the fact that your party of adventurers – between 6 or 7 depending on choices you’ve made – all want to stick their oar in for every conversation, drowning snappier dialogue and a handful of good jokes into a scattershot approach with little quality control.
Artistically though, the game is a treat, leaning hard on its fantasy tropes and giving everything from malevolent wizards, toque wearing rats, and Conan-aping Barbarians a stylised, cartoonish design which looks wonderful. The graphics are a real labour of love with the many-layered dungeon being a wonderful place to explore as your party gambols around in wonderfully animated fashion.
Crafted with similar amounts of care are the flavour text for all the items and skill descriptions. The world of Fangh has clearly been translated into the game with an eye for detail that might have been better served on the dialogue or combat, but tolerance for stereotypes and cliches is going to be the determining factor as to whether that element of the game sings or screeches.
On the mechanical side, Amulet of Chaos also demands a lot of tolerance. Battles are turn-based affairs that feel similar to recent XCOM titles in that characters have two action points per turn, and can only attack once. Unlike XCOM, the percentages to hit are far more punishing, and the ability for enemies to dodge or parry your attacks is not baked into the percentage presented to you by the UI when going to attack. The result of this system means you’re going to be missing a lot of 100% attacks because enemies have 5% chance to dodge them, and that’s before the game begins to ladle Critical Misses – chances to catastrophically fail any action including buffs that have no traditional miss chance – on top of the regular miss chances.
Your other left
It’s a frustrating jumble of negatives to fight through, especially when combat is otherwise fairly enjoyable. Characters have skill trees that allow them to build in a mix of ways to focus on specific battle roles, allowing you to set up interesting party setups. Teaming up to bully enemies is encouraged as adjacent team members gain bonuses to hit, and skills that allow you to push your enemies around can trigger attacks of opportunity from your allies. When things go well, it makes you feel like a tactical genius as you knock enemies around, shove them over, and set them on fire (when the game doesn’t hide status immunities from you).
Sadly, when it goes bad, it goes really bad. The aforementioned “true chance” rolls are punitive which can make combat feel unfair, with successive misses making you feel helpless as you are overwhelmed by numerous foes. Whilst the systems encourage you to group up to mitigate low hit chances; most combat scenarios see you fighting enemies with strong AoE attacks. Don’t like Critical Fails? Please enjoy this fight full of enemies that can drop an AoE attack on your party which increases the chances of you hitting a Critical Miss, and has a chance to knock over anyone it hits, making them skip a turn.
Battles swing between satisfying tactical puzzles and maddening battles of attrition with random chance as your main opponent. The AI has a tendency to gang up on your damaged and weaker party members, which just piles more bad feel into the combat. There is a system in places that rewards you with the ability to increase precision, teleport a party member, or give someone an extra turn, based on a resource you generate every time something goes wrong. Ultimately, this does little to diminish the negative feeling that pervades the combat, especially as extra precision or another chance to hit is just as susceptible to the chance of a Critical Fail, or for the enemy to dodge or parry the second action.
Altogether, this makes Dungeons of Naheulbeuk a real mixed bag. Its slick and well-observed aesthetic is undercut by rote humour and tired cliche, and its combat has great potential smothered by layers of random chance and obfuscation, with the great swell of combatants meaning that you can sit helplessly as a cavalcade of attacks all target and take down a character before you have a chance to act. There’s definitely something here to enjoy if you’re a diehard tactics fan with a keen eye for optimum strategy and luck mitigation, but it feels like a lot of effort for little reward.
As one final caveat, the copy that I played appeared to be riddled with bugs and implementation errors, including one game-breaking bug which prevented me from at first clearing sidequests, and finally finishing the main quest by making an area of the game inaccessible. There’s a chance that the extra level I may have missed by being unable to access the end of two sidequests may have given me the edge in some of the difficulty spikes, but they wouldn’t have prevented the many times the game hung during combat forcing a hard restart.
[Reviewed on PC]