Escape the Dark Castle sparks an odd kind of pleasure in me. I have no personal experiences of tabletop gaming in the 1970s and ‘80s, yet I find myself feeling nostalgic about that period of gaming all the same. It’s possibly a result of having grown up watching countless episodes of Knightmare, a television game show inspired by Dungeons & Dragons that ran from 1987 to 1998. Either way, there’s something about the concept of Escape the Dark Castle that I find compelling. It feels like something from another era, when the seeds of board games like HeroQuest and roleplaying games like Call of Cthulhu were just being planted.
It feels like something from another era, when the seeds of games like HeroQuest and Call of Cthulhu were just being planted.
Escape the Dark Sector - a sequel to Escape the Dark Castle, which was Kickstarted in 2017 - manages to retain this aura of antiquity, but gives the series some much-needed substance at the same time. There’s more meat on the board game bone with this entry, making for a much more satisfying experience.
As in Dark Castle, Dark Sector sees players attempting to find their way out of a terrible prison by turning over a series of chapter cards, making both decisions and dice rolls to progress to the next encounter between them and freedom.
The clearest change in Escape the Dark Sector is its setting. Featuring mangled cyborgs, oozing orifices and space mercenaries getting aggro in a bar, Dark Sector takes its cues from grimy science-fiction films from the late ‘70s and ‘80s - think Alien, The Thing and Videodrome. There’s nothing especially unique here; if you have any interest in sci-fi horror then you’ve probably seen it all before. But it doesn’t stop the illustration of a space prison guard dropping a cigarette from their gawping mouth feel any less charming in an old-school kind of way.
Dark Sector isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it captures the imagination in small ways that make it worth sharing with others.
Nothing in Dark Sector is going to make anyone feel any genuine terror - it’s more along the lines of an episode of Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids than anything else - but it is effective in creating an atmosphere and building a world. It helps that the artwork is better than the first game, with the lines looking cleaner but still maintaining that same retro style that made it so unique. It’s the little touches that help win players over, such as providing a free soundtrack for players to listen to on YouTube, designing character health tracks to look like a heart rate monitor and keeping the same character roles from the previous game, but putting ‘Lieutenant’ before their names. (Say hello to the likes of Lt. Cook and Lt. Tanner.) Dark Sector isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it captures the imagination in small ways that make it worth sharing with others.
Aside from the new setting, Dark Sector differs from its predecessor in how the game approaches combat. Skill checks are still much the same, with players needing to roll certain skills in order to pass through various challenges unscathed. But ranged combat presents a new and welcome addition to the series, enabling players to choose how to begin whatever violent encounters they might fall into. Ranged combat has players rolling ammo dice instead of their usual crew dice, with any hits resulting in increased or reduced damage depending on whether their enemy has any specific weaknesses. The options provided by ranged combat don’t just help make the combat encounters feel more varied - something that the original Dark Castle struggled with - they’re a prime example of how Dark Sector allows its players to have more agency.
The inclusion of ranged combat makes encounters with enemies feel much more engaging.
Saying that Dark Sector involves serious strategy would be an exaggeration. However, compared to Dark Castle, there is a definite increase in opportunities where the players’ input goes beyond random dice rolls. Whilst the first game had scattered moments of player choice - deciding whether to steal a steaming hot pie or deciding which players should attack during a round of combat - Dark Sector considerably ups the frequency and depth of these moments. There are still chapter cards that allow players to make narrative decisions that can lead to negative and positive consequences - more so than Dark Sector, with even greater outcomes. But the inclusion of ranged combat makes encounters with enemies feel much more engaging because the players have to discuss strategy beyond just who is going to rest and who is going to attack.
Speaking of resting and attacking, Dark Sector has made some big changes to these elements as well. Players can now choose to perform a flank attack once per chapter - of which there are usually thirteen in a single playthrough - that happens prior to the other players’ next turn and can deal additional damage if successfully pulled off. Furthermore, resting has been entirely removed, meaning that players cannot heal during combat unless they take a turn to use an item or the newly-introduced medical drone action.
The harder difficulty fits in better with the world of Dark Sector as being an incredibly mean and miserable place.
The removal of the rest action is both a blessing and a curse. Resting in Dark Castle presented players with an easily exploitable mechanic that caused harder combat encounters to drag on until players either won, or got so bored that they accepted defeat. Removing resting in favour of the medical drone - which can only be used once per chapter and heals a single health point - makes taking damage feel like a more significant threat and forces players to play more carefully and strategically. It also fits in better with the world of Dark Sector as being an incredibly mean and miserable place that gleefully revels in the player characters’ suffering.
On the other hand, having fewer options to heal makes it harder for players to reach the later parts of the game, and feeds into an overarching issue of Dark Sector being significantly more difficult than the first entry in the series.
In some ways, the increase in difficulty is a welcome addition. Dark Castle certainly wasn’t easy to beat, but after playing it enough times you could develop a technique that improved your chances of success. Despite having played Dark Sector more than half a dozen times now, I’m still yet to discover whether a similar technique exists for the game. However, out of all the times I have played it I’ve only won a single playthrough. Which is not great odds.
The game now features a system that separates the chapter cards into three distinct acts, which work together to tell an overarching narrative of the player characters escaping a space prison. This is a significant improvement on the scattered nature of the original game’s story, and helps players to enjoy a sense of progression as they complete each act.
Having players face off against harder foes and traps the closer they get to the final boss makes things feel much more climactic.
Other than furthering the story, the three-act structure organises the chapter cards in order of difficulty. The kind of encounters players will experience in an Act 3 chapter card compared to those found in Act 1 are significantly more brutal, and guarantee harsher punishments for failure. Having players face off against harder foes and traps the closer they get to the final boss makes things feel much more climactic, and is far better than the previous game’s habit of unceremoniously dumping its players into the last card. However, it also means that by the time players reach the final boss - an encounter that’s certainly no walk in the park - they’re likely to be on the verge of death with few resources remaining, making the final boss often feel like one last, seemingly impossible hurdle.
Despite the difficulty spike in Dark Sector, I never felt frustrated. Considering how much of the game is still dependent on dice rolls, even with the new additions such as ranged combat, it’s surprising that I didn’t get annoyed at the terrible things that happened to my character thanks to random chance. I have played and lost Dark Sector many times over the course of the last few weeks and still look back at the experience fondly.
I certainly have no plans to play it again for a good long while, as the game does get monotonous after multiple playthroughs in close succession. Replayability is not Dark Sector’s strong point. It’s a linear experience because it relies entirely on a limited amount of chapter cards that players will eventually get through. However, I don’t think the game is supposed to be played several times over in a short period - even if the reviewing process required I approach it this way. It’s a game that you open whenever you fancy something spooky, silly and novel.
Even though it makes many improvements on its predecessor, Dark Sector is not a revolutionary board game. Nevertheless, the game doesn’t feel like it’s aspiring to present any new ideas. Rather, it’s attempting to revive some older ones in a more accessible way. Escape the Dark Sector encourages its players to have fun in the same way that an old ghost train at a theme park might: strap yourself in, let the track take you where it wants and don’t look too closely at the cut-out characters.