MetaArcade’s Tunnels & Trolls Adventures is the first title a platform that, once the Adventure Creation component is released some time in the future, will allow users to, in the words of the company itself, “create and publish their own RPG adventures – with no technical experience required – for free.” And while it’s true that there are plenty of other platforms these days that can make similar claims, what MetaArcade actually seems to offer, if Tunnels & Trolls is any indication, is the ability to easily create digital gamebooks like those in the Fighting Fantasy series, complete with 3d dice rolls. What may make it a bit more interesting than other popular interactive fiction engines is that it allows for the creation of characters outside of specific adventures.
MetaArcade’s Tunnels & Trolls
These characters have persistent inventories and levels that follow them from adventure to adventure. Did you find a magic sword in the last adventure? Carry it to the new adventure you just purchased and stick it in the minotaur that wants to maul you on the first page. Did you gain a level? Bump up your dexterity and luck, and give leaping that canyon you kept dying in two adventures ago another shot. With potentially thousands of users creating adventures if this thing catches on, the possibilities are interesting, but only if the adventures themselves are fun to play. Are they? Well, yes… with some caveats.
The presentation will be pretty familiar if you’ve played pretty much any virtual gamebook. Every page presents you with an image on the left and descriptive text on the right. Below the text, you’re show choices that move the story forward and along the bottom bar, you’ll see some basic character information like name, race, level, stats, money, and experience. Tapping the bottom panel will bring up a more detailed character sheet from which you can do things like manage your inventory and equipment, assign level-up points, and check how much experience (called AP, or Adventure Points here) you need to advance to the next level.
If a choice you select causes you to encounter a challenge that requires a skill check, you’ll roll two dice in an attempt to overcome it. You’ll be given a total you have beat and the current value of the stat you’re checking against is applied before the roll. If, for instance, you’re trying to pass a strength check of 20 and you have a strength of 12, you’ll need to beat an 8 to pass. The math here is done for you, so you’re shown the actual number you have to beat as well as the original value of the challenge. Roll doubles and you’ll get a second roll that you can add to the first, so even with a strength of 3 (the lowest value that can be assigned to any stat) there’s a remote chance you’ll pass the check. Races other than humans start with bonuses to certain stats and humans, while lacking bonuses, get a single re-roll on all failures. Things like buffs and debuffs can temporarily affect stats (if nothing within an adventure ends these effects, they end when the adventure concludes), but leveling up lets you increase your stats permanently.
I never played the original pen and paper Tunnels & Trolls books that the included adventures are based on (not counting the tutorial, there are five at launch, one of which is free). I know them by reputation, though, and if the included free adventure, Naked Doom, is any indication, that reputation is well deserved. In a word: Brutal. I’ll refrain from commenting on specific events beyond the very start of the quest so as not to spoil anything, but to give you an idea of what you’re up against, you’ll begin the first adventure running naked from archers firing poisoned arrows at you. You must make multiple difficult rolls, based on multiple stats, to escape alive, and even if you manage to come out of it, you’re harshly punished for any successes that weren’t successful enough. In short, you can quite easily die in the first room, before the adventure has really started. Even if you don’t, it’s extremely difficult not to come out of it wounded, poisoned, and near death, and it doesn’t get easier from there.
All of this is great if you’re a fan of classic gamebooks. The old-school feel is alive and well here, and the inclusion of the original Tunnels & Trolls art, not to mention the 3d dice tumbling across the screen when you roll, only add to it. The flip side of the retro nostalgia vibe, though, is that it can sometimes cause the game to feel old school in bad ways as much as in good ones. It’s extremely common, for instance, to die – sometimes repeatedly, to the same challenge – not because you made a bad decision, but simply because of dumb luck or because a stat isn’t yet high enough.
You can be working your way through an adventure, nailing some rolls and barely scraping by on others, when you run into a challenge that lays you flat with almost no chance of success because it relies on a stat you haven’t built up yet, forcing you to start the adventure over. If the text gave hints that you might be about to come up against a challenge you aren’t suited for so that you could find a way around it, that might be okay, but that often isn’t the case. It was extremely common to simply be faced with a choice of door A, B, or C, with no clues or insight as to what lay behind them and get squashed because I guessed wrong. This killed the feeling of challenge and suspense because even when I won, I knew it was by blind luck and nothing more, so there was no sense of accomplishment. The occasional death to dumb luck can be fun but in Tunnels & Trolls, it often happens every other page. Playing can sometimes feel like stumbling blind through an unfamiliar room.
This is, of course, assuming you start with the free adventure. What they don’t tell you is that a couple of the paid adventures are shorter, somewhat easier affairs that can provide you with some basic equipment and a few levels. Without those, you’ll be playing Naked Doom as naked as the titles implies.
As far as monetization goes, there are two ways of gaining access to an adventure. You can purchase it with gems (which are bought with real money), in which case you’re allowed to play through it as many times as you like, or you can use a heart, which will let you play until you either finish the adventure, fail it, or give up, at which time you can use another heart to try again if you have it. Hearts can be bought with real money as well, but you also have the option of watching ads to get more. A 99 cent purchase will get you ten gems, which is enough for one of the small starter adventures.
Five bucks will get you enough for three of the four purchasable ones, and if you’re really feeling this thing, ten bucks will bag you every paid adventure with a healthy amount of gems to spare for future purchases. Since it’s so easy to die, gems are probably the better value, especially if you want to re-play adventures to level up and find additional loot and endings. The best way to use hearts seems to be as a sort of ‘try before you buy’ token, to see if you like the tone of an adventure before committing gems. While this is hinted at in the tutorial, though, it isn’t really spelled out, and I can imagine an uninformed buyer being a bit miffed at their free plays in a free app being so quickly depleted before they’re forced to start watching commercials.
All in all, while I don’t believe it measures up to the best digital gamebooks out there in terms of length, mechanics, writing, and overall subtle finesse (hell, there are some AAA RPG’s that I feel don’t measure up to Steve Jackson’s amazing Sorcery! series), Tunnels & Trolls is a good showcase for what may be an interesting platform for easily creating professional quality game books in the near future. As a game unto itself, it’s an entertaining, if brutally difficult and rather short, collection of classic single player RPG adventures. And hey, if MetaArcade releases more of them while I’m waiting on the Adventure Creator, I’ll have some gold in my pocket and that sweet greatsword I stole from the tavern to help me out.
Tunnels & Trolls Review Score: 7/10
- Classic gamebook feel with original Tunnels & Trolls art
- Short, entertaining adventures with multiple endings
- Music, sound effects, and 3D dice all add flair
- Sometimes a little too luck-based
- Extremely frequent deaths can be irritating
- Feeling the need to “grind” is incongruent