I thought I understood pain. As a former attendee of the high school educational regimen, an attendee who was not terribly liked nor disliked, I thought I understood apathy. Demoralization. These feelings are mere constructs when laid bare against the foundation of Brimstone, they facsimiles of an emotion which is only a shadow-sliver of its true strength. As a frequenter of the streets of Arkham, I have become hardened against the potential dark waiting with its maw and its suckers and its gaping hate, and in those things I find no fear. Only resolve. But in Brimstone, in the mines outside the dust of an old west town where inspired abominations pull at the fabric of our world, my will was tested. It was broken. There is no love for my avatar now. No bond forged by tribulation. Having suffered defeat upon defeat in the face of these eldritch terrors, I dash my pawn willingly against the beach of that sharp shore, thinking not of their sacrifice, but of my lust for revenge.
My brother and I have approached the first scenario in the game – the basic, introductory scenario, I might stress – a total of eight times, and in those eight attempts, we have come close to victory twice. Those two, that bleak twenty-five percent, is close only in the way a tornado missing your home before changing its trajectory is close, a brief moment of hope before realization settles, and the inevitable quiet follows. We would reach our objective ahead of the curve: in good health, sound mind, and with our “continue” (a Revive token) still in hand. Things were up. Then the card draw, the Fate-capital-eff of our heroes decided by what it read, what monsters we would face, and the overwhelming crush chasing after.
There were times we made it only one tile into the mine, a series of terrible rolls drawing Darkness cards which unleashed poisonous gas through those narrow shafts, the putrid air sickening us so deeply we collapsed, quite literally per the flavor-text’s painting, in pools of our own vomit. There were times we were outnumbered, and in a fit of strategic brilliance I’d lit my stick of dynamite and sent it howling into those devil hoards only to overshoot my mark, that stick taking one unlucky bounce, a second unlucky bounce, a final unlucky bounce before detonating at the feet of my partner, around a corner, turning his fine black suit into red mist.
I respect a certain amount of luck in my games. I even respect a certain amount of luck in my life. A small part of me understands my making it safe to work is a roll of infinite cosmic die, my car a working heap of human-constructed parts surrounded by hundreds of other heaps of human-constructed parts all traveling at an incredible pace, all driven by people with more vying for their attention than the person racing next to them. In my own life, however, I have some semblance of control. That control may be mythical, the idea of balance where none exists, but an idea is still a powerful thing, and in that idea, I feel control. It is one thing to roll the dice and witness the result. It is another thing entirely to believe you chose the result. This concept is the root of my love and my hate of Brimstone. This, like so many of Flying Frog’s other games, are wholly dependent on a six-sided cube. Eight-sided if you’re playing the Marshal, a cube which statistically lands on the number two far more than odds or science or whatever dictates this sort of thing professes it should. All the planning in the world will only carry you so far. My choosing door A over B for a strategic purpose matters little when Hell comes shooting from it, a Hell spawned by the roll of a seven and not a six, or a poorly timed series of doubles, and my actual decision held no weight in the outcome. Things like that make me want to crawl into an Elder God’s belly and be devoured for millenia. This is a game of random outcomes, and there’s very little planning you can do which will affect your Fate. Chances are you were dead before you set foot in the mine, you just didn’t know it yet.
Here’s the good news: it’s fun. A lot of fun. For all the hours spent exploring and dying and repeating, I don’t see any of them as wasted. There’s something wonderful about playing a Saloon Girl (yes, a Saloon girl) with a hidden pistol who lays waste to a creature with tentacles for a mouth. There’s even something wonderful about a stick of dynamite with a vendetta against my family. Or a portal ripping open to unleash sadness into an otherwise innocuous room of bones. Moan though I may about performance issues, I understand nothing here wishes my success, and the mountain and the climb to save the world is great. This is a stacked deck. A number of stacked decks, come to think, the Darkness cards, Growing Dread cards, Encounter cards, Threat cards, even Scavenge cards all sorted and randomly filed to shut your excitement down the moment you start shaking those dice. What could make for a miserable experience is mitigated by the enjoyment when something goes right, the ability to string this curiosity of a story together and finding laughter in its retelling, and the presentation. I like the miniatures. Yes, I wish I didn’t have to assemble them myself because I’m terrible at it, but whatever. Having finished with the setup, I’m incredibly happy. The components are typical Flying Frog and very well done. The setting is outstanding. Like I mentioned in a previous post: western meets Lovecraft equals yes. My only legitimate complaint as far as game design goes is also something of traditional Flying Frog stock. A lot of care has gone to make you feel as though you’re in a roleplaying game. Between the personal items your character begins with to help flesh out your history, and the ability to go to town between missions and further these adventures as you travel, you’re meant to become attached to your person. Again: any love I once held is gone and they are now merely vessels for my hate, but the intent is there. Trouble is, all the other stats your character comes loaded with – Agility, Cunning, Spirit, so on – are there only for use when an encounter occurs. Rather than use my Agility to nimbly thread the grip of a Strangler in an effort to buy myself distance and set-up a kill shot, that Agility goes unused unless I’m told to make a skill check due to some environmental hazard. Like I said, this is something all FF games do for the most, and I’m not surprised nor really put-out by it, but with such a heavy focus on the craftsmanship of self alongside all these other stats, it’s tough not to be a little disappointed said skills are a rarely used trigger rather than a choice in the Player’s arsenal.
There are two base sets: City of the Ancients, and Swamps of Death, both of which are independent experiences with the ability to mix/match should the fancy strike you. I have the former. I think Swamps comes with some lady who shapeshifts into a bear which I’m a little disappointed about, but Saloon Girl > Bear-Lady. My copy was about $90. Worth it? Totally, if you can handle the sheer size of garbage you’ll need to dodge in a string of lucky rolls. I don’t mean to sound as though there are no decisions you make which will change the outcome, there are, though these are very few and very far in comparison to some well-placed prayers. I get my pure strategy fixes elsewhere, and while I’d be happier if the needle was tilted ever-so-slightly further in that direction here, I’m mostly involved to posse it up against the coming dark. And that’s exactly what I get.
If I ever manage to make it through the ten missions included, I would absolutely get any and all expansions for this thing. Even if not, I like the game enough to just put them on my shelf and stare at the potential dangers inside.