Before I begin I was sent a prototype copy of the game, and will receive a copy of the game should it fund. This is not a paid preview. If you would like to check out a how to play video or video of this preview you can check those out below, and you can pledge for your own copy here.
Origins 2019. This was the first large game convention I ever attended, and the first I received a press pass for…which was the coolest thing ever. One of the perks was I was allowed into the exhibitor hall an hour early and got to roam about and hit people up for interviews. Admittedly I had a couple targets, and I was feeling really good about myself that I landed them. I had about 20 minutes left over and a booth caught my eye. It was stunning. Then I looked at the table, and I casually asked what it was all about. When they finished explaining I sheepishly asked if they minded saying all of it again, like I had never asked them before while I recorded it.
This was my first introduction to Dawnshade. I also impulsively asked if I could do a preview when the time came, and they clearly did not know any better and said yes! So here we are, pushing a year later I have gotten the prototype and gotten to play it. So does it live up to my hopes and dreams? We shall see!
Dawnshade takes it inspiration from the JRPG video game genre, and builds a unique world with a massive amount of story. Now if I attempted to fully explain how the game works in detail we would be here all day, but I am working on a how to play series of videos for them so you will be able to see the details there when it is posted. The game has several different…modes, for want of a better word that you play through. Part of the game you are exploring the world map, as you wander about on your quest. Other times you encounter a battle on the main map and you zoom in to fight, and yet other times you find yourself doing a variety of mini game dexterity challenges.
The game plays it over 3 (or 6 for the long version) chapters. Each chapter you create a different deck of quest tiles, which will slowly get added to the map as you explore. These tiles might be an outpost of some kind where you can train or shop or gamble or fight with robots or turn money into raw magic or who knows what else, it might be a relatively empty zone that you travel through, it might be a battle, or it might be temple where the Watchers (gods) can let you know just how happy or, usually in my case, unhappy they are, or perhaps it is a special story event which will take you to the story log book where you have to make decisions, and those decisions turn into their own little mini game as well, and will directly effect the coming battles.
Battles themselves play out in a way very similar to JRPG video game. Your party lines up, and the enemies are lined up and there is no kind of tactical combat, no matter where you character is on the battle mat you can hit any of the foes. Each combat is strictly limited to 5 rounds, and if one side has not wiped the other out, then you see who is “stronger” based on health left. So you can win or lose without a total defeat for one side or the other.
In addition to a strict limit to the number of rounds there is a strict limit to how many characters will activate each round. However many members of the Kinship there are, that is how many initiative chips will be drawn at the beginning of each round. This means that in any given round only the heroes will be attacking or only the enemies.
Combat itself is done via dice. Each round you will create a dice pool from your available attack, defense, and vaki dice (more on these in a moment). When you roll the dice you might gain shields to protect yourself, deal damage, or start to charge up your special abilities with vaki.
As you roll your vaki dice you will be gaining vaki, which is in itself a mini game. You see you earn level one vaki, like mountain or sun, which you can combine to create fire. Then when you have built a pool of vaki that matches your ability you will be able to roll the special ability die associated with that combination of vaki.
Now, I just spend quite a bit of time on combat, but really that is only a small portion of the game. For far more of the game you will be participating in various mini games which will see you flipping chips off a large stack of other chips trying to land on other chips, you will be flicking chips across the battle map, or trying to roll the chips through other stacks of chips, or spinning chips, or rolling dice onto the battle mat attempting to get the dice to both roll hits and stop in specific spots on the map, or flipping your character chips like coins onto the map to claim loot.
You see in each stack of tiles, only two of the tiles will result in the battle, while all of the rest will result in story, character upgrades, or one of htese various mini games.
So what do I think?
The artwork, and the components are second only to Chip Theory Games, and of course, this is only a demo that I have experience with. The game looks great, it feels great, it is all around stunning. I also am very impressed with the way the tiles lead into various story events, and I love that each story even has multiple branches.
I also have really been enjoying the combat, there is something particularly satisfying about building your dice pool, and trying to “game” the system, when you never know who is going to actually get to attack in any given round. Do you want to spend your precious resources that let you redraw initiative now or hold on to it until you are in real danger? Do you want to stock up on defense dice in the hopes you get a reformation for the rest of the stack?
Finally, I love that this game is just chocked full of mini games. In many ways it feels like one of those bizarre anime episodes where instead of saving the world, the heroes decide to go get burritos, and stop off at the DMV. For example in one of my games the story event had one of our heroes asking an NPC for an item. They said sure, if you can beat me in this mini game. Part of me was thinking “Come on man! Just give me the thing so I can save the world!”, while the other half of me was secretly delighted because now I got to make a tower of chips and flip them all over the place.
The initiative system, I think will be the most “controversial” part of the game. It can happen that you or the enemies do not activate for an entire battle. Is it likely? No, but it can happen. In fact I actually defeated the final boss the other night, because I happen to get three rounds in a row where only my heroes activated. Dawnshade is filled with randomness, it is structured, but you really never have any clue what is going to come next, or how it will play out.
In the same vein there are a metric crap-ton of dexterity mini games. If you like dexterity games, then let me introduce you to your new best friend Dawnshade, if those are not your jam, then maybe it is not for you. Along with that is a reminder that there is not a ton of combat in the game, in a standard “trilogy” you will have 6 battles, that is it, and they will each only be 5 rounds long at the most.
This game has so much story…but is it enough? Yes the game comes with a two inch thick log book of events and battles, but there are only 20 events, and you go through 6 in a standard game, twelve in a long game. Yes, each event has 2-3 branching choices, but I do wonder if the game does not need more. Note: that I only had a demo version of the game, so it is definitely possible that there will be more.
Bringing it all together
Dawnshade is an wackily shaped box filled with barely contained chaos. When you open that lid you are smashed with color, and story, and mini games, and dice, and gorgeous art, and what can feel like a million things happening at once. Dawnshade just gets everywhere, and on everything, I will be shaking it out of my shoes for the next week. And, it is delightful it plays differently than anything I have played before. If you are not interested in dexterity mini games, then this might not be your jam, and while there is a lot of story in the box, I think there is room for more events. Combat is a delight, but has an extremely random method of choosing who acts each round, and you might go an entire round of combat without getting to fight at all, then again so might the enemy, there is mitigation, and that is rare, but possible. The game is fun at one, but will shine with more players at the table.
So…we are trying to fulfill a prophesy and save the world…we should get moving right?
* Awesome art and components
* Engaging story that drags you on
* Has a cool choose your own adventure feel, that might need more adventures to choose from down the line
* Lots of randomness to the game
* This is not a combat focused game, you will spend more time on dexterity mini games than straight up combat
* Really seems like it has captured the JRPG vibe, and I want to play more.