This review features minor spoilers for Legacy of Dragonholt.
In Legacy of Dragonholt, 1-6 players take on various fantasy roles in a game that mixes the mechanics of a D&D-esque RPG with choose-your-own-adventure books. Together, your characters will use their various skills to meet the inhabitants, embark on quests and uncover a nefarious plot.
A child is in danger. After a long chase through the woods, we’re at the top of a tower, warding off a small army of bandits. Our backs are against the wall. What do the magic-wielding Elf Darthoridan Theyoras and Kiira the battle-scarred Catfolk brawler do? An arrow flies towards the boy. Kiira strikes out a paw, and plucks the missile from the air, in epic, cinematic slo-mo. She launches it back at her foe, piercing her target through the chest.
You may play Legacy of Dragonholt and never come across this situation. Truth be told, I can’t tell you what might be in store if you play this game. What I can tell though, is that the journey will be something special indeed.
First though, you may need to consider if this game is for you. Legacy of Dragonholt sits in a sort of halfway house. Based in the popular Runebound RPG universe, it has all the trappings of a dice-rolling, role-playing fantasy adventure. However, this is a delicately balanced serving that certainly looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but is definitely more of a gateway duck for those who may be intimidated by skill checks and armour classes.
How does Legacy of Dragonholt straddle the line, then, between high fantasy and heavy mechanics? Fortunately, it puts all its energy into making the latter easier and quicker, without hurting the former. This means the thematic elements found in Dragonholt are everything you would hope for from an RPG, and the game expertly handles the GM role through its paragraph-based system. Talk to a non-player character and get a small quest? Check a box. The next time you visit them, they’ll ask you for an update. Drop off a magical rune at the local smithy? Come back the next day, they’ll have made a powerful weapon out of it. Go to the pub and you’ll find an old chap, telling the same old stories again and again of days gone by. Head down the road and you might find yourself between two people arguing if gnomes are real (and you might be able to join in the debate if you’re a gnome yourself). The world feels alive, lived-in, and each location and encounters drips with the sort of magical energy you would hope for from any RPG.
What of the dice-rolling, stat-heavy character aspects, then, that dominate other well-regarded fantasy games? Here, you’re creating your character with more respect for their story, their background, their personal virtues and vices. From the outset, you’re set up to become attached to who this character really is, and you’re encouraged to develop a personal philosophy for your creation, based on their experiences you’ve described. You’re also asked to select a list of skills, such as ‘agility’, ‘strength’, ‘performance’, ‘empathy’, ‘alchemy’ – the list is long (over twenty), and you can create some interesting combinations.
Skill tests in the game simply name-check skill keywords (and on some occasion, certain items which you can pick up across the course of an adventure). A trio of goblins heading your way in a cave? The game may ask if you have stealth. If you do, you flick to a paragraph that sees you jump into the shadows, ready to attack. If you don’t have stealth, then lets hope you’re good at brawling because chances are you’ll be attacking them head-on. A wild dragon keeping you busy? The game may ask if you know the ways of runic magic – which will help you unleash powerful bursts of energy – or archery, so you can wound it from afar.
Skills don’t level up – you either have them or you don’t – and as you progress, you’ll get to add new skills to your repertoire. You also don’t ‘die’ when you lose all your health (that would be far too grisly) – you just disable a skill, often meaning you are without it for the rest of the specific quest or day you are undertaking. It means you are always progressing forward – sure, you may have a few missteps and lose an encounter here or there – but even then, you know full well that those moments are making your adventure unique to you and your group.
Branching narrative games are a bit of a bugbear for me – it’s why I haven’t yet been persuaded to try any Telltale video games – as they feel a little too ‘on the rails’ for my liking. Yet Legacy of Dragonholt is like going for years without trying risotto because you find it too plain, then having a 5 star chef cook it for you. It’s expertly crafted, beautifully designed, an engaging narrative sewn onto an almost invisible system. Visiting the locations in the town – which change with each passing day – is a real treat, as is getting to know the locals. In addition to the main Dragonholt Village quest book (which is a hefty tome), there are several extra quests of 1-2 hours each, proper thrillers that will really put your characters to the test. And all of it hooks together seamlessly – cross off a story point when you’re exploring a crypt outside of town, and someone may reference it later when you’re checking out what the library has to offer.
If you’re after meaty combat, complex character creation and freedom to do whatever you want, then Legacy of Dragonholt is not going to be for you. But if you want to share in a magical story with your partner, that you can play (like we did) in the last hour of the day, when you can just slip into a game as easy and welcoming as this, where you don’t need to keep track of numerous stats and statuses, you’d be hard pushed to find a better experience. Legacy of Dragonholt may bridge the gap between D&D-like crowds and the mainstream like nothing before (at least, not since the US sitcom ‘Community’ made its sublime efforts). It’s a brilliant journey to undertake together, and while it may not warrant all too many repeat playthroughs, I’m more than hoping there’ll be a sequel.