Review: The Astonishing Game08 Feb 2017 1
Review: The Astonishing Game
Released 02 Feb 2017
Back in high school I was into the progressive-metal band Dream Theater (yes, I'm old). I really liked "Images and Words" and mostly liked "Awake" and even went to one of their concerts. I lost interest in the band due to evolving musical tastes and the general fickleness of youth. I have been aware, though somewhat vaguely, that Dream Theater continues to make music, kicking out an album every couple of years.
Their latest effort released in 2016 is "The Astonishing." It's a monster of an album (or whatever you kids call them these days) at thirty-four tracks long and clocks in at a…well, an astonishing two hours and ten minutes in length. That's longer than the world's best marathon times by a good couple of tracks!
I know what you're thinking. Why am I talking about Dream Theater here on Pocket Tactics. An excellent question. The answer is that "The Astonishing" is a concept album that has been converted into a video game by Turbo Type Games. You may remember Turbo Type as the makers of Warhammer: Arcane Magic and UHR: Warlords. They also have a weird intro to their website that's maybe worth checking out…once. The Astonishing Game is a digital board game based on the story presented in Dream Theater's album.
The Astonishing Game is set in a world where the Great Northern Empire of the Americas, shortened to GNEA for your convenience, rules the land. The rich have gotten richer and the poor, well yes, poorer. The gap between the haves and have nots is huge and amid extreme oppression investment in the arts has been all but abandoned. The resistance, because naturally there is a resistance in such a hellish system of government, is the Ravenskill Rebel Militia. It is led by brothers Arhys—the militia commander—and Gabriel, who is considered the "chosen one" destined to liberate the downtrodden and lead them to victory through rebellion. The reason…his divine gift to play music.
The Astonishing Game replaces conflict, whether combat or argument, with the board game itself. The story advances through cut scenes that appear between those games. The story itself is very derivative. We have a Romeo and Juliet type romance between Gabriel and Princess Faythe—daughter of GNEA's emperor Nafaryus—who is touched by the meaning behind his music. Daddy isn't too keen on this idea and undoubtedly had better plans for his daughter than to marry some poor singer, but Fate is at work as well. There's also kidnapping, betrayals, reversed betrayals, and an unrealistically happy ending.
Quite honestly, this story isn't going to satisfy many gamers and certainly not gamers who also read and enjoy good fiction. I'm not sure if this is a simplified version of Dream Theater's album or not. Either way, I felt it got old quickly and if I hadn’t been reviewing the game would have tuned it out early. Let's move on to the game itself.
In The Astonishing Game you play as a hero of the Ravenskill rebels, or a sympathizer like the Princess, and face off against a GNEA figurehead. The goal of the game is to sway the will of the people to your side through influence rather than direct conflict. It’s kind of a weird tactic for an oppressive regime to employ, but we can go with it for now. The game is played on a board that very much resembles what you'd find in a game of Chess. At each end of the board are camps, which represent bases of support from which each side can bring partisans into the conflict.
You can summon units to help you in your struggle from these camps. Each side has the same units, though they are flavored differently. The rebel units are artists and musicians—vocalist, guitarist, dancer, painter, drummer, and so on. The GNEA units are named Imperial Guard, Politician, and other such monikers. Each type of unit has a movement direction—horizontal and vertical, diagonal, omnidirectional—much like chess pieces. They also have different attack vectors such as adjacent targets in front of or to either side, or ranged across the diagonal, and each does varying amounts of damage. Except it's not called damage in The Astonishing Game, the game is fought over motivation, or lack thereof. When you strike at an opponent you seek to reduce not their health but their motivation to struggle. Each unit has a different amount of motivation and when fully demotivated it doesn't die, it just leaves the game with a sullen look and defeated posture.
Each player also has a motivation level that will range from three to seven points, depending on the game level. When reduced to zero, that player loses. You reduce an opponent's motivation by striking at and destroying their camps at the opposite end of the board. To get there you use a second resource called influence to summon units and have them move or attack. Some squares on the board are marked with a Dream Theater symbol. If you take control of those squares by having a unit stand on it for one turn, you gain an extra two influence at the start of each turn until and unless your opponent takes control from you.
Gameplay is interesting if not wholly original. Tactically you're looking to summon pieces, gain control of as many Dream Theater spaces as you can, and use your superior influence resources to demotivate your opponent's pieces and smash their camps to smithereens as quickly as possible. Experienced gamers will quickly discern the best path for doing this and it will be up to the opposing force to stop them.
There are three different ways to play The Astonishing Game: a single-player campaign, custom games, and local multiplayer. The single-player campaign is fairly short—six games each of which will take somewhere between five and twenty minutes. The AI is not particularly strong and will not reliably block your strategy to win. Many times, it failed to respond to one of my drummers—the best unit for camp crushing—destroying camp after camp until the game was over. It tightens up a bit in the last game of the campaign, but not enough to threaten a loss.
A custom game allows you to pick the board you want to use (the main variable is where the Dream Theater squares lie) and which hero/villain each player controls. There are special abilities specific to these avatars that cost influence to use and can influence the game. You can play a human, via pass-and-play action, or the AI. Multiplayer is pretty much the same thing, except there is no option to play the AI. This game would certainly work for online asynchronous play, and it is disappointing not to see it included, especially given the quality of the AI.
The idea of a video game tied to a concept album has potential. Unfortunately, The Astonishing Game doesn’t deliver on that potential. The decision to implement it as a board game rather than a role-playing game limits many creative options. Even so, I would have liked to see a more engaging storyline or more meaningful ties between the story and the gameplay mechanics. As it stands, the game could be re-skinned as really anything else by simply changing the theme of the pieces and the cut scenes between games. It felt to me like the game is mostly about promoting the band, album, and tour. This notion is further supported by the game's offer to sign you up to win concert tickets and signed vinyl albums.
If you're a big fan of Dream Theater and know another fan you can regularly play through local multiplayer, this game might be a reasonable option for your time and money. The gameplay isn't bad and playing another person would certainly up the challenge level. The background audio is Dream Theater tracks from the album and hey, maybe you'll win some concert tickets. If you're not a Dream Theater fan but really dig digital board games, can make use of local multiplayer, and are bored of your current options The Astonishing Game will likely work for you as well. For everybody else, my recommendation is to pass on this one. There are much better options out there.