Review: Imbroglio19 May 2016 8
Released 18 May 2016
I'm sure most of us have at some point encountered the cliché anecdote of someone missing a stop on public transit because they were too absorbed in whatever mobile/handheld game they were playing. I always chalked it up to hyperbole. “I’m too neurotic about missing my stop and getting to places on time for that to happen to me,” I thought. I was wrong. Last week, I blew past my L stop on the way home from my day job because I was engrossed in Michael Brough’s latest game, Imbroglio.
Imbroglio is Brough’s follow-up to 2013’s excellent 868-HACK. It riffs on some key elements of 868, such as a focus on positioning and the use of the environment itself as a resource. The key difference between the games is their approach to character-building. Success in 868 required improvisation based on your assigned class, programs and resources. Your character developed over the course of the game depending on the generated tiles and resources. Imbroglio does away with the random assignments of 868 and has you selecting a class and building a “deck” of weapons to use that comprise the grid of the game board. Imbroglio is basically the Magic the Gathering to 868's Ascension.
In Imbroglio, your goal is to collect as many purple gems as possible before succumbing to one of the six types of monster. You swipe to move your character around on the 4x4 board made out of the weapon deck you constructed, navigating through a maze that is generated every time a gem is grabbed. Monsters spawn from each of the four corners of the board, with each corner spawning a specific monster type (the other two types have specific spawn conditions). Bumping into a monster will attack them with the weapon of the tile your character is on. Each monster kill fills up an upgrade bar for that tile, which can enhance damage or add other effects to the weapon with every four kills. Each weapon level-up also gives a rune, which can be spent to activate your character’s special power. Your character has two health meters, denoted by the hearts and diamonds on either side of your character. Monsters are color-coded by the type of damage they do: orange monsters take a heart with each hit and blue monsters take a diamond. Weapons are coded in the same manner. I know there’s a lot of moving parts here and they look disjointed when spelled out like this, but in play they all mesh together into something beautiful. Every turn has an interesting decision to make. Do you head straight for the gem to bump up your health, or take a roundabout path to kill an enemy on a weapon that’s one kill away from an upgrade? Monster spawn rates increase with turn count, so there’s always some pressure to keep moving.
Backing up a bit, the first thing you do in a game of Imbroglio is pick a character. There are eight characters in total—four to start and another four locked behind score goals. Each character has a different “flaw” to play around and a special power. The first four’s flaws all limit their available weapons in some way, while the final four have flaws that tweak other aspects of the game. It’s amazing how well the flaws and powers differentiate each character. Despite there being “only” six monster types, their relative threat levels vary radically from character to character and they completely change how you approach each type.
After choosing a character, the next step is to build your dungeon, so to speak. With the first four characters, deck-building is wisely limited until you’ve collected at least 32 gems in one game with that character. This eases you into the game without overwhelming with the full deck-building experience. 32 might seem like a high number for your first couple of games, but once you grok the core concepts of the game and the quirks of the starting characters, 32 gems should be fairly simple to get.
The deck-building itself can be a little overwhelming at first thanks to the largely pictographic interface and sheer number of options available, but after some fiddling it becomes second-nature. Just drag weapons from the bottom of the screen to place or swap out tiles, and the game will automatically grey out weapons that are unusable due to your chosen character’s restrictions. Red and blue weapons can be filtered with buttons on the side of the screen, and there are also clear and undo features. The number of weapons available can make the prospect of finding synergies and developing strategies daunting, but Imbroglio has a clever trick up its (card) sleeve.
After unlocking deck-construction on a couple characters, I found myself paralyzed by all the options suddenly available to me. I was considering asking some developers on Twitter that I knew had been testing the game for some strategies when I accidentally opened the high score list. Luckily, I had gone through the convoluted process of getting Game Center temporarily working again (thanks to the dreaded Game Center Bug, seemingly fixed in iOS 9.3.2) earlier that day and discovered that the game shows the boards of each high score on the leaderboards! I was able to learn from the best and immediately saw an uptick in my scores after applying some freshly-learned strategies. 868 had a similar feature, but in Imbroglio the information is immediately applicable to your next game. Entire boards can even be copied from the leaderboards with the push of a button, provided you have all of the necessary cards (more cards unlock with each character). It’s an excellent learning tool, and it’ll be fun to check up on as more people get their hands on the game.
Brough’s games in the past have mostly stuck to a “glitch art” aesthetic that can be divisive. I remember 868 in particular receiving a lot of pushback from people claiming that the art was “too ugly” for a $6 game. Well, if you bounced off of 868 or any of his other games because of the graphics, Imbroglio might be more your cup of tea. Here, everything is hand-drawn. It looks like a digital conversion of a physical board game that doesn’t exist in the best way. The sound design is also unique: there’s no musical soundtrack to the game. Instead, every sound effect is a different acoustic guitar sound. The guitar sounds and hand-drawn art give the game a uniquely rustic feel. Even with a change in art style from Brough’s other games, Imbroglio still manages to look uniquely his.
The last time I was this taken by an iOS game was Dream Quest back in 2014. There’s no feeling like the one you get when you discover a card synergy or stumble upon a strategy that destroys your old high score, and Imbroglio has been giving me that feeling constantly in the few weeks that I’ve been playing it. Every individual element of Imbroglio’s design coalesces into an elegantly complex whole. Nothing is out of place. It’s the kind of game that I just want to think and talk about all the time, and I’m very excited that others are now able to play and explore this brilliant game. I’ll see you in the Imbroglio discussions on the forums, but for now, I’ve got some more Imbroglio to play.