If you’ve ever wandered into a geekier board game shop, you’ve likely seen racks of the Arkham Horror board game and living card game. These are cooperative games that take you through the various Innsmouths and Miskatonics of the Lovecraft universe, and they are a pretty decent racket for publishers Fantasy Flight. They release regular Mythos packs as missions for you and your mates to work through at a price of £15 for nothing more than a couple of dozen cards. Take it from us that it can be an expensive hobby.
You can probably imagine our reaction when the latest collaboration between Asmodee Digital and Fantasy Flight focused on Arkham Horror, at a price that’s not far off one of a single Mythos pack. We were in our trenchcoats, ready, and practicing our sanity rolls. But what we have got here with Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace is actually a kind of halfway house between porting the card and board game, and making it accessible by stretching it over a turn-based X-Com-a-like. On one hand, we were a little disappointed not to get a faithful adaptation, but on the other, the marriage wasn’t completely unimaginable: Arkham Horror has always been about spending action points wisely before handing the turn to an opponent, and that’s effectively the structure of a turn-based tactics game. We were in, yet sceptical.
Of course, none of this will mean anything to you if you’re coming in fresh, and you’re drawn in more by a Cthulhu-centred adventure. You start by choosing a character, and that character has a D&D-style sheet of traits they are good and bad at, as well as some passive benefits. You are summarily invited to the mansion of Professor Tillinghast, an astronomy professor who clearly has some interests of the tentacled variety. A scream is heard on the upper levels of the mansion, and you rush there only to find Professor Tillinghast dead, in a ritual circle and surrounded by cultists. Clearly a party gone wrong. From here on out, it’s a whodunnit that takes you to Miskatonic University, New Orleans and hellholes from other dimensions.
Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace has two modes that it switches between pretty seamlessly. The first is a kind of exploration mode in third-person, where you are navigating mansions, towns and bayous with a smattering of white dots over anything that’s interactible. You’ll tend to have main objectives and secondary objectives in these areas, and it will be up to you whether you rinse every nook and cranny for those white dots, or whether you stick to what’s asked of you.
By interacting with everything, you get to make very simple decisions like ‘look at’ something versus ‘open it’, and these have – curiously – a right and wrong answer. Get it wrong and your Mythos clock, a big dial in the top-right corner – will tick up, taking you closer to an event that will hinder you and your team. Get it right, and you’ll receive clues, or items to slot in the four-space inventory of each character which buff you for the trials to come. Each character specialises in different kinds of interactions, so your team will offer hints about what to do, depending on whether it’s their jam.
You will also occasionally – and very, very randomly – see something that disturbs you, an unimaginable horror that rocks you to your Lovecraftian core. These lead to sanity rolls, which test your characters’ ability to withstand that horror. If they fail, and some characters are better at succeeding than others, then a sanity point is lost, and falling to zero means a psychotic break and some kind of debilitating trauma, which can only be removed by leaving that character at home for the next mission.
So, on one side you have a relatively simple third-person adventure with a risk-reward element, as you decide whether to scavenge the world for cigarettes, bullets, magical tomes and wrenches to whack cultists with. On the other, you have some conventional turn-based combat, triggered by entering a room with slimy beasties or zealots.
It’s a seamless transition into combat, as you fight in the same environments that you were ransacking. There are no grid lines here: instead, you are walking anywhere you want, with a limitation on the distance you can travel. Each character has Initiative, which determines the order that they attack, and you tend to start first. You have five action points to spend per character, and you can use them to – among others – attack (melee, ranged and spells), move, use consumable items, reload and go on overwatch, or use a countering move that costs less than an attack and only triggers if an enemy moves into your view. Then it’s onto the enemy’s turn, who will do the same. Enemy turns will ratchet up your Mythos Clock, so you’re trying to limit the number of turns they take.
Very generally, Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace does a job. It got us to the end of it’s wholesome ‘interdimensional entity attempts to take over the world’ plot, and there were moments that scratched our Arkham Horror itch. The exploration and combat were competent if unspectacular, and the optimisation of our characters – choosing which items were best with which individual – were some of the best moments. Yet, some dodgy design decisions, sub-par writing and rough edges meant that Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace felt like a constant missed opportunity.
In terms of the dodgy design decisions, it kept feeling like Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace was about to make a bold choice, but then it retreated last minute. Sanity and the Mythos Clock are the two biggies here: they initially feel like they’re ticking time-bombs, and you need to do anything to stop them from detonating. After all, you’re given plenty of items that push them back. But, when they do go off, they’re barely a whimper. At zero sanity you receive a Trauma, and it might mean you lose chances for critical hits, or get a tiny health loss. We rarely noticed their effects. When the Mythos Clock reaches twelve, you might have to roll on your sanity, or – once in the entire game – we got an additional combat situation. Having come from the Arkham Horror board game where both are terrifying, and you want to do all in your power to avoid them, they felt limp, and we stopped worrying too much about either.
Exploration and investigation is a bit jumbled too. If you investigate everything – and we wanted to – then you’ll probably come out net-neutral. There are so many sanity checks on the player and debilitating effects, and they are barely balanced out by items that, by the end, you don’t really need. It feels unsatisfying to keep searching. But, of course, you kind of need to, as secondary objectives and main objectives could be hidden in the same drawers. If there was some strategy in what you searched or didn’t, then it would be fine, but it’s mostly arbitrary. Since sanity checks are completely random, you are also at the whims of RNG, which layers onto the unsatisfying searching to make you feel out of control of events.
Combat, too, is a missed boat. You’ve got loads of options, which is great, but combat devolves into the same pattern every time. Melee fighters stand next to each other and hit-hit-hit until someone dies, while ranged troops fire at the most dangerous unit from range. There’s no real synergy, no strategy other than trying to up your DPS and saving your bullets for the big-bads. We found the one overpowered character, stuck the best weapons on them, and sprinted to the end.
Storywise, it’s okay. It does something unusual by introducing a character who your team can’t see, but comments on the happenings with a mischievous glee. Otherwise, it’s an occult tale-as-old-as-time: some people in robes want to do ritual gubbins to bring a gluttonous behemoth to our world, and you have to stop them. What bemuses most is the character dialogue. Arkham Horror is traditionally the most glum and morbid of universes, but there’s punning and quips all over this. As purists, we’re kind of confused by the tone, but it might work for people who aren’t as invested. What doesn’t work is the need for every character to constantly refer to their profession, as a swap-out for personality. Just because you’re an actor, doesn’t mean you have to quote Shakespeare at everything, and journalists don’t remark that everything would ‘make a great story’ all the time.
Credit to Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace for capturing the streets of New Orleans, giving it a sense of place, but generally there’s a stiffness and lack of personality to the presentation. Voice actors are wooden, while character animations make everyone look like blocks of tofu. With the stilted dialogue, it hits the immersion a fair old whack, which you need for an oppressive Lovecraftian tale. Occasional bugs and graphical issues add to that pile, with some placeholder code still in the text, cutscenes starting and finishing late, and enemies being untargetable in combat when they’re a tendril’s distance from your face.
From an Arkham Horror fan’s perspective, Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace on Xbox feels like a blancmange model of the source material. It has none of the spiralling difficulty, gloom and impending doom. It’s easy, competent, and it’s clearly been made more palatable for a wider audience. We suspect that non-Arkham fans will see it as an extremely basic tactics game with lots of levers that you won’t need to pull, sewn onto an unsatisfying adventure game. Lovecraft loved to explore the edges of horror and the human psyche: Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace is more interested in exploring the middle of the road.