Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Is That Supposed To Be Funny? First Impressions of The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk.

The latest EverQuest II expansion, Ballads of Zimara, arrives today but chances are, I won't get to see much of it until tomorrow. The doors aren't due to open until eight in the evening, my time, always assuming there's no additional downtime.

Even if I do manage to get in early enough to have a quick look around and take some screenshots, not something I'd count on, based on long experience with previous expansion launches, I certainly won't have time to post about it so instead I thought I might write something about the game I'm currently playing to pass the time until BoZ launches, namely The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk: Amulet of Chaos.

As just about every review begins, the name is a pain to type so I'll shorten it to DoN from the start. That's the thing about funny names; they're funny once. If at all. After that they're just a nuisance.

Except, is that really true of this one? Is that name even supposed to be funny? It's hard to tell. 

I'm assuming it is because the whole game is a parody but unless I'm missing the pun, Naheulbeuk is just a bit awkward to pronounce. If there's anything intrinsically comical about it, I don't see it. As for the rest, it's just bog-standard fantasy-speak, isn't it?

In a way that sums the game up. It's only nominally parodic. It constantly does that thing of having the characters talk archly and self-referentially about the tropes of the genre but any satirical effect is undermined as they do it while they're following a completely unreconstructed genre narrative that both characters and writers appear to take entirely seriously. 

 I'm in Chapter 3 now and the plot so far is basically this: 

A party of adventurers, who apparently either met in a Tavern or through some kind of noticeboard (I confess I wasn't paying attention at the start.) were hired by someone powerful (Again, not paying as much attention as I could have been.) to go look for a statuette. 

The statuette is supposedly in a dungeon (You can guess which one.) but when they get there, things don't go exactly as planned. The party, who bicker and kvetch constantly, make their way deeper into the dungeon, all the while riffing on their roles and racial stereotypes, something which you might think was satire but could just as easily be standard genre fantasy writing. 

They somehow find themselves stuck with a cursed artefact they can't get rid of, which shifts the narrative from a bunch of mercenary adventurers in search of loot and glory to a more serious tussle with the forces of evil. Along the way they run into all kinds of mysterious and unusual individuals. Some, they fight, others join the party, often with agendas of their own. 

Is any of this starting to sound familiar?

And there's the generic problem with parodies and satires of fantasy RPGs (And novels, and movies...). They pretty much all end up being actual fantasy RPGs (And novels and movies...) only with a lot of metafictional jokes that frequently don't land. I'm always very wary of these things. More often than not they end up just offering weak versions of the exact same things they purport to deconstruct.

DoN is better than that by a fair margin. The jokes are generally well-worn but by that means they've lost a lot of their abrasiveness by dint of familiarity, making the whole thing feel quite cosy and comforting. A good deal of the banter between the characters seems not unlike the sort of well-worn routines you might expect to hear between players of an established table-top campaign.

There's certainly nothing original or surprsing about any of it. The Elf and the Dwarf despise each other and take every opportunity to tell everyone about it. The Ranger and the Bard both behave foppishly, but the Bard has an effeminate air, while every time the Ranger sees a buxom wench he can't resist making the kind of remarks that would have him waiting outside the door of the HR Department in any business where I've ever worked.

The Barbarian has clearly been recruited straight from central casting, where the clerk didn't flick any further through the files than C for "Conan", while the Ogre (Yes, it's a class as well as a race now, apparently.) seems to have wandered in from a kids show. On the other hand, the Wizardess, who both gains and loses points for having a feminised job title, is so bland it actually seems like someone might be making some kind of point, while the Thief manages to be both typically arrogant and yet oddly insecure. 

It won't surprise anyone to learn the Dwarf speaks with a Scots accent. All dwarves are Scottish as everyone knows. It's not the worst Scots accent I've ever heard in one of these games although that's a very low bar. The Dwarf is obsessed with gold, once again as everyone knows. He's quite keen on ale, too. Bet you didn't see that coming.

He does vary very slightly from the absolute stereotype by also being a kleptomaniac and a borderline socipath but that's well within the acceptable paramaters for Dwarves.

The Elf, by contrast, bears literally no resemblance whatsoever to anything ever written by Tolkein. She seems to have a good deal of Fairy blood, probably by way of a Daisy Meadows novel, although it's entirely possible she's on sabbatical from her day job at Santa's Workshop. 

Her objection to the Dwarf seems more of an aesthetic choice than any socio-political schism. To be fair, he is pretty gross.

I should probably make it clear at this point that I haven't forgotten the names of the characters. They don't have names. NPCs get names but playable characters just get job descriptions. That probably says something about the intentions of the writers although I don't think I could tell you what.

Humorous games of this nature rely on the writing for effect but also on the acting when, as in this case, they're fully voiced. The actors do a decent enough job all round although no-one particularly stands out. The Wizardess is played by Felicia Day but so far she hasn't had all that much to work with. 

It's mostly been the Elf, the Dwarf and the Ranger. There's an option to mute both the Elf and the Dwarf, which may be a meta joke in itself or may reflect a genuine concern by the developers that players might just quit if they have to go on listening to the two bicker for the entire game. Personally, I'd mute the Ranger.

DoN opens with no fewer than five Logo screens identifying the various organizations involved in developing and publishing the game. The game development itself was done by French developer Artefacts Studio but everything from the characters to the storyline to the setting and style comes from a very popular French language audio series created by someone with the very unFrench name of John Lang, who even more confusingly operates under the English pseudonym Pen of Chaos.

He is French all the same, born in Paris and raised in Brittany, as his biography explains. The audio series and the game were both originally written and voiced in French, which explains the occasional infelicity in the written text. On the whole, though, the translation is excellent.

Combat is standard XCom apparently. I have to say I realised that pretty much immediately even though I've never played any of the XCom games. I've read a lot of blog posts about them and this felt like that, only with pictures.

There are four difficulty settings. I'm playing on the default, Tavern Song. There's an easier one called Gripping Tale for people who don't care about the fights and just want to enjoy the story and two harder ones for masochists. 

I'm finding the default difficulty about right so far. Most of the fights are close. I've only lost once but I won easily on the second attempt. The main drawback is healing, which is fiddly enough that I tend to try to wing it without healing everyone up between fights. That's fine if the next stage turns out to be travel and talk but not so good if I get jumped by a gang of undead on the way back to the Tavern to rest up.

All things considfered I'm having a good deal of fun. The story may be generic but it rolls along nicely enough. The graphics are excellent so there's always something pretty to look at and the fights are tactical enough to be interesting without being so complicated as to annoy me. There is a lot of RPG management but some of it can be automated and there's a respec item you can buy as often as you want if you need do-overs (Provided you can get the gold, of course.) so making choices isn't stressful.

DoN is nicely amenable to playing in shortish sessions and being turned-based means I can stop at a moment's notice. The game also has a pause function in combat if needed. It's there or thereabouts the game I was hoping for, especially since I'm finding the humor mildly amusing rather than, as I feared, embarrasing or excruciating.

As far as free games from Amazon Prime go, I'd have to say this has been one of my better experiences, thus far at least. The arrival of Ballads of Zimara might put a crimp in my progress through the Dungeon of Naheulbeuk for a while but I'm confident I'll get to the end of it eventually.

Also, now I really want to listen to the audio series. I wonder if there's an English version?


  1. The original french audio series is quite old (2001) for internet (Youtube 2005, ADSL deployment in France : 1999) and was written as joke against TTRPG tropes. This was quite novel at that time, and a big part of my generation discover TTRPG through this audio series.

    It is good that they have landed a good English translation, as this audio series as a warm place in my heart - even if I never played this game, or the new one launched this month.

    1. The original French audio series is on YouTube but my French isn't good enough to listen to it, sadly. Then again, if I tried my French would probably improve somaybe I'll have it on in the background sometimes.


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