I love Gloomhaven
. I was introduced to it in 2018, showing me what modern board games can be, sending me down the ever-broadening world of tabletop gaming. These days I spend more time playing tabletop wargames, RPGs, board, and card games far more than I play video games. But from time to time, I get to cover when the two worlds merge. Gloomhaven Digital
is just such an opportunity, and the Nintendo Switch release brings me right back to it.
At this point, I’ve reviewed Gloomhaven
in every official iteration; beginning with the original base game, Jaws of the Lion
, and the original Gloomhaven Digital
release on Steam, with our Frosthaven
review in the works. I’m still playing the original game five years after I began, now completing my third campaign, each time getting more experimental with character builds. I feel it’s safe to say I know the series well enough to give weight to my assessment of the newly released console edition of Gloomhaven Digital
. While the core experience remain intact and remains a strong game design, the Switch edition is the worst way to explore Gloomhaven.
Since its original release, potential buyers have looked at Gloomhaven and assumed based on its artwork that it’s a dungeon crawler. However, it would be more accurate to say it’s a hand management euro that’s disguised as a dungeon crawler campaign. Rather than gameplay focused on exploration, uncovering loot, and rolling dice, Gloomhaven is a tactical game driven by an ever-shrinking hand of ability cards that creates more tension as time goes on.
When beginning a campaign, players create a party of two to four characters from six starting classes. Each class has its own set of special abilities and perks, with little to no overlap between them. One of Gloomhaven’s greatest strengths is just how varied the game experience from class to class. The starting classes utilize a good number of classic fantasy archetypes like the spellcaster or melee tank.
But game designer Isaac Childres’ creativity shines throughout all classes, especially ones like the Mindthief. The Mindthief is a female Vermling, a rat-like species, with telepathic abilities that can temporarily gain control of an enemy or ally to attack a target otherwise out of reach. The Cragheart, a rocky elemental-like species known as a Savvas, is a clever mixture of a brawler and ranged character. Rather than traditional ranged attacks like spells or arrows, Craghearts create, move, and chuck environmental obstacles around the board, devastating everything in its path, including allies. If that sounds too risky to you, the Cragheart can also be used as a melee character with light healing abilities.
The variety of available character classes and their special abilities, is fantastic. The Cragheart and Mindthief are just two of the starting six classes from the original edition. As player’s origress through the campaign, there are ten other unlockable secret classes to explore. Even five years later, I’m continuing to explore character builds.
If absolutely any of this is of interest to you, I highly recommend trying Gloomhaven. Each of the scenarios offers its own puzzle and with anywhere from forty to eighty scenarios in the full campaign (dependent on whether players pursue side quests), its easy to get your money’s worth out of Gloomhaven. Whether you decide to purchase the big box board game, the smaller Jaws of the Lion version, or Gloomhaven digital, won’t be disappointed!
Unless the only version you experience is the Nintendo Switch edition.
The majority of issues I encountered can be directly attributed to limitations of the hardware. Point-and-click controls for the Steam release worked fantastically proving that Gloomhaven can effectively translated into a digital medium. However, the UI and control scheme needed to be altered to support a smaller set of buttons for input. The end result was an unintuitive control scheme that can’t be modified. Instead of the ability to select or highlight individual cards using the touch screen functions, the Switch uses the L + R shoulder buttons to scroll through selected party members and a combination of short and long button presses for various selections and confirmations. It’s unnecessarily finicky and could be solved for with some light control scheme options or button mapping.
Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t let control options hinder my opinion as much as I am in this instance. However, Gloomhaven already has a steep learning curve that can prove to be challenging for newcomers. While existing players and I could argue the challenge is a core part of the experience, there’s enough information to learn and internalize without the additional obstacle of navigating a messy UI.
Nintendo’s hardware limitations have a pretty noticeable impact on on the visuals as well. Gloomhaven’s narrative as it exists today is pretty thin and scattered, an issue reportedly solved in the upcoming second edition. In spite of that, the races of the world stand out from standard fantasy faire and deserve the same attention to detail in representing them that went initially creating them. Every other platform has a higher tier of graphics processing and features a level of detail worthy of the illustrations. The Switch simply doesn’t have that capability and leaves players with a less than impressive appearance.
Much like the controls, I could overlook the visual limitations, if it didn’t have a frustrating impact on gameplay. The visual representation of enemies has a reduced amount of identifying details, making it more difficult to separate the Vermling Scouts, from a Vermling Shaman. One can easily identify the giant rats on the board, but the inability to discern at a glance slows down the gameplay experience of an already methodical game. The UI does provide additional details on models whenever the cursor highlights them, but doing so is a bit of a pain with the current control scheme.
There have been plenty of complaints about the current version of the software that I hope will get corrected in future updates. The release of the console edition introduced cross-platform multi-player, and with it game crashing bugs. Sudden crashes and error reporting while loading scenarios have stopped players from progressing for a time. Card selection UI disappears at random preventing players from choosing their abilities for the next round. To solve for the missing cards, players usually have to close and restart the game. If you were playing multiplayer, the host will need to recreate the lobby. All in all, it’s just more of a hassle to play multiplayer than it should be.
As unhappy as I am with the technical decision of the Switch port, it’s not all bad news. The core experience of Gloomhaven is alive and well. Everything from the tight technical gameplay, increasingly difficult choices as scenarios draw on, and exciting characters to unlock remains the same. Technical issues take away from that experience, but bugs can be fixed with time.
Gloomhaven Gold Edition is the most affordable way jump on the franchise-hype train. the full price of Gloomhaven Gold Edition is $49.99 on the eShop, the same cost as Jaws of the Lion’s MSRP, and includes the base game, Jaws of the Lioncampaign DLC, and the Solo Scenarios DLC. To get all of that game in the original hard-to-transport physical game, it would cost you about $170. But even with all those savings, is the Switch edition worth the time and money?
As it stands now, no. Honestly, I would only recommend it for die-hard fans who are often on the go and have no other way to enjoy Gloomhaven. Does that mean it’s a bad game? Absolutely not, but the Switch version hides a fantastic game under layers of problems unique to Nintendo. It’s a genuine shame that Gloomhaven is plagued by so many technical challenges. The Switch release could have been a great opportunity to expose a wider audience to to an otherwise remarkable game. Now it’s likely to land in the eShop bargain bin.
Visuals are subpar and lack the details required to effectively display key informational elements.
User interface changes and control decisions break what wasn’t broken and inhibit an already strong design.
One of the last things I expected was for Gloomhaven to have a perfectly mysterious and catchy soundtrack. I only wish there was more of it.
Broken multiplayer and frustrating controls makes Gloomhaven challenging in all the wrong ways.
Final Verdict: 6.0
Gloomhaven is available now on Steam, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Gloomhaven was provided by the publisher.