Originally titled Mansions of Madness: Mother’s Embrace, Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace is a video game spin-off from the popular Arkham Files board game universe. This is a series notable for its pulpy, lamp-lit Lovecraftian flavour and ridiculously cruel difficulty that seeks to hamstring you and your friends’ odds of success at every corner. In the Mansions of Madness board game, you and your team of investigators start at the entrance to a location (perhaps a mansion) and place tiles outwards from this position as you explore, investigate, and survive against all manner of horrific beings that lurk the halls. Arkham Horror, another in the Files series, has your team of investigators racing about the town of Arkham trying to foil various apocalyptic summoning rituals.
AK:ME resembles Mansions while not being an adaption of any of the existing board games. This is a single-player mystery with turn-based combat encounters breaking up the progress. You will spend most of the game investigating by means of unravelling the cause of an apparent murder of a local university professor, and the professor’s suspicious relationship to a rather culty group of hardcore astronomy fans. Exploration follows a kind of point-and-click flavour resembling the Telltale Games, but the meat of the game is to be found in the combat, which presents well as something of an XCOM-lite with the accessibility of Mario & Rabbids: Kingdom Battle.
Absolutely superior to the ‘Necronomicon. Looks like it’s all in Greek’
Players begin by choosing an investigator from an initial cast of seven familiar faces from the franchise. It is delightful to see some of the more varied cast appear, featuring some of the series’ more recent people of colour additions, ready to unravel arcane mysteries outside of their day jobs. I selected a personal fave character from the Arkham Horror card game, Zoey Samaras, the born-again cook. Once making your way into the mansion’s lobby, experienced Mansions players will immediately get the gist, while those new to the franchise might find it a bit aimless. The environments are dotted with glowing points of interest, but with little direction given to move you forward, you’ll start obsessively interacting with each one until the plot ferries you forward to the next room or encounter.
When combat begins, you will often find yourself propelling fists, bludgeons, firearms, and magic spells at a rather limited set of cultists and tentacled monsters. Encounters are very simple set-piece affairs, with no grinding or tactical complexity. The learning curve is almost newbie-friendly for those unacquainted with turned-based tactics games, but the tutorial explains only the bare minimum and expects you’ve got at least a passing familiarity with the genre.
Unfortunately, what appears initially to be a tantalising little horror mystery marked with an attractive budget price point ultimately reveals itself as a spreadable Kraft cheese on white bread kind of game; the more you think about what you’re consuming the more frightening it gets, and not in a good way. Here is why this initially promising little snack probably won’t end up as anybody’s first choice.
The combat, while the game’s strongest element, is ultimately unrewarding. You will find there are no progression systems such as levelling or ability trees common to these sorts of games. The game expects you to rotate the gradually unlocked Arkham Files cast as a means of creating gameplay variety, but other than some extremely minor stat/perk variances, all characters function identically and lack any distinguishing features during the gameplay.
Zoey the Cook by day, Zoey the Butcher by night
The Arkham series has a mechanic throughout called ‘mythos’, which triggers a challenging event or complication during a round of play. This system features in AH:ME as the ‘mythos clock’. The clock ticks up at the end of a combat round. On a complete rotation, the game will test to see if the individual investigators have succumbed to mental trauma from their investigation or given encounter. The clock also progresses outside of combat, with penalties incurred as you interact with clues. This means you are being penalised for progressing, with no clear reward to strive onwards. Furthermore, a full mythos clock rotation may also provide a stat penalty for the party that will endure for the duration of the chapter.
Additionally, resolving an investigation is often unintuitive and involves arbitrary decision making. As an example, let’s say you’re outside of combat and doing your duty as an investigator, interacting with all the points of interest for clues. You are then typically presented with a binary option of how to interact with a given object, such as a body or a cabinet. An early and common example occurs within the first 10 minutes, with my lead investigator being asked to either ‘manipulate’ or ‘put together’ a broken vase. With nothing to go on, I select ‘manipulate’ as I don’t have my gorilla glue on me. Turns out my logical instinct was incorrect. I was to put the vase back together with absolutely no tools! As my first choice was apparently incorrect, the game advises that your character has lost a sanity point. Upon reaching 0, your character will gain yet another ‘trauma’, or penalty. This means the game is working around the literal clock to punish you, both in and out of combat
In the board games, traumas are often thematically quite crippling, such as a permanent injury that might prevent the use of certain items or movement. In AH:ME, sanity reductions and resulting traumas are doled out arbitrarily and frequently, feeling rather like ‘gotcha’ moments. But despite the emphasis the game places on the traumas and penalties, rarely will you suffer much worse than something vague like ‘investigator’s mental resistance reduces when at half health’. What is mental resistance? I have finished the game and do not know – I cannot recall any of the frequent text box outs explaining it. See Darkest Dungeon for a turn-based combat game that ties penalties to progress in a way that is appropriately thematic, with far more pragmatic and thoughtful examples of trauma to challenge the player’s progress. DD will have a templar rehabilitate in a church to reconcile the horrors they have faced during their duties, AH: ME’s characters merely sit one out back at the office and then they’re all good to go on the next mission.
The game either tells you how to resolve investigations, or gives an arbitrary choice
More damningly, for those seeking a Lovecraftian mystery akin to Call of Cthulhu or The Sinking City, all exploration quickly becomes tiresome and repetitive. Character animations are at their worst when you take the reins and try moving about freely. Cutscenes are an embarrassing affair, showing the game’s budget at its worst with flipbook sequences and one-note voice acting. The framerate on PS4 rarely manages to keep up the momentum, especially when outdoors. There is little in the way of puzzles, and optimising character equipment is currently painful due to interface bugs that became more common as I progressed, and too much crucial player info is found in unintuitive separate menu systems.
Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace is a well-intentioned foray into adapting the Arkham Files universe to a digital single-player distraction. While it flirts with being something closer to Mansions of Madness Second Edition, its ambition to come and worship at the altar of great mystery adventures and turn-based tactics games shows that it knows what it needs to succeed but barely treads beyond pale imitation of games like XCOM or Darkest Dungeon. No last-minute name changes can hide the fact that this game probably should not have escaped from the asylum.
Reviewed on PS4 Pro // Review code supplied by publisher
- Asmodee Digital
- Asmodee Digital
- PS4 / Xbox One / Nintendo Switch / PC
- March 23, 2021