I went into Gloomhaven on the Switch with no idea what to expect. Having never played it on PC or experienced the tabletop game, I was ready to dive in and experience something new. Unfortunately, Gloomhaven seems to want to hurt me rather than invite me into its world. I found it pretty uphill, and the experience certain wasn’t helped by the limitations of the Switch.
Gloomhaven is set in a fairly basic dark fantasy world. You take control of a group of mercenaries that you hire and rename, before engaging in turn-based combat and exploration on grid-based maps. A card system requires you to select two cards for each character each turn, which then split into two halves. Each half has different effects such as movement, basic attacks, and multiple special abilities like heavy and unique attacks, class-based skills, looting, jumping, or spell-casting.
There are multiple tutorials, but even they feel a little confusing. One of them was so badly explained that it took me longer to work out than the first few campaign missions. Combat is based on choosing cards, and then “burning” old or unused cards in order to avoid damage or rest and recuperate. It adds a unique layer of tactical play, as you can – and I did – get halfway through a mission and rub out of skills. In which case, you’re dead.
Gloomhaven is incredibly ponderous though. Everything requires an action card, even just moving around – even when you’re not in combat. The mercenaries come with a massive list of skills right off the bat, so the progression doesn’t feel organic. It’s just loads of info to understand and if you’re not familiar with the universe, it’s a lot to parse.
One of the coolest features is also a little frustrating. Each mercenary has a personal life goal, and you’re encouraged to pursue it. They grow stronger as you do, but completion of the life goal will see them literally leave your party forever and you’ll need to replace them. Sayonara, Bob the Brute, I hardly knew ye! There’s a good selection of classes to hire though, with a massive spread of skills that often need other classes to synergise with. For example, the Voidwarden can impart actions to adjacent mercenaries, allowing the heavy hitters to have extra attacks.
What Gloomhaven does well is force you to think tactically, about character placement and which abilities to use and which to burn. You can rest to replenish health, which also requires you to burn old cards, so you have to manage each and every ability you have. There are difficulty settings to make the game easier, but honestly even in the easiest it feels skewed against you. Partly I think it’s down to just how much there is to learn, because once you start to understand more it becomes a little more fun.
It’s not really helped by the Switch’s limitations, which become more and more apparent with each new port. Complex textures and lighting effects are non-existent, and everything looks so bland and unexciting. The interface is also as fiddly as hell, with more button presses than should be required to do simple things. Also, the text on screen is tiny when played handheld, which certainly isn’t conducive to reading so much.
Between missions you can outfit your mercenaries and travel the land between cities and points of interest. You’ll sometimes stumble upon a encounters or other events, some of which require choices on your part that may or may not pay off. It’s a fairly forgettable element but necessary to break up the combat, which becomes very samey, very fast. There’s a Guildmaster mode which offers a 100 missions to play through without worrying about the story, but this is even worse for tedium as there’s just not enough real variety or actual adventure to be had.
By all accounts Gloomhaven does a solid job of translating what’s apparently a very deep and complex TTRPG to video game format, but even without playing the PC version I can’t imagine the Nintendo Switch port is anywhere near the best choice. Even without the user-unfriendly complexity, it’s just not a very fun or compelling game. Fans of the boardgame will likely find a lot to like here, and there’s definitely fun to be had playing the multiplayer – as long as everyone knows what they’re doing. But played alone it’s just too much of a slog when there are so many dark fantasy RPGs available to play. It’s unique on the Switch, at least, which gives it automatic appeal to some, but it will be too confusing, slow-paced and unexciting for many.
Mercenary system is interesting
Some cool classes
Too many systems all at once
Doesn't look great on Switch