Full disclosure: I was provided a review copy of HEXplore It: The Valley of the Dead King, as well as a second copy to share with someone else via a giveaway. Click here to enter between now and April 30, 2018!
To see a "How to Solo" video for HEXplore It, click here.
What is this game about?
HEXplore It: The Valley of the Dead King is an open world exploration game in which you play a hero or group of heroes on a quest to defeat the Dead King, an evil undead overlord who wants to replace the thriving cities of the valley with centers of death and decay. To defeat him, you must power up your character to the point where you are able to defeat him—something you can accomplish in a number of ways. Completing quests and defeating monster and boss encounters can give you both gold and power-up cards, which boost your character's stats. You can also use your gold to purchase both useful items and gear upgrades—which actually amount to stat boosts!
To create your hero, you choose a race and a role. And there are a lot to choose from—almost too many if you are inclined to analysis paralysis. The different races and roles mix together to create impressively different play experiences. This is not so much a result of your starting stats, which can be improved through gear upgrades and power up cards. Instead, your characters will feel unique because they will have distinct racial abilities and mastery abilities, which are special skills associated with their role. One of HEXplore It's most distinctive features is probably its use of dry erase player boards and markers to keep track of stats. I thought that was very efficient and a lot of fun!
You have a lot of freedom to wander the map and increase your heroes' power in any way you like. There is no one way to victory—in a lot of ways, the key to success is flexibility.
How does it play solo?
HEXplore It is a cooperative game that can accommodate 1–7 players. You are entirely able to play the game as a single hero. Or, if you want to see how well different characters work together, it is also easy to play two. I was very pleased with how the game scaled for a solo experience.
HEXplore It is a very good game. I loved the feeling of increasing power and capability as my character progressed, and a lot of the quest and circumstance cards have just a touch of humor that makes the game seem more alive. It's also a ton of fun to experiment with different types of characters. You can play your classic RPG Berserker, but you can also play a Beastmaster who tames creatures you encounter in the wild and deploys them in battle. One character is an Illusionist who can avoid attack by becoming invisible, and you can also play as a magician who saps the energy of opponents to weaken them. Even though the general plotline of this game is the same every time, the way you get to your goal can look entirely different, and that is tremendously satisfying.
One of the keys to enjoying HEXplore It is to accept that you simply will not be able to do everything in the game. Once the Dead King appears on the board, you are on a pretty tight timer, and you are going to leave a lot undone when you finish the game. This isn't an RPG grind fest—this is a game about powering up as quickly as possible so that you can defeat an overwhelmingly powerful enemy.
That said, HEXplore It sometimes groans under the weight of so many options. My games occasionally stalled out when I had too many quests that were located on undiscovered map tiles. You can explore additional tiles by purchasing a map or moving past the edge of the current game setup, but they are drawn randomly and there is no way to guarantee that you will get a specific map tile—even if it means several of your quests can't be completed. The same issue can happen with the Circumstance cards. When you move further than one tile, you need to deal with a Circumstance card. Sometimes these cards actually benefit you—the combat encounters in that deck give you rewards and power ups that are crucial for your character's growth. But a lot of Circumstance cards are just unpleasant evens or afflictions, and if you end up with too many of those, you are going to have a much less productive adventure.
One possible solution to this issue is to go ahead and lay out all of the tiles at the beginning of the game—go ahead and create a huge open world, and possibly increase your max movement from 4 to 6. In all honesty, this change does not impact the difficulty of the game at all, and it eliminates some frustration by making the world more accessible.
Regardless of any adjustments, however, I think that HEXplore It would benefit from being just a little bit tighter. I spent a lot of time wandering around, when I would actually have enjoyed more questing, more story—a lot of the flavor text in this game is really promising, and the world seems like it has a really cool backstory. I'd like to enjoy the valley just a bit more, because I want to know why it's so important to save it from the Dead King, aside from the fact that undead kings are inherently creepy.
All in all, HEXplore It has a few issues with game flow, but it's exciting and enjoyable. I also hugely respect what Jonathan Mariucci has done in terms of building characters and presenting players with different combat strategies to try.
Do I recommend it?
Yes. If you love fantasy themes, leveling up, and working with different character abilities, you are really going to enjoy HEXplore It: Valley of the Dead King.
Overall Rating: 3.5 stars
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.