Review: Elder Sign Omens

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The Elder gods are angry. They're breaking through the walls to our plane of existence and bringing with them all the horrors and madness the bizarre imagination of H.P. Lovecraft has to offer. It's up to you to stop them before all of humanity has been devoured. Sounds like fun, doesn't it. No pressure, though. If you fail, it only results in the end of the world as we know it.

Based on the board game of the same name, and developed by Fantasy Flight Games, Elder Sign: Omens was released for iOS and Android in such a way as to transform this complex multiplayer cooperative game into a more manageable (and substantially shorter) single player experience. Stemming from the much bulkier board game Arkham Horror - a game that utilizes nearly 700 cards, tokens and markers - Elder Sign shrinks things down considerably while still maintaining the overall sense of doom and gloom.

Recently, I was fortunate enough to experience first hand a 5 player co-op playthrough of the board game version of Elder Sign. Not only was it great fun but it allowed me to compare it directly with the iPad version I had purchased just a few days earlier. I can safely claim that the transformation from cards and dice to the digital domain was done incredibly well.

Elder Sign begins on the iPad with a prompt to choose a team of 4 investigators from an ample roster of men and women. Each investigator has their own unique skills and abilities, as well as variances in the amount of stamina and sanity they have. Players are also given the opportunity to select from 3 of the unlocked Elder gods that they will be working to contain before time - and their sanity - runs out. Once these selections are made the game begins and you're off to save the world.

Although the game environment is limited to the halls of a museum it's a setting appropriately creepy to accommodate for the madness that inevitably unravels. Taking turns based on the line-up of investigators selected you'll choose missions on the museum's map to investigate - some more horrifying than others, but each just as deadly as the next. Before entering each mission you'll be able to compare your investigator's available skills with the mission's level of difficulty. Attemtping to complete your mission of choice is as easy as rolling a handful of dice (aka, tapping the iPad's screen). With a limited number of rolls allowed, your task is to match the symbols (Terror, Peril, Lore, etc) of the dice with the symbols of that particular mission. Along the way you'll encounter missions which include Monsters that have their own abilities to make things more difficult, while being able to use your own investigative skills to make those essential dice rolls work more in your favor.

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Each mission results in either failure - a loss of sanity or stamina, the creation of a new monster, or a Doom symbol - or success - gaining skills and abilities, points used as currency, or the all important Elder Sign. The Elder god selected at the beginning of the game determines the number of Doom symbols needed to unleash hell upon the earth, as well as the number of Elder Signs required to seal away the dark one and save the day. Although there is a fair amount of strategy involved - selecting the right investigator for the mission, choosing the proper skills, and knowing when to "skip" a mission to spend points on reduced stamina and sanity - Elder Sign weighs heavily on the outcome of the dice roll; as a result this may not sit well with some gamers. It can seem all too random and, at times, unfair.

The game can also be rather punishing. Adding to the level of tension - watching as the number of Doom symbols creep past the number of Elder Signs acquired - the game keeps track of time with a clock that moves 3 hours ahead after each investigator's turn. Depending on the missions and monsters still present on the map, the stroke of Midnight may result in the loss of stamina and sanity for the entire team, more monsters, or the addition of Doom symbols. In some playthroughs I've been hit with all 3. I've had the game for a few weeks now and have only beaten it once. Yet, it's simple to understand rules (after 3 games I was more than comfortable with it all) and addictive and speedy gameplay, I've gone back to this game again, and again, and again. 

Fantasy Flight Games took a fun multiplayer board game and developed a mobile version well worth the price of admission. Although available on the iPhone for $3.99, I have been exclusively playing it on my iPad in HD for a few dollars more - $6.99. This is generally more than I care to spend on any iOS game, iPad or otherwise, but everything about Elder Sign: Omens has been a real treat. After playing the board game with a few friends I was extremely happy to see that the iPad version included all of the same artwork - and it's beautiful! FF Games is already providing add-on content in the form of new investigators and Elder gods to battle, a temptation that I'll likely succumb to.

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On a final note, as good as Elder Sign: Omens is I would love to see an update that accommodates for online co-op. I don't believe it would be completely out of the realm of possibility to see this game played in a similar manner as the asynchronous Words with Friends. 2 players could select 2 investigators each, or even better, allow for a full 4 player co-op session. Each player starts the game, selects their investigator(s) and chooses their mission when it's their turn. When each turn is over the other players receives a notice (again, like Words with Friends) that they can now make their move. The results of the last move would be available for all players to see that help them to make the right decision with their own move. An update like this would quickly change my recommendation of Elder Sign: Omens from a "should own" to a "must own".