The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk: The Amulet of Chaos is the boldest game you’ve never heard of. Instead of drawing you in with a compelling narrative, it relies on genre parody to hold your interest for a 20-odd hour journey. Based on the French audio series of the same name, this strategy RPG devotes all its energy to taunting RPG tropes with subversive dialogue, characters, and quests. Artefacts Studio certainly gets points for its willingness to take risks.
Unfortunately, the gamble doesn’t entirely pay off. Even for a fan of sarcasm who’s down to poke fun at his favorite genre, the game’s satire wasn’t a compelling enough hook to keep me engaged for more than a handful of hours. The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk’s solid combat and charming visual style do it favors but its conspicuously absent narrative and technical hitches prevent it from reaching the soaring heights of its titular dungeon.
The overarching storyline fades into the background once the game kicks off. Your seven protagonists waltz into the labyrinthine Dungeon of Naheulbeuk in search of a famed statuette. They quickly stumble upon the amulet of chaos instead, which curses and traps them in the dungeon. The party resolves to scale their new prison to break the curse, nab the statuette, and spend a few dozen hours beating you and each other over the head with sarcastic snipes aimed at genre tropes.
That sarcasm is the real glue connecting events in the game, and dialogue between your adventurers brings it to life. Each party member is a thinly veiled caricature of an RPG stereotype: a cowardly Thief, greedy Dwarf, naive Elf, dim-witted Barbarian, glutenous Ogre, lusty Ranger, and inept Wizardess. You also toss a condescending Priestess, obnoxious Minstrel, or lewd Paladin into the mix. Expect to hear them continuously chastise the Barbarian for being moronic, the Dwarf for focusing on gold above all else, and so on. In addition to teasing each other for being stereotypical, everyone frequently levels barbs at the dungeon’s inhabitants during their travels.
Amusing quests also help flesh out the game’s subversive snark. Hilariously voiced NPCs task you with ignoble undertakings like extricating someone from a wolf-themed orgy before he brings shame to his family and rescuing an abducted husband so he can sign divorce papers. As a Baldur’s Gate fan, my favorite quest is for a distraught NPC named Binsc, who pleads with you to find his beloved miniature space hamster, Moo. Quest rewards, too, are on-the-nose jokes about standard RPG loot: the Awful Shield of the Beggar, Okayish Daggers of Betrayal, and Bow of Kinkiness, to name a few gems.
I spent hours chortling at The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk’s sardonic humor. It’s sharp and sagely written, and stellar voice actors deliver it masterfully. Most lines out of Felicia Day in particular (the Wizardess) are laugh-out-loud funny and almost made me forget that humor alone propels the adventure forward. Almost.
Early on, it dawned on me that my nameless protagonists are devoid of backstories or discernible goals (save for acquiring gold or food), everyone in this world is wholly one-dimensional, and the game only explores one theme: genre parody. It offers no moving plot twists, relatable characters, or complex conflicts or villains worth investing in. Absent these storytelling staples, it’s a real challenge to stay attentive to the game and muster care for the cast and their journey. The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk is testament to the fact that some games can succeed without meaningful narratives, but probably not full-length RPGs.
If not for its battle system (and RPGFan’s policy of completing all games we review, of course), I may have dropped Dungeon of Naheulbeuk after its opening hours. Combat proceeds in typical tactical, turn-based fashion, but some departures from genre greats keep it engaging. Each turn, characters can spend move and attack points to navigate the field and use abilities, ranging from standard swings and buffs to poisonously pungent burp clouds and devilish dwarf-tossing. These are as comical as the game’s dialogue and complement the ridicule oozing from every inch of this world. You can also tweak your characters’ abilities and stats using points you receive when they level up, letting you shape your heroes to match your preferred playstyle.
Borrowing from XCOM, characters can reduce the aim of enemies shooting arrows or spells by taking cover behind objects. Your mages and archers are fragile, and enemy AI borders on brilliant, so you’ll need to think strategically about cover if you want to dodge the game over screen. Characters with bows or staffs can enter overwatch mode and spend a turn automatically volleying projectiles at enemies who enter their line of sight. I owe my most rewarding moment to a particularly brutal boss battle that I survived only because I supported my melee fighters with suppressive fire from a safely covered spellcaster.
Hazards and destructible objects are scattered across battlefields and keep you mindful of more than just enemy locations. Think Divinity: Original Sin, except these accentuate the game’s wacky vibe. For example, if a stray projectile hits one of the kegs strewn about most battlefields, beer will coat the floor, regenerating the Dwarf’s health but giving everyone a chance to slip and spend a few turns vulnerably unconscious.
Randomia abilities make combat unique and reflect inventiveness impressively woven into The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk’s jam-packed combat system. Each time you fall victim to a random dice roll that causes an attack to fail, you boost your Randomia gauge. Once it’s full, you can gift a character an extra turn, teleport them, or empower them in another way that turns the tide of battle. Thanks to these abilities, I stayed engaged throughout many of the more time-consuming battles and avoided wiping to several of the game’s tougher bosses.
Nonetheless, the combat system would better atone for the practically absent narrative if the game fairly balanced its characters. The Thief packs a punch, and the Ranger’s buffs are helpful, but neither has the survivability to get anywhere near enemies late-game. Though I built them out with a fair number of defensive abilities, they spent most end-game battles beaten unconscious by my enemies. The enemy AI is also far too smart. Early-game enemies pull off complex tactics it took me hours to master, and their underlying dice rolls feel rigged. I shouldn’t have to lower the difficulty to story mode to avoid trash monsters chaining critical hits on my party.
I also struggled to enjoy The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk’s combat for more than an hour or two at a time because that’s how often the game crashes on Playstation 5. To boot, load times are unreasonable 10-12 second affairs every time you move between dungeon floors, meaning you sit through them every few minutes you spend out of combat. The framerate is also unstable and often chugs when the game tries to animate environmental effects like burning barrels or display large groups of enemies. The game’s graphical style is especially simple, so this is perplexing.
Speaking of graphics, The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk’s visuals reek of character. It’s hard not to swoon over the game’s charming designs, from the adorably expressive NPCs relaxing in its lively tavern to the menacingly cute demons roaming the dungeon’s upper floors. By splashing character and environmental designs with polished silliness, the visuals augment the game’s comedic undertones and are a real treat. Just don’t expect them to stretch your hardware; neither your party members nor enemies are vividly detailed, and much of the dungeon décor screams early-gen Playstation 3. Given that this is an indie game whose visuals are otherwise full of heart, it’s hard to hold the simplistic graphics against it.
The game’s soundtrack is less endearing. The limited selection of background and battle music is generic and forgettable. All the tracks are standard-issue high-fantasy tunes without character or flair, and none help distinguish the game from Baldur’s Gate and other seminal RPGs it seeks to parody. Few tracks complement the game’s satire or wacky vibe, which is especially surprising in light of how well the dialogue and visuals support the subversion on display. On the other hand, the voice acting is stellar. Most NPCs are fully voiced, and nearly all deliver the game’s brand of sarcasm without ever feeling flat or disconnected. The voicework behind the Ranger, Priestess, and Wizardess captivated me during most cutscenes.
In poking fun at RPGs of old, Artefacts Studio elicits laughs, but it loses sight of what makes those classics special: an engrossing narrative. The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk’s threadbare story does little to help you stay engaged beyond its opening hours, and inexcusable technical failings dampen the fun thereafter. I recommend The Dungeon of Naheulbeuk to fans of the source material and anyone with a high pain tolerance in desperate need of SRPG combat goodness. But for all others, you’re better off picking up one of the RPGs this one mocks.