Tuesday, May 21, 2024

ALIEN Heart of Darkness Is A Visceral, Maddening Descent Into Cosmic Horror

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It’s time for a return to the darkest reaches of space as we dig into ALIEN: The Roleplaying Game‘s Cinematic Adventure Heart of Darkness. I’m a huge ALIEN fan thanks to the perfect combination of retro sci-fi and gutwrenching horror that makes the franchise great and Free League Publishing‘s entries in the franchise have not let me down yet. Heart of Darkness is a standalone adventure for 3-5 players and acts as a sequel to both previous cinematic adventures Chariots of the Gods and Destroyer of Worlds.

What’s In The Box?

  • The main Heart of Darkness scenario book.
  • A huge double-sided map (format 864x558mm) of the Erebos plasma trawling space station.
  • Seven pre-generated characters to choose from.
  • Custom cards for secret messages and personal agendas.
  • Player maps and handouts.

I don’t get to do this much with TTRPG, do I? Like with previous cinematic releases, Heart of Darkness is an “all-in-one” curated game experience that has everything you need to create your own horror story. Unlike most TTRPG’s, Cinematic Adventures in ALIEN have you play as pre-gen characters only (though you have a good range of options) and are given secret knowledge and agenda to go off of. All of this is included in the box as well as maps and handouts printed on some REALLY nice paper in that retro-future aesthetic so core to the ALIEN franchise.

Open Heart Surgery

Warning: From here on out be spoilers

Heart of Darkness PC

For those of you who aren’t as familiar with what a “cinematic” adventure in the ALIEN RPG is, it’s essentially a more atmospheric and dangerous version of the “campaign” gameplay you might be used to. They’re not built to last for more than a few sessions (Heart of Darkness recommends three) and are usually incredibly deadly. You don’t make your character for this adventure, instead picking one of the included pre-gens. These characters are members of a science team sent by the company, their security guard, and their pilot. Each character has their own personal agendas and relationships that throw a wrench into the teamwork needed to overcome whatever horrors they’re about to go through.

Heart of Darkness starts a fairly standard ALIEN setup: go in, see if weird thing is able to be used for profit, leave. And in standard ALIEN fashion, things quickly go wrong. See, unbeknownst to the incoming team, the Erebos plasma trawler they’re investigating is in danger of being pulled into the black hole that it orbits. Not only that, but the convicts that work the trawler are on a knife’s edge thanks to massive losses from the meteor strike that put the station in jeopardy. And on top of ALL THAT there’s a techno-organic hivemind slowly taking control of bits of the station in the hopes of getting access to a hyperdrive to spread their creeping death to new worlds. And it just so happens that the PC’s ship has a hyperdrive on it.

Heart of Darkness Erebos station
Erebos station, the location for most of Heart of Darkness

As a cinematic adventure, there’s not as many rails in place for PC’s. They’re given their goals, their tools, and a general map of the facilities. Rather than move them from setpiece to setpiece, the ALIEN RPG prefers to let players make their own path with the GM Mother throwing different events at them as they work towards their goals. Certain actions in each of the three acts can lead to different events, while others happen whenever the GM needs to ramp up some tension. These include the ship’s cat bringing a Squid Baby (the larval form of the ships Proto-Xenomorphs), being attacked by a giant starfish monster akin to the one in Prometheus, or just a crazed naked scientist running past. Later on, these events might include all oxygen being shut off or an explosion going off. It takes a little bit of planning and a lot more improv for the GM, but the unease of it for players is fantastic.

Over the course of the three acts, the Players will slowly delve deeper into the station as they try to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it. As time goes by, the setting changes from cold metal and utilitarian sci-fi into a fleshy, disorienting mad house as “The Perfected” spread their tendrils throughout the ship. The titular Heart of Darkness is The Cheiron, a ship infected so badly that it has become almost fully flesh. It pulsates and is covered in meat moss that would make FromSoft proud, and inside it’s humid and actually breathable. Here the players will have to decide if the Perfected are monsters worth destroying and, if so, how to destroy them. They can also “Ally” with the perfected, in a sense, getting them the perfected Draconis strain and letting them get access to other worlds but…I wouldn’t recommend that. The game ends when the players escape, they all die, or (overlapping with those depending on choice) the whole station falls into a black hole.

The focus in Hearts of Darkness is actually less on the physical dangers that you’d expect from an ALIEN game. The closest we get to a proper Xenomorph threat are the Deacons and the Perfected, but neither are actively as dangerous as other ALIEN villains. Instead, the personal effect of the horror is at the heart of…Heart of Darkness. Neurological Distortion Disorders are WAY more of a risk in this adventure than others due to the truly strange and otherworldly things that characters will encounter. Everything could infect you and even the stars themselves can drive you to madness thanks to the strange effects the singularity has on mammals. This, combined with the visceral imagery and high level of danger, makes Heart of Darkness feel like a Delta Green adventure more than anything. It’s a really cool way to lean into the deeply Lovecraftian roots of the ALIEN franchise without doing anything to mess with the setting’s lore.

The Verdict?

Alien Heart of Darkness The Perfected

ALIEN: Heart of Darkness is an incredibly cool adventure that shows just how much creativity Free League has put into the ALIEN property. Unlike most other licensed TTRPG’s, ALIEN seems dedicated to using the possibility of its setting to the fullest. Heart of Darkness is cleverly written with just the right mix of horror and action with just dash of humor thrown in (you can play as a cat). Obviously if you want to make a character or get attached to a PC this might not be for you, but for gamers looking for a disturbing slice of sci-fi grossness than this is right up your alley.

You can grab ALIEN: Heart of Darkness from the Free League Shop, digitally at DriveThruRPG, or at your FLGS with the physical box going for $41.80 and the digital for $17.99

Images via Free League Publishing

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