We didn’t know it at the time, but Tombs of Terror would mark the end of an era. It was the last content piece to date based on the foundations of the original Dungeon Run vision, a slight tweak on The Dalaran Heist to re-introduce some of the most beloved characters in Hearthstone history: the members of the League of Explorers. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it holds up fairly poorly compared to its predecessor.
The Return of the League of Explorers
The entirety of the Year of the Dragon was a massive nostalgia ploy on the part of Team 5, bringing back most of the memorable Hearthstone-specific characters of the past, helmed by the League of Explorers. Say what you will about the set and the solo content itself – and their return was clearly what was meant to carry the entire Tombs of Terror experience –, the absolutely 10/10 trailer and song we got out of it all make up for all of its supposed shortcomings.
In retrospect, the second iteration of the LoE characters didn’t live up to the hype or their original designs. The decision to make them class-specific characters locked into one specific deckbuilding approach (highlander decks) greatly limited their applicability, which was perhaps the goal all along.
However, a big part of why they were so popular with the player base is that the cards based on the characters promoted unique and interesting gameplay:
- the first-ever Highlander payoff card and a mass neutral heal bomb
- a never-before-seen effect in Discovering a new Hero Power (as a regular Battlecry effect)
- the ability to mass-replace your remaining cards with Legendaries
- and to create insane added resources for three mana and an extra card)
This just simply hasn’t happened this time around. Tone-wise, there was also clearly a further shift towards the goofy end of the spectrum, moving the members of the League from lovable rascals to oh-so-funny incompetent stooges. (“Look! Stuff! I want stuff” is just not good dialogue, no matter what you tell me.)
The fact that these goofballs outdid the Kirin Tor is perhaps the biggest violation of the WoW canon in Hearthstone history: even if we’re long past the point of caring, the tonal shift even between LoE and ToT shows the team’s clear shift to a more kid-friendly tone for the game’s solo content, a process that will culminate in Galakrond’s Awakening soon thereafter.
Oh, we’ll get back to that soon enough.
Fire, Madness… Murlocs!
Beloved characters were brought back for a slightly tweaked version of the beefed-up Dungeon Run formula showcased in the Dalaran Heist to great effect. That’s about all we’ve got, really: gameplay-wise, the piece of innovation on offer was the raid boss-esque design of the Plague Lords, plus the dual-class nature of the four adventurers’ decks.
Even these were constrained, however: the four members of the League were unevenly dispersed across the chapters, requiring separate unlocks over time. This approach made more sense with The Dalaran Heist’s larger roster of characters, comprised mostly of then-unknown henchmen, but not making all members of the League available side by side seems like an odd choice in retrospect. It certainly isn’t enough to prompt a purchase by itself, and similarly, only a small portion of the player base would choose to replay the solo content just because of this if they didn’t enjoy it otherwise.
There isn’t even an exciting deckbuilding aspect of the cross-class Explorers as their starting decks are pre-determined, Dalaran Heist-style, and the power level progression is determined by the draft buckets and the Bazaar Bob encounters as seen before.
Treasure-wise, the one notable new idea is the junior and senior versions of certain signature treasures, made available after defeating one and all four Plague Lords, respectively. Making you more powerful when you’ve already proven to be capable of defeating the base game is an often-used design tool leading into ”New Game+” setups, but there simply isn’t enough depth here for it, making this another odd content gatekeeping choice.
As for the bosses themselves, the whole idea is that they have a massive health pool that doesn’t regenerate between runs. Thematically, this is meant to convey incredible strength and difficulty – in practice, it just removes the failure state. The battles themselves are also supremely grindy as a result, and not at all difficult because of the usual zombie cabbage nature of Hearthstone’s AI – a good player can one-shot them with ease, albeit at a significant cost of time, with not much fun being had in the process.
Also, the completion reward art isn’t even original: it’s a still shot from the trailer. I know because I watched that trailer way too many times.
A Desert of Replayability
Ultimately, Tombs of Terror is to the Dalaran Heist what Monster Hunt was to Dungeon Run: a quick reskin for the next content release with some small-scale adjustments, offering less replayability than the original content piece. With such a quantum leap made through the previous outing, this seems fine even in retrospect, even if it means there’s little reason to replay this particular solo experience over the previous one.
There’s no extended character roster to work with, and the plague boss mechanic is very limited in scope, so much so that it does basically nothing to the standard gameplay loop if you’re an experienced player. It really feels like a “one and done” kind of experience looking back at it today.
In fact, perhaps the most surprising aspect of revisiting Tombs of Terror was realizing that it was, indeed, the last content piece of its kind to date, and in that sense, it is extremely lacking: it feels like an afterthought in concept and execution alike compared to its predecessor, and with just how much of a tacked-on exercise in pointlessness the Galakrond’s Awakening solo content piece turned out to be (which I’ve clearly soured on over time), this is a rather dissonant note to end things.
Of course, this series is not exactly over yet: next up, we’ll be looking at a grab-bag of content pieces, with a few thoughts on Galakrond’s Awakening and Demon Hunter’s arrival before diving into the Book of Heroes/Mercenaries stuff (since it makes more sense to skew up the timeline for consistency) and, finally, exploring the big question: just why did it turn out to be such a failure when Team 5 tried to adapt all this good stuff into a PvP format with Duels? It’s been quite a journey, and the end is now in sight…