Not a cup of sorrow (spoiler-free)
I am sharing my impressions on Tainted Grail mid-campaign. It will probably take me another week to finish the 15 chapters, I am currently near the end of Chapter 7. If my thoughts change when I reach the end, I may write another post, we'll see.
I am playing Ailei, a character not so good in battles but very strong in diplomacy (she even dances like Salome to persuade her opponents... see pic below). I have died once so far, and revived myself by following the directions in the rulebook (Allmother's mercy). I have leveled her up quite a bit, she has a much better combat deck now but still cannot face the tougher monsters. I think it would feel unnatural if she was invincible, though. I prefer it this way.
This is an exploration game through and through. Encounters with enemies are common but they are of secondary importance: mostly a means to gain food and loot. Each chapter gives you a new assignment to carry out in order to progress the story. Every time you reach a location, you have the option of exploring and finding out who lives there, what the landscape looks like, and what the social circumstances are. As the game progresses, you collect statuses that you cross off on your notepad so that you can eventually unlock further parts of the story.
The characters need food to survive, and they also have to remain sane. Being low on health and sanity can set you back for several rounds, and that is one way in which the game can drag. The other way is repeating certain challenges until you finally get them right. I found Chapter 5 annoying in this respect. The same applies when the storybook tells you to roll a die and get a 6. If you go 'by the book', you may get stuck in the same spot for some time just rolling and re-rolling. I despise petty rules of this kind, so just give myself the 6 and move on. Thankfully, it doesn't happen often.
A prerequisite for traveling on the map is lighting up the Menhirs. You can't go very far otherwise. Lighting each of them requires resources, so this may cause delays until you gather what you need. The game generally provides ways of stocking your board, so it's just a minor hassle but it can feel repetitive.
The story is well-written, and quite unique, or at least it doesn't resemble anything I have played so far. The artwork is beautiful too, the map a real pleasure to look at, and the components of high quality (the coins slide easily out of the Menhirs, you have to be careful not to bump them).
Tainted Grail is not perfect but it is very immersive. The chapter I was playing today (Chapter 7) took me the whole day, and I still haven't finished it (about 7 hours, the longest so far). Spending all this time without feeling bored is a great compliment to pay a game. That said, replayability is an issue. Even though there are various sub-quests that you may follow if you play again, I'm not sure I want to go through it twice. It would be interesting to see how the other heroes operate but I cannot imagine embarking on this epic journey for a second time, unless many months pass and I somehow long for it.
Compared to The 7th Continent, this has far better gameplay (but it still requires patience and persistence). I'm looking forward to sinking more hours into it. So I proclaim it our Solitaire Select of December.