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Potions And Pitfalls: My Year In Roguelikes

You read the article...It is cursed!

Featured post If a Roguelike sent you a Christmas card, this is what it would say

It’s been a fantastic year for Roguelikes, with continued development of the stalwarts and plenty of releases that have toyed with the formula, sometimes reshaping it until it’s almost unrecognisable. I’ve even managed to have great roiling arguments with people about whether certain games should be called Roguelikes or not. That led to Roguelikelikes, which I am simple enough of mind to be pleased about. I also love that people care so much about these permutations of a thirty one year old game that they are willing to bicker about them with strangers. The dungeons and wildernesses are more populated than ever. So, scrolls and potions at the ready? Down into the depths we go.

I know several people who had their first taste of Roguelike this year thanks to the comedic charms of Dungeons of Dredmor. To them I say, yes, drink well of this draught, but do not ignore the more potent chemicals on offer. You see, the cartoon silliness of Dredmor is wonderful, but the way I see it, it’s the perfect gateway offering. All the elements are in place, with plenty of odd perks and quirks, and the user interface is as friendly an example as you’ll experience. However, there simply isn’t all that much to Dredmor in comparison to the many games that inspired it. One day there may be. After all, it’s still growing and many roguelikes have been in development for decades.

I’ll talk about some of those wizened old gents later but first, a shout out to Brogue, which is my favourite discovery of the year in the field of traditional Roguelikes. In many ways, it’s a simpler take, and therefore another good way to introduce people to the genre. However, the simplicity is, in many ways, a paring back of clutter. Instead of having hundreds of monsters, Brogue has just a few but each one feels unique, with tricks and habits that mark it out. The dungeons also feel more varied and alive, with different types of terrain, randomly generated quest rooms and traps, and clever use of water. If you’ve never played a Roguelike at all, or only Dredmor, this could be the place to start.

This is Brogue. Say hello!

But now let’s look at the long-lived lords of the dungeon. Once upon a time, there were only four of these punishing delights that I was interested in. Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM), Angband, Nethack and Crawl. All but the first have masses of variants, which tend to either add lots and lots of new stuff or switch the theme. ADOM is somewhat unusual in that it has a quest more complex than ‘descend until you find the biggest baddie and then kill him’. ADOM’s story ties into an overworld that isn’t procedurally generated, with specific dungeons scattered about the place. Some are completely random, as you’d expect, others have certain ‘rules’ applied to their randomness and some have a custom design. On the whole, it’s loot-grabbing dungeon-crawling goodness though, with a vast array of races and classes to choose from and a more in-depth skill tree than is often the case.

For many years, ADOM was my Roguelike of choice. I’ve even beaten it a couple of times, which is more than can be said for any of the Angbands, Crawls and Hacks. I reckon it’s a good first step into the wider world, if only because the structure provides a decent sense of progression, and monsters and items fit generic fantasy types, making them easily recognisable by name, which is handy given their ascii form. ADOM’s creator has been talking about his next game, JADE, for many years now and it’s finally in playable form. This means ADOM’s development has (as far as I know) ceased completely, but because of its more prescribed course, it always felt like a more complete game than most of the others here anyway. Despite having been anticipating it for more than ten years, I haven’t played JADE yet. I’m waiting ’til it’s in a more finished state. You can download ADOM here.

Oh look, it's ADOM. Our names sound alike, I guess.

There’s a list of Angband variants here, several of which are still in development, but I find it hard to recommend any other than TOME in this day and age. The original Angband, dating back to 1990, took the Rogue template and added more of everything, overlaying a Middle Earth vibe in the process. TOME, which originally stood for Tales of Middle Earth, was originally a more Lord of the Ringsy take on the same code, but it now has its own mythology and offers a more tactical take on the proud perma-death traditions.

Like TOME, Incursion looks like any other roguelike but plays differently. With a stronger emphasis on meaningful character progression. I’m a huge fan but, sadly, it’s no longer in development and people far more on the ball than me inform me it is still in development and I was looking in the wrong place! Even when the original developers do seem to cease their labour though, thanks to the opensource nature of many Roguelikes, someone else will pick up the slack or implement the better ideas elsewhere. Unless that Roguelike is IVAN, which doesn’t look quite like any other Roguelike and hasn’t been copied anywhere near enough.

This is IVAN. Run away from its devious limb-chopping.

The inclusion of such glorious features as limb-loss, bleeding and body part transmutation required spritework that could show crimson pools and trails, as well as chunks of flesh scattered around a room. It’s woefully incomplete, with only a couple of areas to explore and coat with blood, but the graphics are actually quite lovely and having legs made of steel is impossible not to enjoy. It’s also the only game I know of, except for Die By The Sword perhaps, that actively encourages players to recreate the Black Knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The closest contender to TOME as a feature-packed, content-packed uber-example of the genre is probably Stone Soup, the definitive version of Crawl. It receives regular updates, has plenty of graphical options for those who desire them, and an incredible amount of items to identify, monsters to be killed by, and choices of character and religion. I’ve probably played it more than any other game this year, which is remarkable considering that it’s free and I’ve been playing what is essentially this same game since 1995. Actually, that’s not remarkable, it’s actually quite scary when I think about it, which is why I’m going to stop thinking about it.

That would be Rogue Survivor. Look at the little cars!

How’s about something with guns in it? There is a tendency to stick with the fantasy tropes of old but sometimes, a man just wants a shotgun and some demons to kill. Then that man realises that there is a Doom Roguelike (DoomRL), thinks that such a thing can’t possibly be any good and is then pleasantly surprised when it’s actually quite the thing. It doesn’t have a great deal of depth but it really is Doom as a Roguelike; everything you’d expect is in there and it all works as you’d expect. Except it’s turn-based. The next time someone mocks me for wishing more games were turn-based, I may just say, “Doom was turn-based, after all, and that worked very well indeed”, denying all knowledge of any other version.

There are more guns, although never enough, in Rogue Survivor. I’m always surprised there isn’t a more established zombie Roguelike and it’s a shame that progress on Survivor seems to have stalled somewhat. It’s a bit like Project Zomboid, except turn-based and with random generation. Even though zombies are officially boring now, slow-burning survival horror could be well-suited to the encouragement of exploration and fear of death that permeates Roguelikes, so I’d like to see this go further.

Red Rogue, that be. It's full of blood, just like a person!

Then there are the others, the outliers, the ones that don’t quite fit but I’d feel mean not to mention. The Binding of Isaac is one, of course, with its deliberately demented take on both Zelda and Rogue. It’s the Roguelike as arcade game, which is about as strange a cocktail as you could wish for. Particularly considering that the other primary ingredients are infant tears and fly-bothered piles of poo. Red Rogue is similar in some ways – like Spelunky before it, the easiest way to explain the Roguelike parts is simply to say they have been plugged into a platform game. In comparison to Spelunky, Red Rogue is more Roguelike and less platformer.

For the ultimate take on survival, and a game with both real time and turn-based segments, we must head into the frozen North where the unforgiving Unreal World awaits. There are no tournaments to be seen, just a Nordic landscape in which to hunt, cook, craft, build and die of hypothermia. It’s a game where an unexpected snowstorm can be the end of a character who doesn’t have the right clothing, which he may have made himself by killing and skinning a bear. It’s a game where, depending on the season and the weather, it might be necessary to punch holes in ice in order to fish, or to sleep beneath shelter in order to live through the night. In short, it’s not quite like anything else out there and I’m sure there are people who crave something just like it but don’t know it exists.

Desktop Dungeons approaches, looking coy and puzzlingly attractive.

Finally, Desktop Dungeons. One of my favourite games of recent years. It’s the Roguelike as puzzle game and it’s as close to perfect as any game I can think of, with a design that’s challenging, deceptively simple and immensely satisfying. It’s using the skin of a Roguelike to live within but what hides inside is something of an imposter. But that goes to show the skin has its own appeal, which continues to surprise me. When I first started playing these things, nearly twenty years ago, they felt doomed to be forgotten by all but a few. If anything, it feels like more people are playing and talking about them, or at least the things influenced by them, than ever before. Here’s to thirty more years of exploration and inspiration.

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Adam Smith

former Deputy Editor

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