First-person, Lovecraft-themed explorey-death game Eldritch is so good. Somehow I didn’t think that the first time I played it. I thought it was Quite Good, and then I forgot about it. Recently, I’ve been going back to it, in the way I used to go back to The Binding Of Isaac or Spelunky. A year later, it has its hooks in my mind.
Eldritch is a game for a certain mood. I’m not sure I was entirely in that mood the first time I played it. I couldn’t see past its influences, and so couldn’t see it.
On the other hand, the first time I played it I didn’t get to punch penguins. But that’s not really the point.
Eldritch looks like Minecraft: get over it. Eldritch is Eldritch, and what Eldritch is is a very loosely Lovecraft-inspired roguelite with ingenious monsters and appropriately disorienting random level design. It’s a quest to survive where the rules seem to change as you play, even though of course they don’t. It’s very hard. It’s very silly. It’s harder because it’s so silly – because it makes me think I don’t need to take it entirely seriously. I really should.
The part of Eldritch I keep going back to is the free Christmas expansion, the Mountains of Madness. I’m not a useful witness in telling you if this truly constitutes the ‘best’ part of Eldritch, but I have found it’s the quickest way to drop straight into a fraught adventure (especially if you’ve reinstalled your OS or are playing it another PC, as unlike the other sections of the game a portal to it is available right from the off). It also seems to hold its theme a little more adroitly as the levels fracture into fractured, planar surreality than the core game does. Or maybe I just accept that ice and snow can form into strange shapes and floating platforms more readily than I do that earth and stone can. In turn, I accept fully that I will never know what’s around the next corner or down the next hole, and that it might very well be more of a challenge than I can possibly meet.
The Eldritch expansion’s snowy mountains, gigantic murderous arctic wildfowl and terrifyingly prolific plummeting stalactites of death have become comfort gaming to me. I dip back in often, and almost always fail to last any meaningful length of time. I have this loose sense that one day I might achieve some sort of victory, but I don’t realistically expect to. I just play until the axe falls. Or until the stalactite falls, as the case may be.
The stalactites are exactly the kind of game mechanic I’d usually rail against. Looked at a certain way, they’d seem so completely unfair. It’s not enough to creep around Eldritch’s cuboid world, dodging or trepadatiously engaging monsters – you also need to scan the ceilings at all times, checking for those icy spikes which will tumble into the top of your skull at speed if you wander underneath them. They make the simple business of walking high-maintenance and exhausting. And that, that is Eldritch. Painstaking attention at all times, because even the ceiling wants to murder you. So many times I’ve survived a high-stakes fight against two penguins and a sort of bat-fly-statue that spits green fireballs, wander off in shaky triumph with only one health remaining and *splat*. All over. My fault, incontestably.
In Eldritch, I have to learn how to walk. Dodging ceiling spikes is nothing new, but from Eldritch’s faintly disorientating first-person perspective (and I like to crank the FOV up to create an oddness-emphasising fisheye effect) it really is. The act of looking up and panning around is as vital to survival as is finding a gun or knife, or hiding in a hole to dodge an invincible stalking creature. This is what brings me back, the sure conviction that I can do better next time – and the inevitably with which I won’t.
I feel similarly enthralled by Eldritch’s cruel limitations on weapons and items. I can only hold two at once, which means I must regularly make agonising sacrifices – leaving something behind that I just know would have been vital later. What I do keep only has a few uses before it crumbles, so every time I use it I flinch, knowing that I’m hastening my own doom by destroying my only aid. To thrust a dagger or swing a pickaxe is to be wracked with worry that I will never be able to do it again. That is Eldritch.
I should also mention the music. Eldritch has one of the most appropriate and effective soundtracks I’ve heard in a while – quiet, sinister sounds which mount tension and escalate dread, even when I’m doing nothing more than walking through a white floor devoid of all threat. What Eldritch does is to nail the sense of you are not safe. I like to leave it alt-tabbed with the music running while I work/read the news/watch Twitter fight its current, none-more-toxic culture war. I say ‘like’, but mean ‘feel like my mounting existential dread carries some import.’
Eldritch is so good. Accept your punishment.