Premature Evaluation: Caves of Qud

We’re at a weird place in videogames - and possibly in culture in general - where certain tropes have ingrained themselves around the notion of mutation which diametrically misrepresent how it works. I’m not saying that’s entirely a bad thing - Caves of Qud would be a lesser game if it didn’t indulge the fantasy of being able to sprout multiple legs and quills, while farting out a cloud of sleeping gas. Yet it’s peculiar that we have seized upon and so widely propagated such a fanciful interpretation of a process that, when considered as part of evolutionary adaptation, is defined by its sloth, incrementality and a total lack of governing agency.

Each week Marsh Davies sniffs out advantageous evolutions among the many horrendous deformities of Early Access, and comes back with any stories he can find and/or succumbs to a gruesome fate in a Darwinian dead-end. This week, every which way he turns is a genetic cul-de-sac in Caves of Qud [Steam page], an uncompromisingly old-school Rogue-like set in a doggedly lo-fi post-apocalyptic sci-fantasy world, heavy on simulation and mutation both.

Caves of Qud probably has one of the best Early Access pitches I’ve read – and it would have to be to get me to play it. I have zero nostalgia and a negative value of patience for the sort of restrictions, both graphical and mechanical, that existed in the era of games this apes. Things have just got objectively better since then. Mouse menus are a boon that should not be abandoned without good reason in favour of operating hugely complex games entirely through the number pad and a mnemonically-resistant quantity of keybindings. What could possibly compensate me adequately for an aesthetic and interface I am guaranteed to find pedantic, hostile and pointless? “Deeply simulated physical and political systems” would be a good place to start. “Thousand-year-old civilizations”? Sure, okay. Apparently, you can “dig a tunnel anywhere in the world” or, should you find it an appealing notion, “clone yourself, mind-control the clone, and then hack off your own limbs.” I am down with that, or at least the granular, reactive simulation it suggests. “Diseases, storied artifacts, history books, the poetic ramblings of a mad goatman, cryogenic chambers” and more – these are just cherries on an epic procedural cake.

Yet this is a cake of which I have barely sampled a single crumb. Instead, the only story I am qualified to recount is that of The Many Deaths of Bernard Pondscum.

Perhaps the problem is the word “adaptation” - it suggests intention, at least to a layperson. But there was obviously no intention on the part of the darker-hued peppered moths who better survived the industrial revolution thanks to their colour more closely camouflaging them against the soot-covered trees where they liked to rest. They just lucked out and fucked a lot, while the pale-winged peppered moths were busy being eaten.

Really, my only significant interaction with the game’s procedural promise has come in the form of the character creator, and the huge number of funny, lurid variants that this enables. Choosing to be a mutant invites radiation that lets you go to town on your genome. From the outset, my character has a tough carapace, two extra arms and burrowing claws. I select the amphibious trait, too – a debuff that frees up a few more mutie points but means I have to regularly pour water over myself to remain verdant and wet, which is quite a disadvantage given how precious a resource water is. Also, I photosynthesise rather than eat food, which means as well as staying wet at all times I am compelled to bask in the sun. I am a frogman of contradictions.

Sensing I may not have min-maxed my stats adequately, I choose a career as a water merchant, which means I have good standing with the water barons, hopefully mitigating the cost of my relentless thirst. Though, it transpires, Bernard Pondscum (for I am he) will be lucky to live long enough to ever feel a bit parched.

Caves of Qud evens out its joyfully silly genetic blessings of spinnerets and stingers with less useful but considerably more probable mutations like brittle bones and hemophilia. But perhaps beastly appendages do have some small foundation in science after all: cases of atavism, whereby a trait from a distant evolutionary ancestor manifests in a modern organism, have been observed in humans. In 2010, a 59-year old man was referred to the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital with chest pains. Upon investigation, doctors assessed that the circulatory structure of his heart was that of a reptile.

I begin the game in the oasis-village of Joppa, on the outskirts of a vast salt desert. Farmers here cultivate watervines and live in huts hewn from rocksalt. I poke my head into various of these buildings until I locate the village elder who, after an economic preamble, informs me about the reward he’s offering for dealing with a bestial incursion threatening the watervine groves. I am to speak to Mehmet, a farmer who will give me more details.

Mehmet suggests I head up north to a place called Red Rock, kill whatever critters are chomping watervine, and bring back a corpse as proof. Sounds like a starter quest to me!

It really isn’t.

Though this was only the second case of its kind observed in humans, it is perhaps less surprising when explained. Embryologic development is itself a microcosmic repetition of the evolutionary development of the entire species. Embryonic human hearts first resemble those of fish, with but two chambers, then reptiles, with three, and finally grow a fourth. So Mr Snakeheart here must have had some developmental problems that left his ticker stuck in the tail end of the Paleozoic era. He was fine by the way - discharged with an elevated regimen of β-blockers.

Venturing north, I pass pools of water and giant dragonflies. Things start killing each other around me – I can tell this from the occasional bursts of particulates and floating text which reads “critical hit” but cannot see the actual combatants in question. I am informed that a feral dog has died. Then another. Poor dogs. I soon have my own problems, though, as a red collection of pixels that turns out to be a salamander makes a beeline for me and we exchange a lengthy flurry of ineffectual blows, its teeth never penetrating my tough carapace and my merchant’s medallion inflicting very little damage in return. It is in fact a puzzle as to why I am attacking with the medallion as I have a dagger equipped in one of my other three hands. Nonetheless the salamander eventually dies, and I journey on, only to immediately encounter another salamander – presumably a bigger one – which kills me after a short battle.

Bernard didn’t really get a chance to show the world what he was made of, I feel, and luckily the game has the option to roll the exact same character build. I do so, and also check the help section of the menu. There are a few useful tips about hot-keys and what numbers mean, though nothing that would explain how I can choose to attack with one weapon instead of another. More helpful is the suggestion I visit the village merchant and better equip myself before venturing further afield. I do so, and snag myself a large sword, which Bernard also refuses to use in preference to his medallion, and some armour it turns out I can’t even wear – presumably because it doesn’t fit over my carapace.

Though there is a strong indication that modern medicine has aided a decline in evolution among humans, by negating survival of the fittest, recent studies by, among others, the University of Sheffield, suggest that we are still subject to evolutionary factors. Sexual selection still shows clear preferences which shape characteristics in a population, and we still kill ourselves with food early enough, and in large enough quantities, that there is sufficient selective pressure for adaptations to prosper that allow us to better metabolise our crappy calorific diets without succumbing to heart disease or diabetes.

Though the village remains the same, the land to its north, to which the quest still directs me, has changed in its specific layout. Its inhabitants appear to be no friendlier and after several near lethal punch-ups, I unequip the medallion entirely, forcing Bernard to consider using one of the several other weapons in each of his hands. He also throws the occasional arrow, which appears not to be equipped in any of them. The salamanders nonetheless fall beneath Bernard’s might. The albino ape I run into next does not, however, and pummels me bloody, only for an electric snail to pop up out of nowhere and deliver the killing blow as I turn to flee.

I confess to suddenly being less excited about the emergent possibilities of this world.

On my third adventure, I note that the merchant’s merchandise is different, and buy a hoopy-sounding carbide sword, which Bernard is nonetheless similarly ambivalent about using, and a buckler, which may or may not make any difference – who knows? I am killed instantly by a rifle turret I never see.

The most drastic mutations are, however, usually horrifying and fatal - and yet not always eradicated from a species due to natural selection thanks to onset in late age. Hilary and Joselin Linder, however, are doing their best. They suffer from a truly horrendous genetic disease that claimed the lives of several of their ancestors, including their father - causing him to swell so grotesquely that his organs fused together. According to the NBC story to which this image links, “his body filled with a creamy white fluid, which doctors pumped out by the liter”. Genetic sleuthing, however, revealed that the family curse went no further back than their great grandmother. This is a young disease, and though it has no cure, it can at least be stopped, as long as no one passes it on.

A Steam Guide suggests that this starting quest is in fact a hilarious trick, and I should never go to Red Rock before I have a healthy number of levels under my belt. Instead, another villager called Argyve will apparently give me a different quest to find some artefacts. However, his suggestion of where I might find them is also a trick, and I should ignore that too. Luckily, the random loadout Bernard starts with has blessed him with two artefacts with which I can immediately resolve this quest. Argyve is pleased and I get some XP, level up and sprout a new mutation, chosen from a selection of three. I pick phasing, which will allow me to become insubstantial for a number of turns and pass through solid objects. Rather than do Argyve’s next quest, which involves fetching copper wire from a cave, the guide suggests I now grind a few more levels by killing weak monsters near the village, also emphasising this vital tip: you can hit L to activate a “look” mode, whereby you are given descriptions and difficulty ratings for any critter on your selected tile. Great! Though I do wonder: when are we getting to those deeply simulated political systems?

The monsters do not prove to be especially weak, however, and I find myself pretty bruised even after battles rated as “easy”. Tougher monsters aggro you and pursue you as fast as you run away, too, so combat is not exactly elective. The Snapjaw Scavengers, which the description suggests are mutant hyena tribespeople, are no particular bother, but as I am fleeing from a bear (rated impossible) some sort of blob thing, the name of which I fail to record, almost does for me. I use one of my mutant abilities to puke slime, which appears to slow it down while I dart around some rocksalt walls and high-tail it back to the village, pausing only to pour water over myself and to equip a torch as the day’s light fails.

The Linder sisters are committed to ensuring that the disease dies with them and have the rare opportunity to make it so. But while their efforts - which have included abortions and in vitro fertilization - to prevent a horrible killer condition spreading into the wider gene-pool are to be lauded, it’s a case that provokes a lot of difficult questions about the extent to which we should choose to meddle in our genes. Life-ending conditions may be a no-brainer, but where do we draw the line, morally and legally, between preventing suffering and mere preference?

Now better aware of how to exploit my mutant abilities, sliming monsters, phasing out of their reach and basking in the sun to regain HP, I can see the combat has potential to be interesting. In an attempt to live a little longer, however, I am forced to grind, killing what appear to be lily pads and other boringly easy prey. Not that this strategy helps: my luck runs out, and I get pincered by a couple of crocs and die, losing all of my meagre, but hard-won, progress. I am unconvinced that permadeath is particularly desirable in something that promises to be a lengthy RPG with an abundance of grind. In fact, after further fruitless attempts, I am unconvinced of many other things: primarily, that this interface is a useful way to present what is clearly a richly simulated and imaginative game world full of funny, well-authored detail.

I am so eager for a game which offers this but is also happy to let me actually reach it. This may well be a flaw with me, but I personally do not find an insistence on obscurity and hardship even remotely beguiling. I’m sure I’m doing loads wrong – and that more persistent, self-flagellating or forgiving gamers will find a great deal more to enjoy – but, honestly, if the game doesn’t care to help me, then I struggle to care about the game. There are loads of games out there, some good, many awful. So I appreciate it when a game meets me half-way to show me why it’s worth the effort and time to parse stuff it has left deliberately obscure. Caves of Qud already feels, evidently with precise intention, like a throwback. Without any minor adaptation towards accessibility, poor old Bernard, along with his place in my games library, may well succumb to Darwinian obsolescence.

Caves of Qud is available from Steam for £7. I played the version with the build ID 700253 on 18/07/2015. It wasn’t my thing and I feel dead bad about that.


Top comments

  1. Yglorba says:

    Some general advice to anyone trying to get into it:

    You should start with at least 18 toughness on almost every character, unless you have a specific plan to avoid getting hit.

    Mutants should try and always have at least one escape option or 'panic button' power available. Teleportation, Intimidate, Force Wall, Force Bubble, and so on are all good options. Use these to escape if you get into a jam. Proselytize and Beguiling also help in that your charmed minion can fight enemies while they escape. Note that Proselytize works on almost anything if you try it enough; you can charm a watervine farmer in town for an initial helper. They're surprisingly tough.

    It's also good to have one strong attack option. The stingers, the fire / ice hands, light manipulation, pyro/cryokinesis, charmed allies (again), or a gun (you can buy one from the starting shop) are all good choices.

    For the watervine quest, there is a hidden entrance to a tunnel that leads to the depths of red rock in the pond of water in the northwest of Joppa (you can find it by trying 'down' in parts of the pool.) Usually you'd find it on the way out, but you can use it to go in, too, and it's actually a lot safer. Just descend until you find the underground river, then follow it to the source.
  1. Gothnak says:

    I like your stories, play more, die more… That is all…

  2. stonetoes says:

    You can turn off permadeath and enable the save/load feature in the “debug” section of the options, though I have no idea how stable it is or how it works. I played an old version of this a long time ago and I’m pretty sure I save-scummed relentlessly, having a similar feeling towards permadeath as Marsh does.

    Anyone know how much has changed with this game compared to a couple of years ago? Is it worth paying for the new version if you’re not bothered about the new graphics?

    • Yglorba says:

      It has not changed dramatically; most of the time since then was spent working on Sproggiwood (their other game), not Qud.

    • Hamses says:

      Save/Load did not seem to work for me.

      But ‘never die’ does :)

    • DarrenGrey says:

      The free version is still available, and I think is the same minus the graphics. They are planning big content updates to both free and Steam versions though. Buying the Steam version is an easy way of supporting the devs and getting auto-updates.

      There was a recent AMA with the developers on reddit here:

      link to

      • JiminyJickers says:

        I read in their forums that they will keep updating the Free version of the game, once the Steam version is done. It wont have the tiles or sounds, but it seems that otherwise it will be identical. So it is a good way to get a feel for the game.

        I’m currently trying it for the first time. Will see if it is worth paying money for.

  3. mxmissile says:

    Stick to Call of Duty 29946 Ultra Deluxe, that type of game should suit you better.

  4. pullthewires says:

    “I am unconvinced that permadeath is particularly desirable in something that promises to be a lengthy RPG with an abundance of grind”

    100% agree here. The whole “THIS IS SILLY HARD AND ALSO PERMADEATH” things works on games like, say, Nethack, because for all the trappings of complication, they’re usually very simple at heart. You go to the bottom of the dungeon, get the amulet, come back up. Yes, you need to pick up a few items on your way, and are almost required to grab a few more to make it, but if you die you don’t actually lose much and can quickly start again. A more modern example is FTL – you don’t go back too far and the gameplay doesn’t evolve too much over the course of a single game.

    • AngoraFish says:

      Entirely agree. Permadeth is a crutch that’s often there simply because it’s a genre staple, but permadeth is a mechanic just like any other and needs to achieve something through its presence.

      The most appropriate use of permadeth is to add weight to player choice, whereby the player always knows that they died because of something that was in their power to avoid. Permadeth becomes a mechanism to force the player to improve their play by learning what they did wrong to kill themselves and learning to avoid that mistake next.

      Permadeth due to arbitrary events completely outside a player’s control, such as getting killed by a turrent off-screen or running into high level creatures randomly spawned immediately outside the starter area, is lazy procedural design that adds little to a game other than frustration. If one is going to have these kinds or arbitrary deaths completely outside the players control a save system is the only way to make such outcomes palatable, although even then it’s still just lazy design.

      • MellowKrogoth says:

        You fail to explain why you think permadeath is a “crutch”. They’re relying on it for…?

        Permadeath’s main use is to make the game more tense, because every combat could be your last. For some people it can mean the difference between furiously hitting the reload button at the first sign things are not going their way, and fighting to the end with creative solutions and perhaps living to see another day after all.

        I think it can work well even in a game with high randomness (i.e. occasional unfairness) as long as the game is short. Case in point: IVAN. It’s impossible to go very far in that game, but it’s so insane that you’re likely to have fun before your inevitable death (probably from loss of multiple limbs). However I agree that high randomness, long game length and permadeath are a cocktail for a really bad game.

    • malkav11 says:

      I like TOME 4’s system. There’s an explorer mode where you can die an infinite number of times; a normal mode that’s the intended way to play where you get a couple of extra lives, more of which are doled out every so often at certain milestones, and you permadie after exhausting those; and the “hardcore” mode where your first death is also your last. They’ve tried to eliminate the straight up bullshit deaths, but normal’s generally the way to go even so.

    • Axebird says:

      Caves of Qud is a lot like Nethack, though instead of one really long dungeon you have shorter ones with tight themes and lots of exploration and optional areas. Like Golgotha, which involves a death race to the bottom of a series of trapped conveyor belt shafts and pools of slime lurking with giant eels and an acidic slug monster.

      The review is pretty horribly misleading. There’s virtually no grinding (and in fact, grinding is a terrible strategy since you get less and less experience for fighting the same level of enemies) involved, Red Rock is a great first place to go to get a few levels and better equipment, and you should expect to hit things with the item in your hand labeled as “* Primary”, not get indignant about why you attack less with your off hands than your primary weapon.

  5. caff says:

    This article and pullthewires’ comments echo my own thoughts as I uninstalled Caves of Qud this morning. I wanted to love it – it sounded genuinely mad – but it doesn’t exactly ease you in.

    • Premium User Badge

      Waltorious says:

      Caves of Qud is great (although I haven’t tried the new Steam version yet, only the older freeware release) but it is not easy for new players. A few words of advice for newbies:

      (NOTE: Hints are based on the older freeware version, some things may have changed)

      1) Don’t just walk out of town and try to travel to Red Rock that way. Use the world map to travel, and you’ll skip a lot of tough wilderness monsters and go straight to the cave, which actually isn’t that hard (although it can still be tough while you’re learning the ropes). I know this doesn’t make sense, but it works… it’s like Arcanum that way.

      2) Mutants are cool and fun to design, but they can be harder for new players. Try out a True Man, at least a few times. They have higher stats and better equipment, which make it easier to learn how the game works. Also, their high stats (especially Intelligence) make them great at tinkering (crafting) which can be really fun later on. Some of my favorite characters were True Men who learned to build laser rifles out of scrap. They were awesome.

      3) For a boost in the beginning, you can steal from the chests in Joppa. Just close the doors to the huts so no one sees you. This stuff can either be traded or used as “artifacts” to finish Argyve’s first quest for an easy level up. That one level can help a lot. You may decide not to do this for roleplaying reasons once you get a better feel for the game, but it will help a lot when starting out.

      Once you have an idea of how everything works, you can think carefully about skills and mutations and how to build a character that works well. For example, shields are just dead weight without the right skill, but they can be awesome if you choose the correct skills. Learn about how the combat system works too (explained under the F1 help); it’s different from most roguelikes but has interesting aspects. The penetration / damage stats mean different weapons are better for heavily armored foes versus lightly armored ones, and different accuracy levels help differentiate the ranged weapons as well.

      I had a lot of fun playing a dodging-based character, who only looked for armor that boosted dodging (skipping all the heavy platemail) and pumped the appropriate stats and skills. She was almost untouchable, and ran around stabbing everything with a pair of short swords or sniping things with an eigenrifle. Totally awesome.

      It’s worth digging into Caves of Qud. I had a high survival rate once I learned the basics, and it’s fun to try out some crazy different characters.

      Not sure how I feel about those tiles though, they almost look MORE confusing than the original ASCII. I guess I’ll see when I try the new version out.

  6. subshell001 says:

    the weapon you put in the hand-slot that has the bright-green asterisk is your dominant hand. your dominant hand is what determines the attacking weapon. if you look through the different skills that you can unlock, you will see there are skills that enable attacking with your off-hand.

  7. Yglorba says:

    Some general advice to anyone trying to get into it:

    You should start with at least 18 toughness on almost every character, unless you have a specific plan to avoid getting hit.

    Mutants should try and always have at least one escape option or ‘panic button’ power available. Teleportation, Intimidate, Force Wall, Force Bubble, and so on are all good options. Use these to escape if you get into a jam. Proselytize and Beguiling also help in that your charmed minion can fight enemies while they escape. Note that Proselytize works on almost anything if you try it enough; you can charm a watervine farmer in town for an initial helper. They’re surprisingly tough.

    It’s also good to have one strong attack option. The stingers, the fire / ice hands, light manipulation, pyro/cryokinesis, charmed allies (again), or a gun (you can buy one from the starting shop) are all good choices.

    For the watervine quest, there is a hidden entrance to a tunnel that leads to the depths of red rock in the pond of water in the northwest of Joppa (you can find it by trying ‘down’ in parts of the pool.) Usually you’d find it on the way out, but you can use it to go in, too, and it’s actually a lot safer. Just descend until you find the underground river, then follow it to the source.

    • Expanding Man says:

      Great info.

      Any advice on how to handle ammo for guns early in the game? For the first couple of areas I go to, I’m usually stuck using a bow because there’s no ammo to be found. Of course, I eventually get to a place where I find more ammo than I know what to do with, but not having it available early on makes it hard to get started with ranged characters.

      • Yglorba says:

        Bullets can be purchased fairly cheaply from most merchants, like the one in the eastern part of the first town. They restock their supply every so often. They’re weightless, so always try and purchase as many as possible.

  8. ventricule says:

    This is a very interesting take on this game. Personnally, I have come to like it quite dearly, and I can promise fellow RPSers that they will find some enjoyment behind the early frustrations depicted here. However, I also believe that being a roguelike should not be an excuse for horrible UI design, and ultra steep learning curve. You can get over these after some (a lot of!) work, but most people won’t do the effort. I hope that the developpers will read this article and try to fix some of these shortcomings.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      Being a roguelike often means tons of interacting complex systems and many possible player actions. Designing a user-friendly UI for that is pretty much Mission Impossible, so yeah to me it’s a good excuse.

      It’s even more true for the graphics. Good luck representing graphically all the crazy actions, events and random equipment in a game like Nethack (fall down the stairs with a ball and chain to your ankle and Medusa’s head in your hands, get turned to stone).

      Basically if you want the complexity and deep systems, deal with the awkward UI and inexistent graphics… else go play the prettier but notably simplified versions which are more and more common on Steam. Or wait years for a team to tackle the challenge of making a roguelike that’s both pretty AND super-convoluted.

  9. mgardner says:

    I played this for the first time today, spending a few hours on it. My first character was cool, with neat-sounding mutant abilities; sounded like it would be fun to play. He died horribly against the weakest enemies.

    My second character was a dull, drab, run-of-the-mill non-mutated human with high strength and bashy skills – standard beginner build for ANY roguelike. The elder quest was trivial with this guy, I never really felt in danger. But he is not very fun to play, it’s like I won’t be able to dig into any of the game’s interesting systems with this guy. Plus he will probably get killed by the first esper he comes across.

    My hope is that I can learn the basics with the dull guy, and then have more success with an interesting build. But it’s a shame I couldn’t find a way to play with something that interests me the first time through.

    • EhexT says:

      One of the most ridiculous over the top builds is also one of the strongest: A self-cloning mental mutant shooting lasers. Easy fights are quickly ended by pin point lasers and hard fights turn into a rave when you multiply yourself and lasers fly all over the place. You can make it even more ridiculous by taking the Evil Twin penalty to free up more points (and ensure self-cloning laserman vs self-cloning laserman fights). Bonus advantage: Laser power also gives you a free, no hands light source.

      • Yglorba says:

        Light Manipulation and Temporal Fugue (the self-cloning power) are definitely powerful when combined. I would suggest adding Teleportation, which will require a flaw; this allows you to skip out yourself while leaving teleporting duplicates behind. Clairvoyance also helps immensely (when combined with teleportation, your duplicates will teleport directly to enemies you’ve spotted via Clairvoyance and murder them for you, while you can teleport to safety.)

        • jrodman says:

          How is it permadeath when you die thousands of times per game???????

  10. Expanding Man says:

    Rarely do I find RPS articles to miss the mark so badly. I’ve been blown away by Caves of Qud, and I didn’t find it even remotely as opaque or difficult (though it certainly is difficult) as this article would suggest.

    I started playing Caves of Qud shortly following the Steam release. Admittedly the fact that I am a passionate Gene Wolfe fan was no small part of the reason I felt compelled to pick it up. I’ve bounced off traditional rogue-likes maybe once or twice in the course of twenty years, but most of my experience from rogue-likes comes from the recent more variegated and less aptly-named variety, so I have absolutely zero nostalgic connection to this particular type of game. I also hate the the decrepit UI, the only reason to excuse it would possibly be because of lack of resources on the part of the developer. (Though, it didn’t take me anywhere near as much time to get used to as this article would imply, it’s just sub-optimal.)

    That said, wow, just wow. This is probably the single most interesting and sophisticated character stats and progression system I’ve ever seen in any RPG ever. It makes me wonder if I have been cheating myself by staying away from traditional rogue-likes. I am only now digging in to the more complicated character builds, so perhaps I should temper my enthusiasm, but I’ve already succeeded in constructing a bewildering variety of “warrior” and “rogue” build-types, many of which seemed fairly effective.

    As far as permadeath goes: yeah, I have to agree to some extent, it’s too heavy-handed for a game this intricate. Permadeath is addicting, but it seems out of place in such an enormous compelling world, with the aforementioned fascinating character builds and seemingly endless possibilities for progressing said characters. There is a debug option to allow saves, and I rather expect that whatever form the final version of this takes, it’ll have some sort of save mechanism to allow players to cheat death.

    • Expanding Man says:

      By the way, I completed both of the opening quests multiple times.

    • jrodman says:

      The classic roguelikes, from Angband, hack, nethack, to crawl, adom, etc all have fairly sophisticated character and combat systems. They’re games where in many cases development has simmered for decades, with people slowly coming up with better solutions to game design and mechanics problems, and clever additions that fit well to the shape of the games have been born.

      These modern commercial roguelikes with no sourcecode aren’t as refined, but they do build on the shoulders of giants.

      Part of it is that they really don’t work too hard on the presentation / interface side of things. I don’t mean that the interfaces etc are bad, but they’re easy to code, and don’t get in the way of incorporating vastly different types of systems and abstraction, where a game with well-honed focused UIs and polished graphics would not be as easy to adapt.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      Play Nethack to wonder at the insanity of it all and crazy interactions that are coded into the game. Then once you want to play a game that’s actually playable without reading tons of spoilers, go for Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. That game is so expansive with incredible amounts of content and has so many possibilities in its RPG system, I guarantee your mind will be blown. It even has some very convenient interface features such as auto-explore, removes the boring parts once you’re a seasoned player. It’s also very well balanced… for a sadistic roguelike ;) .

  11. Fuligin says:

    Qud is a difficult roguelike even by the standards of the genre, although it’s difficulty goes down a great deal when you get a grasp on using your mutations to maximum advantage. I have to disagree pretty strongly on UI though, Qud has one of the best I’ve ever seen for this sort of game. Grinding, too, isn’t really a fun or efficient way to play a character, compared to making scavenging excursions out of the towns for loot and xp, but it’s not intuitive off the bat, I’ll concede.

    Also the game’s tone/story is legitimately rad and unique.

    • Yglorba says:

      I’d argue that Qud’s difficulty is mostly a result of the flexibility of its character generation, which makes it easy to make characters that simply don’t work. A well-made mutant has no real trouble with the early quests, but it takes a lot of trial and error to figure out what combinations work.

      I think part of the reason the game has permadeath is to encourage people to experiment with different combinations of mutations rather than trying to grind through with a combination that simply isn’t likely to work. (Like, say, Davies’ character had 14 toughness, but all their mutations were focused on close- range combat — even if they were able to keep going after dying, a character like that is only going to hit more and more brick walls.)

      Of course, there’s enough variance in the game that it can be hard for new players to tell if they died because their build is no good, because they wandered somewhere they shouldn’t have, because they made a mistake or because of terrible luck. I think it could benefit from less variance early on, to give people a chance to get the hang of how things work so that when they do die, they’re better equipped to get a sense of what the cause was and how they can avoid it next time.

      (Although I think a good way for new players to approach the game is to play a mutant and, if they die, make another mutant with a mutation that would have saved them from whatever killed them. Think of it as natural selection in action!)

  12. Duke of Chutney says:

    I’ve beaten the Red Rock part, though not in the steam version, perhaps its now harder. Roguelikes can be a bit like novels or table top rpgs, they expect the participant to raise their understanding to their level and often shun accessibility. Whether this is acceptable or not is subjective rather than objective in my view.

    The difficulty in roguelikes is comparable to shutemups or hardcore platformers, they are in some respects more of a life style game for certain dedicated individuals than for the masses.

    • jrodman says:

      I prefer to play all of those types of games with source code available. I typically find a very enjoyable experience in there somewhere.

  13. TheKindlyUbermench says:

    Your lovely prose is appreciated, sir. By WE DISCRIMINATING FEW.

  14. Moth Bones says:

    Very interesting and readable review. There aren’t many negative write-ups that make me want to play a game, but this is one. The death to an unseen rifle turret is pretty crappy, mind.

  15. anonzp says:

    “doing things is hard!”

    and thats why we have games like skyrim

    • Harlander says:

      Such wonders this world holds, that all those who wish to play a game might find one of their desiring, no matter how steep or shallow the learning curve they wish to ascend. Truly we live in the greatest of times.

      That’s what you meant, right?

  16. vahnn says:

    I was initially enraged by the difficulty of this game, but I read through the F1 help section and put some more thought into selecting my mutations after a decent amount of time actually reading all the abilities. I also found that the Look, Rest Until Healed, and Sprint commands (Sprint must be assigned a key from the Abilities menu (‘A’ key)) are all game-changers!

    It’s become apparent to me that creating your character is a HUGE factor in your enjoyment of the game. Obviously. For instance: If you opt to play a mutant, it’s best to go as either full physical or full mental to get the most out of your relevant stats. For a mental mutant, you want to maximize your Ego to boost the effectiveness of all your powers, and a bit into Willpower as well to reduce cooldowns. Also, as a mental mutant, you can pick up lots of new mutations and just focus on your Ego stat and all your skills will still be greatly effective. But as a physical mutant, you’ll want to pick a good combination of mutations from the start and spend allll your points into leveling those. (I’m a huge fan of Carapace + Paralyizing Stinger + Horns for physical, Beguiling + Time Dilation + Light Manipulation + Temporal Fugue for mental.)

    It’s very important to have at least 1 escape in addition to your Sprint ability. Being able to teleport or slow time enough for you to escape any power enemies who get the drop on you will greatly extend your life span. But most importantly, you need to constantly watch your HP every time you move, and don’t be afraid to take some extra time and hit the L key to look at the various enemies before engaging in a fight!

    And never, ever be afraid to run like a little bitch.

  17. pistolhamster says:

    This looks enjoyable. However, I am a bit wary of yet another Early Access game. Can’t people just finish up their stuff these days? Like, this game is now Good, we release it! Might be improved upon later, but it is essential good now. Go play, feature complete and with the full story.

    Right now I have a few So-called early access games in my list that will stay there a long time
    Project Zomboid is by far the worst. Been here for 4 years now I think. FOUR YEARS!
    And this one looks like it has a bit of the same kind of development arc as Dwarf Fortress, with great periods of nothing.

    Allay my fears: is it now in its current state a wholesome game? Otherwise Ill put it on the Watchlist on Steam and wait.

    • Premium User Badge

      Waltorious says:

      I understand the concern over Early Access games, but Early Access really is perfect for roguelikes. The classic roguelike games were basically already doing the Early Access thing, constantly being updated and refined for years.

      And yes, Caves of Qud is already a pretty great game. I actually haven’t even tried the Steam version yet, but I played the earlier freeware release. Even though it clearly wasn’t finished (there’s a “main story” type questline that just stops) it was still tons of fun, albeit difficult to learn at first. This version is apparently updated since then so it should be even better (e.g. the faction stuff wasn’t in the earlier version yet). I’m glad to see the developers returning to Qud because with some more content it could turn out to be truly special.

      Anyway, rather than ramble on about it too much here, I’ll just point to a long blog post I wrote about it for those who are interested:
      link to

      • tanith says:

        Yeah but it’s not always easy to see how complete a game is?
        Let’s take Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup. They are constantly bringing out new releases and adding features so you might say that it’s not really complete but that is not true because you can actually find the fucking orb of Zot and that’s it, the game is done once you got it out. You can still extend the game.

        So what about Caves of Qud? Does it have an endgame scenario? Does it have an ending? I’m all for expanding a game but it should be complete in a sense that there is an achievable goal. I mean, this is not like the adventure mode of Dwarf Fortress where it’s open-ended, right?

        • Yglorba says:

          There is currently no endgame (although the main quest currently ends on a climactic note and is long enough for a typical roguelike, the story of the main plot is not yet resolved.)

          It can definitely be played like the adventure mode of dwarf fortress, though. The entire world has endless caverns extending underneath it essentially everywhere, and there are randomly-generated ruins and random wilderness encounters of various sorts all over Qud, so you can definitely just play the game wandering the wastelands looking for adventure. But it’s intended to have an overarching plot eventually.

          A good comparison might be to the Elder Scrolls games (although more Daggerfall than the newer ones), where there’s a main plotline but it’s not necessarily something that has to be the focus of how you interact with the game.

    • vahnn says:

      I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) the game has been in development on-and-off since 2007. It’s been in a largely complete state, minus an actual ending for the story, for quite some time. This Steam EA version just took the same game and is transitioning the game from ASCII graphics to actual art assets throughout, as well as stomping out any remaining bugs and adding that ending at some point.

      But if you ask me this game is not about the ending. It’s about exploration, discovery, and dying. Dying a lot.

      • pistolhamster says:

        I am all for that. I spent 172 hours in Don’t Starve never reaching an ending as such (apart from my own untimely demise). Can’t explain why I kept playing, but sometimes I want some closure. A way out so to speak, other than just “Meh’-ing the thing and walking away from it.

  18. JamesTheNumberless says:

    Thanks for chewing this one over for us.

  19. Wowbagger says:

    Sass that hoopy Ford Prefect, there’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.

  20. muki0 says:

    I like when games are hard and complex. I like challenges. I don’t mind permadeath. Especially when it means something.

    I don’t like deaths that make me scratch my head and think “I did absolutely nothing wrong just there, why did I deserve this?”. Getting randomly shot by an off-screen turret is prime example of this. You come away from that death not having learned a single thing about strategy or the history of the world.

    However, I might even forgive this it eased you into the game a bit better. When I saw the trailer, I went “oh, a modern-looking twist on ye olde roguelike!” and somehow got it in my head that the UI would be modern as well. After-all, there’s absolutely no reason to stick to the old shortcut-plenty buttonless tech, legacy from a time computers didn’t always have mice, right? Riiiight?


    Was it really too difficult making a modern UI? Not asking for something crazy. But just think, buttons/window bars on either side of the screen with actual clickable functions! A “Look!” button, where you then use your mouse to point-and-click to look! The game can still be hard, it’s not a problem. I could forgive “unfair” deaths a bit more if the UI wasn’t *also* trying to be “this game is hard”.

    Challenge should be the game itself. Not the UI. Imagine if first person shooters made their game harder by dialing the mouse speed down to the lowest for you, so you’d need to swipe your mouse across your entire desk just to do a 180. That would be infuriating, and unacceptable. That’s not a fun challenge. So why is it acceptable in many rogue-likes?

    With a sigh, I will try this game again tonight. The world and lore look really really nice. I will *try* and overcome the arbitrary unfun challenge of the UI, so that I can start enjoying the hardness and complexity of the world itself.

    • muki0 says:

      FTL is a great example of a hard-ass permadeath game in that it can punish you severely and randomly near the start of the game, but that also doesn’t frustrate you with a clunky UI. Its UI is extremely intuitive, and doesn’t interfere your learning of the actual world and mechanics themselves. Unfair or not.

  21. DrCop says:

    Man, this is disappointing. The worldbuilding & lore here look right up my alley but I know I’d never be able to get past the UI and other archaic design choices.

  22. Death2sanity says:

    I’ve not played the game so I don’t wanna come across as white-knighting. But this review basically reads as, ‘I don’t like old-school roguelikes. This game has all the features of an old-school roguelike. I do not recommend it.’ Which doesn’t…feel very fair, y’know?

    Also, ” the era of games this apes. Things have just got objectively better since then.” …I’m with you on mouse controls, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how objectively works.

    • Harlander says:

      I’d be interested to see Marsh’s thoughts on Cogmind, a roguelike which looks like it’ll embrace modernity to a much greater extent, whilst still carrying on the essence of the genre.

      • caff says:

        Yes please Mr. Marsh, Cogmind alpha is fairly pricy but I’d like to know your thoughts on it.

    • muki0 says:

      You can design an old-school rogue-like but still design a proper UI that doesn’t feel archaic around it.

      I sincerely think these kinds of games would benefit greatly from modern mouse-driven fluidity, rather than the current press-i-to-activate-look-function then-use-arrow-keys-to-move-cursor-to-what-you-want-to-look-at. That seems so arbitrary and doesn’t help introducing people to the genre which already has a reputation of being difficult to dive into.

      Why not ease the dive with a clean modern UI, but keep the meat of the game as is?

      • JamesTheNumberless says:

        The thing is, Angband and its clones, have a great control system that’s logical and easy to get used to. I think Dwarf Fortress has given ascii based roguelikes an undeserved bad name, being the ascii game that most people are familiar with and having an absolutely terrible UI – not only in terms of controls but also presentation and overview.

      • JamesTheNumberless says:

        mukiO, what’s arbitrary about that though? Ok “i” is a silly choice for “look” but “l” makes perfect sense. Press l to look and then look around. It’s quite nice not having to mouse about all the time, much like using a controller based targeting system in a console game.

      • Yglorba says:

        Honestly, Qud has a pretty good interface. There are relatively few keys you need to learn (pretty much just look, abilities screen, character menu, and interact); and it makes it easy to bind keys to abilities on the fly, as opposed to the macros of Angband and its type. The menu system and the “interact” key in particular help a huge amount.

  23. Geebs says:

    “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” is a bit old hat these days. It’s an interesting observation but it was always a rule of thumb generated by guys dicking about with light microscopes rather than an any sort of biological law.

    • Marsh Davies says:

      Interesting! Are there go to examples that contradict it?

  24. Premium User Badge

    Iamblichos says:

    This sounds roughly similar to Adventure mode in Dwarf Fortress. What makes it different, other than the technology?

    • Harlander says:

      It’s more of a complete game with quests that actually give you payment and whatnot. The overworld is more fixed; there’re skill and talent trees. That kind of deal.

  25. Erithtotl says:

    I picked this game up on this ‘recommendation’. I am absolutely addicted. It’s not nearly as hard as the writer makes out. Yes, you die quite a bit to start with, but it is far from opaque as to what combinations might work vs. which ones won’t. I agree it’s maybe not a great use case for ubiquitous perma-death (vs. it just being an optional ‘ironman’ mode) because I’m sure I’ll be PO’d the next time I die arbitrarily. The game is definitely somewhere between an epic full featured old school RPG and something like Nethack.

    But there’s a ton of fun to be had here and a lot of interesting character build possibilities. Highly recommended for fans of more involved Roguelikes and RPGs for that matter.

    • pistolhamster says:

      I am glad to hear that. I will sit and wait a bit and follow Caves of Qud on Steam, it sounds like my type of game. I have had loads of fun with Dwarf Fortress, but I always found the adventure modes kind of pointless. I need a point to my games :)

  26. brotherthree says:


  27. hudejo says:

    I was in the same shoes as you for my first 3-4 games. Then I read a bit about it and realized that if you just pick perks randomly is like hard mode – you gonna likely die. And as in most roguelikes the non-combat characters are the hardest by far to play (and you just tried to make a merchant). And the most easiest (at least in the beginning) are fighters. Mages/rangers/assassins are tricky too because you need to learn how to use magic/bows/steals and they are squishy.

    So learning from my mistakes I made a dumb fighter. No intelligence, all points into phisical stuff, get some phisical mutations (carapace, seeing in the dark,..) and some weapon skills to bash enemies.
    Now it went much better, I got to like lvl 20 and explored half of the map.

    So a suggestion next time you play an old school roguelike make an idiot berserker that can do one thing: bash everything it ecounters, and it does that very well.