Premature Evaluation: Delver

Every Monday, we arm Brendan with a tiny dagger and push him into the early access ruins. This week, the catacombs of retro dungeon-crawler Delver [official site].

I stabbed the green man in a panic, and he hit me back with a big stick. Wow, you don’t get that much health to start with, I thought, and kept stabbing. I stabbed until he fell down in a pile of pixelly blood and meat. But something else also fell out of him. It was shining and warbling. That must be loot. I moved to pick it up. The warbling got louder. The warbling increased to a high pitch, the item started to flash rapidly. Huh? I thought, as the piece of loot exploded and killed me.

That was my first life in Delver, a first-person dungeon-crawler about creeping further and further into increasingly dangerous pixellated crypts. Every life begins outside some some ruins, armed with rubbish starter weapons and standing by a camp fire with a clatter of NPCs. There are a few notes scattered around, and a candle that you can pick up and hold in your left hand. I had skulked into the ruins with my dagger raised and my candle flickering when the man in green ended my life in the very first chamber.

For your next life, things will be both different and the same. I grabbed the candle and headed into the dungeon. This time the floor was made of wooden planks instead of stone and I had slightly different items. Every life starts you with a single potion and this time it was purple. But the name of the potion also always reads ‘???’ so you never know what it’s likely to do. I ignored the potion for now and walked into a corridor, where someone barked “what was that!” A cranky mage came around the corner and started firing magic at me. I panicked and tried to run away. Then I double-panicked and turned around, charging the magician with my tiny knife. That was how I died the second time.

The third life started. This time the first chamber of the dungeon was flooded. Two baddies had become trapped, shooting magic at a low wall in an attempt to hit me. Silly baddies. I sparked my own wand at them, felling them both and finally feeling like I was getting the hang of this. I waded around the chamber, looking for the next room, which I quickly learned was full of bats. I swiped them away and ran down a slim alleyway, where I was ambushed by slimes who appeared out of nowhere on either side of me. A warlock started shooting magic at me from afar. I stabbed frantically at a slime and ran down another passage, with the baddies in pursuit. A door! I tried to open it but it was stuck. I turned and breathed, I need to think. Okay, low health, no magic charges left on my wand – what do I do?

I took out my potion, which was gold this time. The description still read ‘???’ I mentally shrugged and resolved to use it. But I pressed the wrong key. The potion flew out of my hands and landed on the floor in front of me. Then, it began to make a sound. It was warbling.

Oh no.

The opening moments of Delver are great. There’s no faffing about, you just dive straight in and have a tiny adventure. Initial dungeons are packed with human enemies and occasional signs of their life below ground, like bookshelves, dining tables and beds. Eventually, you find a ladder and each subsequent ladder brings you deeper, getting down to mines, caves, sewers, ruins, temples.

As you delve, you chop and kill and pick up new bits of kit – armour, magic rings, talismans, swords, maces, bows, arrows, potions, food. At first, I tended to hoard as much as possible, picking up everything I came across. But with time, I began to value a Spartan lifestyle, summarily chucking away whole suits of sub-par chainmail or extraneous weaponry because it was taking up room that could be used for bread. This is how you survive in the dungeons.

Death resets everything. The random layout of each new level is high on the list of the game’s boasts, and nothing new to this genre. But it’s also done in such a tight and solid way, that it’s quietly impressive. You sometimes notice one room built the same as another, but it took me an hour and a half until this first happened. Of course, it’ll happen more after this point but those early dives are made better for the unknown. And each “layer” of the dungeon changes in style, from sewers with narrow channels that you don’t want to fall into, to caves with huge open pitfalls, to frozen ruins with boarded up doorways. I didn’t realise it earlier, but you can simply bash through any door that you find is stuck. On death, the subtle changes to individual levels keeps you guessing, but the variety between each “layer” keeps you interested. It has all the usual appeal of the top-down rando-gen roguelike, inflated by the cute, lo-fi art of the early FPS.

Enemies are plentiful. There are skeletons, floating skulls, zombies, undead guardsmen, druids, mages, bandits, bats, not to mention whole rooms full of traps – floors that collapse into pits of lava, spikes that shoot out of the ground, magic fire that spits out of the walls. All these things are telegraphed in their own way and you learn to keep an eye out. It becomes a game of inching forward, footstep by footstep, cautiously checking out each corner and passageway before committing to a panicked series of stabs or arrow shots. Then relaxing in a cleared room by inspecting your inventory. I’ve used all the magic charges in this wand, you think, before chucking it aside like a tomb raiding litterbug.

The problem is that it doesn’t demand your prolonged attention. There’s supposedly a magical orb or some great treasure at the deepest levels of this dungeon, which allows you to resurface (or so the pop-up message on the locked door of the ruins tells you). But I haven’t been able to find it yet. When you die, you return topside. When this happens your feelings can range from: “I deserved that” to “how was I supposed to beat THAT THING?” You do keep all your salvaged gold, and the NPCs by the starting campfire will sell you stuff like magic scrolls, bows ‘n’ arrows, or a “skill in a jar” (this levels you up). But it’s still easy to lose interest after a deep dive when all your previous investment is suddenly gone.

None of that prevents me from instinctively liking it. It’s a simplistic dungeon-diving excursion, yes, but at the same time it feels very pure. There’s no plot, no reason, no characters aside from the topside campfire folks and the rare friendly shopkeeper below ground who’ll sell you arrows between layers of poisonous caterpillars and cyclops demons. It could easily be a game from the early nineties and yet if it had been then it would be probably be in one of our list features somewhere.

Normally, that is not reason enough to enjoy a game – times move on – and you may only play it Delver for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. But it is still intuitively great fun, a wonderful pastiche. John has looked at it before, and also found it lacking in motivation. But it has received a thorough makeover in the intervening years and feels much more complete to me. It’s still the kind of game you want if you are after some instant gratification, but despite its faults, it seems to understand that. It’s innocent, unpretentious and quite difficult – not to mention it’s as cheap as a pint of good beer (London prices). What it lacks in depth of mechanics (after all, there’s not much to do but walk, shoot and swipe) it makes up for in heart, art and fearless loyalty to the medium.

You can get Delver on Steam for £5.59/$7.99 or from the official site. These impressions are based on build 1342025

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26 Comments

  1. Drib says:

    I bought this game ages ago and haven’t played it in about a year.

    Looks like it’s come a long way. Thanks for this article, I think I just found something to pass the time this week!

  2. mugsgame says:

    Nice prose BTW and sentence structures! “Death resets everything. The random layout of each new level is high on the list of the game’s boasts, and nothing new to this genre.”

  3. Someoldguy says:

    “The problem is that it doesn’t demand your prolonged attention. There’s supposedly a magical orb or some great treasure at the deepest levels of this dungeon, which allows you to resurface (or so the pop-up message on the locked door of the ruins tells you). But I haven’t been able to find it yet.”

    Pretty much what you’d expect from a Roguelike, surely? I must have toyed with the original in lunchbreaks at work for more than a year before I finally won a game. Of course 30 years on you’re not likely to be allowed to while away 30 minutes of your lunch playing games in the office. When I have hours free in the evenings to play games I prefer something with a bit more depth to it.

    • Kitsunin says:

      Almost always, but not necessarily. One of the things which makes Binding of Isaac so fun is that victory is very achievable (but still quite hard), but it comes in a huge number of forms, some harder than others, and with many different ways to challenge yourself to start with, or along the way.

  4. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    I bought this ages ago on my phone and it has come a long way. At that time it looked more Minecrafty and there was no topside. I am surprised that this is still in development. At this point are they adding much in terms of features and balance or is it just new enemies and environments?

  5. syllopsium says:

    Is it 1992 again? It’s like a less sophisticated Ultima Underworld came to life (but with a better interface)

    • Blake Casimir says:

      What is wrong with that? You’re implying that returning to such a game is not worthwhile.

      Free-movement “immersive sim” dungeon crawlers are incredibly rare and this is one of the decent ones.

      My kingdom for King’s Field 5…

      • syllopsium says:

        It’s more that it still looks a tad like it was made in 1992. A lot of the games I play are quite old, and I’m not that graphics focused, but I’d hope for something a bit less pixelated.

        At least, unlike Ultima Underworld, I don’t have to boot my retro PC and link up a Roland CM32L..

  6. Elric666 says:

    I forgot this game is still early access. I finished it, I guess one year ago, and it was short but fun. It only took me two hours and I managed to beat the boss on the second try, but I remember the final boss battle was quite intense. I barely got out alive. Nice to see it’s still being developed. I do remember it leaving me wanting for more. I wish they would enhance it into a full-blown rougelike RPG. The simple but effective graphics and gameplay definitively have something going for it.
    Maybe time to give it another go.

  7. TheAngriestHobo says:

    So, wait. Your mission is to delve deep into a dungeon full of homicidal maniacs to retrieve… an orb that takes you back to the surface? Why not just, you know, stay on the surface?

    • Phasma Felis says:

      Letting you skip the trip back up is clearly implied to be the least of the orb’s abilities.

    • club says:

      The orb doesn’t “take you back to the surface”. I see where you’re getting that from the wording in the article. Actually, you gotta take it back to the surface. Just like in the original Rogue, the mission is: descend to the bottom dungeon, acquire the artifact, escape with it back up to the surface, with murderous baddies wanting it back the entire way.

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    Harlander says:

    I thought I already had this, but what I’ve actually got is Barony, a completely different first-person roguelike with pixelly graphics.

    • inspiredhandle says:

      This was definitely the elephant in the room for me. I love barony, but there’s no mention in this article of how it compares to this game. Is this single player only? Are all the sprites 2D? Are those the only differences?

  9. JNB says:

    Anyone tried playing it with a game pad?

  10. MasterWuu says:

    Love the looks of the game. Amazing, just what I wanted but the gameplay doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. btw, I hate rogue-type reset games.

    Also btw, this game just me nostalgic about Eye of the Beholder. So any suggestions for a TbT game that would be similar Eye of the Beholder but not too ancient? thanx

    • Little_Crow says:

      The obvious suggestion would be the Legend of Grimrock games.

      Much like X-Com, it brought the genre up to date, but Grimrock was far truer to the source material than X-Com was.

      • MasterWuu says:

        Thanx alot for the suggestion^^ I tried LoG, it was fun for what it was, but wasn’t exactly what i was looking for. Not a “true” TbT game imo and also would prefer a party base game like Eye of the Beholder or the Etrian series on the 3ds (but hopefully less grindy & convoluted)

  11. Blake Casimir says:

    WHY are these kinds of first person free-movement dungeon crawlers so rare?

    Why is practically no-one making them?

    Delver is excellent, and Steam also sells two other recent takes on the genre: Dungeons & Darkness and Barony. But that’s IT. Why is this genre so rare? And before anyone mentions it, no 90-degree grid-based crawlers do NOT count as they are an entirely different experience. Legend of Grimrock achieves what it sets out to do but it is grid-based and turn-based.

    Sigh. I can’t be the only one that is desperate for another Ultima Underworld and King’s Field… (at least a spiritual sequel to the former is in dev but damnit that’s not enough.)

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