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Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead: A roguelike you could play for the rest of your life

5 lives to convince you to play

I don't like roguelikes and, like all real people, I was sick of zombies years ago. Plus, somehow in just a few years we've gone from having next to no survival games to having so many of the godforsaken things that you can barely move without tripping over a hunger bar.

All this and the keyboard-heavy ASCII affectation would, you'd think, make for my nightmare game. And it should. So I am actively irritated that Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead an ASCII zombie survival roguelike, has taken over my life. Let me tell you about my latest character, a 12-year-old girl who is surviving the apocalypse by jetting around on rollerblades, pelting monsters with a sling, and studying mechanics so she can hotwire an electric van and run over someone who stole her bag of precious salt.

There's a danger when describing an expansive game that you'll make it sound like a mere checklist of parts. Rather than convey the delicious flavour of the dish, you might give an impression of a hideous gloopy mess of vegetables, fish, and uncooked pasta. That's a tricky problem to get round here, because in this analogy, Cataclysm DDA is less of a dish and more of a theme restaurant. It is an enormous thing, densely packed with options, challenges, and an immense volume of stuff.

Things start when you create a world. Each is procedurally generated, and based on the climate and urban development of New England. Some parameters can be changed, most notably the size of and distance between cities, but each is broadly similar save for the local details. Much like Minecraft, more land is created as you travel, but first you'll need to create a character. This is done by distributing points across four basic statistics, skills like Melee, Cooking, and Electronics, and/or investing in traits giving unique twists on your character's behaviour or abilities. You can also spend or gain points by choosing a background or scenario that determines where and in what condition you'll start out. If you've played your share of traditional roguelikes or even just a lot of RPGs, this will all sound fairly familiar in principle, and even if not, it's an intuitive system with decent help text. You'll have a fair idea what you're starting out with even on your first game, and it's easy to set things up more or less however you like.

What perhaps isn't as clear is just how much variety all these options give you. Combine the endless permutations of all the above options with the tonnes and tonnes of items, places, and monsters on the map, and you could be playing DDA for the rest of your life. Even a fairly standard "survivor" setup - you're in town in a relatively safe sealed building, with no outlandish abilities or character flaws - could play out drastically differently depending on what items appear in the building with you, what - if any - buildings are next door, and what types of nasties are nearby. Even which door you open, what clothes you're wearing, or whether a particular window has curtains could spell life or death. And assuming you survive the initial day's drama, where you go and what you do next could vary so much you're practically playing a different game altogether.

You see, DDA isn't just a game where you replenish meters and shoot zombies. It's Unreal World set in a near future state that just happens to have undergone some terrible catastrophe. Regular deadies and Left ("for" - Obstinance Dept.) Dead-style super zombs roam many streets, sure, but it won't be long before you see what other horrors have been unleashed upon the world; rather like Duskers, it's not clear exactly what went wrong, but "everything" wouldn't be a bad estimate. To deal with all this, you have heaps and heaps of items all with at least one use, and total freedom to roam and live as you please. Take Istela.

Istela is a child. That option changes only your starting circumstances, but I loaded her up with minimal strength and a set of traits to simulate someone young: she's extremely fragile, but fairly fast, stealthy, and learns a little faster than most. She started unarmed in a school swarming with undead children and would have died almost immediately, but for what she found first: those aforementioned rollerblades. With them, she was able to zoom past the lumbering deadies, and cleared out a nearby trio of buildings thanks to a local minefield.

Over a year later, Istela has it made. She settled in her third lucky break, an abandoned motel a mile from town, and divides her time between exploring, hunting, experimenting with the game's absurdly extensive crafting system, and occasionally fleeing from the unstoppable hellbeast in the forest. She's killed two intruders and countless creatures with her trusty sling, but has also made two friends and with them cleared out her old school. Between the library and chemistry stockroom, she's learned how to cook dozens of dishes, construct equipment, and even built her own forge.

She's learned to skin animals and tan their hides to make clothes, and identified which plants she can use to synthesise medicines. Then there's the bicycle she built from scratch using the game's modular vehicle design system. The roads are dotted with broken cars, which with the right skills and tools can be patched up or cannibalised. Find or build a frame and you can attach just about anything to it, including more frames. Istela nailed some wheels and a handle onto one to create a simple trolley for carting firewood and charcoal. A third experiment gained her a full laboratory liberated from a mobile meth van, powered by a pile of car batteries and an engine whose exhaust vents through the wall.

There's also the electric van we took home after a trip South, where an eerily deserted town pockmarked with giant craters started collapsing around us as something terrible approached. A harrowing high speed escape through a swarming neighbourhood left the van too battered to risk another journey. But it's been a boon for carting logs from the forest to help with building the new garage overlooking the farm. Oh yeah, that's another thing you can do.

Meanwhile, in a parallel world, a series of random characters have met grisly deaths or pursued completely different adventures. One of them, Ruby, sought antibiotics for a sickly NPC, a job that kicked off a nightmare three day war across town. Ruby has the 'psychopath' trait, so had no qualms about abandoning said NPC. But a bad fight left her with her own infection. Too afraid to sleep, armed with a handful of guns from a survivalist's house, she roamed the streets with a torch, a purse of batteries, and an ungodly amount of drugs, unsure how much of the vomiting and shivering was the infection, the booze, or the rain. She spent her last days shooting, running, torching buildings and desperately seeking medical aid, while trying not to think about what might be causing those explosions in the distance.

A third character left his shelter with a friendly NPC, got her killed, and fled West through vast forests in a rattling car. His death followed a pyrrhic victory, the car being totaled in order to kill a monstrous armoured thing, but the crash also breaking his leg and leaving him helpless when another one shuffled out of the darkness. A few characters later in the same world (they're persistent!), another survivor drove past the crash site, killed the beast, and looted his body.

Almost every time I play DDA, I see something new. Every day offers so many options I'm paralysed at times. I could go hunting! I could go visit the swamp! I could pick flowers, or gather firewood, or loot a building, or brave the sinister basement of that house. Perhaps I'll pick a random direction and explore, go for a drive, investigate the cause of the cataclysm, or find out what that turret in the West was defending. Perhaps I'll start extending the van into a caravan and live on the roads. Maybe I'll just stay home for the day and read, build, synthesise some gunpowder, or just get off my face on strawberry wine. I honestly wasn't joking when I told a friend last week that, apocalypse or no, I envied Istela's life.

There are no levels, and any perks and abilities arise organically from your actions. You don't magically gain powers because some numbers went up, but learn by studying books or practicing. Miraculously, there's not even any grinding. Oh, I'm sure you could. I'm sure you could joylessly min-max it like anything else, but I've never felt the need, and more fool you if you do, frankly, when you could be doing anything else at all.

It's a curiously intuitive game for one so complex, and the degree of simulation versus abstraction is impressively balanced. It's also tied very closely to a given character, so that even if you know how to make something, your character might be out of luck. Recipes for crafting are found in books and there heaps of them. Cooking alone accounts for pages and pages of recipes, and that's with ingredients pared down; meat from any animal is just 'meat', for example, and all wood is the same, and even within that discipline there are at least a dozen recipes exclusively for cannibalism.

You can have a crack at a recipe even if your skill level is too low, provided you have the book nearby as a reference, and there's a whole system for memorising recipes, or even forgetting them, and having your skills degrade through neglect.

My favourite aspect is how my discovery of the game's systems mirrors that of my characters'. Cars, for instance, are in real life the most tedious things in the universe. In DDA though, I was learning a crude approximation of mechanics right alongside my character and even enjoying it. Budding chemists may get a kick out of the multiple routes to creating your own propellants and fuels. And seriously, you haven't lived until you've run over a man for stealing a bag of salt. It took me DAYS to gather enough roots for that, damn it.

Often it's the item or place you discover in the first few days that dictates the course of your game. For Istela it was those rollerskates; any zombie, even the kids, has a good chance of killing her in melee, but as long as she stays on even ground, she is untouchable. For Ruby it's the guns and the infected arm. For my first character it was a tent, which saw me set up on a plain outside town, where it gradually dawned on me that the harmless flavour creatures milling around nearby were going to destroy every living thing on Earth. Her death was so horrific, and so brilliant, that I urge you to skip the following paragraph rather than spoil one of the game's secrets. Suffice to say it was not the usual "ha ha dice say you're dead, now go waste another 3 hours getting to the same point" of the roguelike, but, well, it was honestly my own stupid fault. I'll include the story here though, in case you need more encouragement to play the game:

Alongside the mundane wildlife and undead spin-offs (who often fight each other), there are creatures called fungaloids. I'd considered these passive walking mushrooms a useful buffer, until I walked down far enough to see that the little patch of fungus they'd come from had grown. Worse - it was growing exponentially, as each of the fungaloids was spreading fungus tiles, which were in turn spawning more fungaloids. And there were hundreds of both. It's one thing for most humans to die, but this? I was at ground zero for the bloody fungal Many. A solid day's hacking at them with a fire axe was futile - they'd already reached a point where they'd just replenish while I slept. So I set their entire world on fire, shot the survivors with a bow and burned the lot. I went to bed content, until in the middle of the night I started coughing. The next day, the first of the mushroom stalks burst through my flesh...

There's so much to Cataclysm DDA that I couldn't spoil it all even if I wanted to. Yes, it has the usual repetitive, esoteric controls of the ASCII roguelike, and yes, it's a bloody survival game about bloody zombies. But however sick you are of those fads, make an exception for this. Cataclysm DDA will make you a zombie. "Copper wire", you'll mutter, lurching and staggering aimlessly about the streets, until suddenly - yes! There! A machine! Tear it apart! EXPOSE ITS PRECIOUS INNARDS TO FEED THE INSATIABLE BEAST WITHIN. We are the true monsters after all.

Cataclysm DDA is an open source replacement of the defunct Catacalysm, and is available for free. The experimental build is recommended, although Windows 10 users may find it buggy. Multiple tilesets are included, but no sound. I recommend the Chesthole soundpack.

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