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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.