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Wot I Think: Eldritch

Whither Andrew?

Eldritch is a first-person action game with randomly-generated levels and semi-perma-death which borrows liberally from Minecraft, Lovecraft, Spelunkycraft and Dungeon Mastercraft.

World 1: I scoffed, I shrugged, I triumphed.
World 2: I hid, I ran, I cowered.

Eldritch, very brazenly the bastard child of Minecraft and Spelunky, bides its time, initially presenting itself as easy and cartoonish and a shameless coattail-rider, before blossoming into the sort of oddball terror that Doom achieved back in the day. A simple setup, exploring a dimension that's in equal parts Lovecraft and Minecraft - CraftCraft, then - and accessed from portals in an occult library, yields randomly-generated, peril-packed levels in the current post-roguelike fashion.

Down you go, through blocky caverns roamed by the reliably murderous likes of Innsmouthian fishmen, albino spider-things, croc-faced Weeping Angels and what appears to be Orko from He-Man, seeking to gather weapons and upgrades as you go, and ultimately to find mystical artifacts that will permanently open up access to new, harder dimensions. Such shortcuts aside, death means essentially starting over, although if you managed to stow any spare cash in the bank before your untimely death and immediate resurrection, you can at least grab that in order to more quickly purchase items from the infrequent stores.

It's hard to get past the Minecraft thing, naturally, and there is a part of me which bristles at the apparent attention-seeking nature of it, but it doesn't at all play the same way. There's no building whatsoever, and destruction of blocks is mostly limited to occasional use of rare and precious explosives to create a shortcut or bypass a locked door (keys are found regularly, but you'll often run out). Spelunky is the closer comparison to the experience you'll have, but even then it doesn't have the Mossmouth title's delicate, elegant balance of twitch and strategy. Naturally, being first person (with eerily long, stick-like arms) rather than side-one makes a huge difference too, and means it becomes a game more about hiding and performing precision strikes than platforming and high-speed evasion. It's more openly a combat game, however - monsters spawn and respawn at random and regularly, so laurels cannot ever be rested upon.

Eldritch is a crude thing, in appearance and spirit, but to be honest that suits it most of the time. Lovecraft might be a stated influence, but the reality is puppety silliness with just enough of a sinister edge. Combat is high-speed and panicky, usually entailing frantically slapping at blocky, barely animated beasties that can essentially do little more than lunge at you or throw Doom Imp-fireballs with predictable paths, but impressive variety and ingenuity is wrung from that.

The game starts very easy, with fairly basic and archetypal monsters, then come the second world the foes become significantly stranger, more sinister and dangerous. It presented me with things I wanted to steer well clear of, aware of how damaging they'd be if they saw me, aware that some of them could not even be killed. They were not in themselves scary, but the knowledge that they could end my current run, cost me all my loot and gear, was. There's the Weeping Angel-like thing I mentioned, which only moves when your back is turned and will deftly swiped most of your health from the rear of your head if you're not careful to move backwards or 180 repeatedly. All that reptilian statue can do is move-without-moving, it must have been laughably simple to animate, but it's so effective and so unnerving - particularly because it can't be killed by anything short of explosives.

Another enemy, clearly the result of an unthinkable tryst between Slender Man and Munch's Scream, cannot be killed, only temporarily downed, continuing its relentless, long-armed pursuit after a few seconds - rarely long enough to get far away, let alone hoover up any loot in the immediate vicinity.

Everything's so very simple, yet effective. Irregular flooring, filled with holes and spikes, plus ceilings from which all manner of crazy-shaped pillars and stalactites protrude, makes each randomly-generated level into a claustrophobic maze, with enemies prone to appearing suddenly, without warning. It's not actually terrifying, but it is unnerving. Most enemies are easily and quickly dispatched with a couple of crude knife-stabs or toylike bullets, and if you can get the drop on them they'll crumble with a single shot or blow. Occasionally you'll find a shrine, praying at which will grant you a random spell - barrier, limited flight, enemy hypnosis - which requires cash each time you cast it. That's an interesting dynamic, creating a tension over whether you save cash to spend on new kit and health restoration or sp(el)unk it all away on mystic aid.

You're likely to lose it all soon enough anyway, of course, although death is far less frequent and more spaced out than in Spelunky, and does generally stem from user error or laziness than the game outfoxing or outnumbering you. I've seen complaints that the game is too easy, but I think that perhaps reflects wanting a reasonably severe Spelunky-like challenge; this is a more traditionally beatable action game. Go in expecting that and I think you won't face such disappointment.

A more universal issue is that there isn't that much to it - a thin roster of items and weapons, essentially the same activities required throughout and the randomly-generated environments rarely creating real difference beyond the cosmetic in each replay. I'd imagine Eldritch will see an ongoing trickle of new content - there's one Minecraft inspiration Eldritch definitely should nick - but in its current state it's something you can exhaust fairly quickly. There is a New Game+ mode which ramps up difficulty, but the experience is the same otherwise.

Again, I'm sure Eldritch will be fleshed out in time, but for now it's a throwaway affair. That's no bad thing at all, given playing either Spelunky or Minecraft these days is approaching second job territory. I'm fine with lightweight, and I'm reasonably sure that's all the game intends to be anyway. In fact, my only serious gripe with it is the complete lack of Sisters of Mercy references.

Eldritch is out now.

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