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.
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.