Indie roguelike Dungeons of Dredmor arrived on Steam late last week, quickly summoning a swarm of interest around it despite coming pretty much out of nowhere. More proof, perhaps, that big publishers' claims that the age of turn-based gaming is done and dusted are wanton foolishness.
Anyway! I've been playing Dredmor pretty much constantly since release. I couldn't pretend to have beaten it - and it's very possible I'll never be able to - but here's what I make of it.
I survived the nameless horrors summoned by the Shrine of Eyeballs. I fought cybernetic aliens, hulking Djinn, moustache golems. I even survived the Monster Zoo, the dreaded room packed wall-to-wall with bloodthirsty enemies – twice.
I didn’t survive the blade trap. My own blade trap, put down moments before. Giddy with victory, having spent my every arrow, every potion and every mystic fungus somehow holding off the flood of horrors from the monster zoo, barely alive but so joyful that I was, I was scampering back to the porcine shopkeeper nearby to dispatch my pile of unwanted loot. And I didn’t see it. Complacency, any Dredmor player’s true nemesis, had me. And so did the blade trap. [Snikt]. Doom. I'm no hero. I'm just some idiot.
Dungeons of Dredmor is a roguelike – a turn-based, dungeon-crawling roleplaying game where loot is plentiful, progress is tactical rather than gung-ho and death is permanent. I’ve got a sneaking, and very pleased, suspicion that we’re in for a lot of roguelikes over the coming months. Perhaps they’ll be 2011’s indie comeback special, in the way leftfield platformers such as Braid and Super Meat Boy have been in recent years. For whatever is due to follow, it’s going to find the bar left pretty damned high by Dredmor. It might wear a cute face, but behind that smiling, simple visage hides dark and complex brain. It's not a game about rushing along dank corridors, giggling obscenely as you chop monsters into tiny monster-parts - it's about carefully inching along, forever wary, juggling so many balls at once that you're forever ringed by an orbit of skills, items, buffs, debuffs, long-term plans, short-term plans and near-death experiences.
The thing about Dredmor is that, as far as I can, it’s incredibly unbalanced. And, I think, that’s the point. Its range of items, skills, potential mishaps and optional bonus tinkering, such as elaborate crafting and making fish-flesh offerings to a piscine god in the hope of reward, is simply immense. It would surely be folly to try and balance so many elements, unless you’re someone with the resources of Blizzard. What this means is randomness runs rich in Dredmor’s blood: it doesn’t care if it’s monstrously unfair to you.
It also doesn’t care if it briefly presents you with room after room after room of unguarded, fantastical loot. Because it knows that, sooner or later, its roulette wheel will wreak terribly cruelty upon you. Perhaps it’ll be a chronic shortage of arrow drops and vending machines, rendering your crossbow useless. Perhaps it’ll be the altar of Krong not blessing the item you place upon it in the hope of boosted stats, but instead cursing it – robbing it of its most invaluable ability.
Or perhaps it’ll be a Monster Zoo, the surest proof of how little Dredmor cares for fairness. A Monster Zoo will spill creature after creature after creature across the dungeon floor. You could run or hide, if your character is specced for evasion. You could try and weather the storm, if you’re heavy on armour and hitpoints. You could be lucky enough to have a bolt of mass destruction – a one-short nuke that’s the best possible way of getting out of this kind of trouble. Except, if you did, you probably sold it already, because it’s worth 6000 gold. So, you’ll probably die. But, all the time, that wheel is spinning wildly. You never know.
Not that Dredmor is entirely random – far from it. Odds of success (or at least a longer life) leap dramatically if you pay attention, build your character careful, try to specialise rather than generalise and maintain some consistency of skills from character to character rather than crazily experiment. There are any number of tiny strategies which might, just might tip things more in your favour – from the aforementioned LuteFish offerings (with the help of a rare pick-up which transmutes anything you put in it into fish flesh) to careful timing of when you eat health-restoring food or painstaking funnelling of advancing monsters through narrow rather than broad corridors. For all the big-eyebrowed, cartoon presentation and adorably pissed-off, insult-hurling chatter of the monsters, this isn’t a game that means to give you an easy time, not for a second.
For that, I admire it. For that, I keep on playing it, again and again. I don’t feel the same about the less deliberate punishments – the irritatingly cramped interface, the bewildering spray of over-similar, incrementally changing skills, the lack of (or at least obscurely hidden) options for stuff like splitting up item stacks, the sheer amount of controls and tiny features that are never explained but only discovered by accident – if ever.
Dredmor is, genuinely, a fantastic game and one of the best roguelikes I’ve ever played, but the front-end needs some work. The devs claim the problem of the interface being microscopic at higher resolutions is due for a fix, so I’m reasonably confident other control scheme irritants will be polished up over time too.
Then again, it’s a £3 game. For the sheer mass of ideas and sheer length of play it offers for that paltry sum, it’s pretty damn churlish to demand anything else. I’m going to be playing Dredmor for a hell of a long time to come, I’m sure – there are still a good half dozen skill trees I haven’t explored (maths-based magic, for instance), it plays pretty good on low-spec machines so my laptop mightn’t be totally useless for once and it’s the kind of thing I can well imagine being stealth-expanded on a rolling basis.
Most of all, I haven’t so much as seen the titular dark lord Dredmor yet. I have much to learn. I have so many deaths ahead of me. Just try and stop me.