Indie Traditionalist: Assorted Game Reviews / Opinions

I’ve been on a personal whirlwind tour of roguelikes and roguelites in the past few days. I cobbled together a huge list of recommendations from the requisite reddit (r/roguelikes) and randomly roamed and romped through them.

Perhaps it’s the unstable situation out in the wide world at present, or just personal preference and the current mood I’m in, but I’m noticing a strong and consistent taste for traditional gameplay right now over innovative hybrid amalgams.

If I’m playing a roguelike, I want it turn-based, tiled, top-down and chock full of classes.

If I’m playing action combat, then give me action combat that doesn’t pause, that lands with a satisfying thump with each swing of a sword and preferably has a dodge key.

Odd blends that I would normally be at least intrigued by and willing to give some chances to get over the learning curve are registering as capital W Weird and getting shoved into the “deal with it another time” category.

The Sensible

Sproggiwood – I wanted to call this game Baby’s First Roguelike, but then I got pwned by a mechanic I failed to understand about 4-5 levels in (damn those Black Slimes!) I had to wiki it to realize what I had been missing right under my nose – something par for the course for most roguelikes.

sprog-level

So instead, I’m going to describe Sproggiwood as a -very- approachable, highly accessible roguelike. It sports attractive cartoony art and would not look out of place as a mobile app. Yet it has most of the requisite trappings of a true roguelike – top down, tiled, turn-based, multiple classes (and unique skills for each class), levels, some gear to play with and so on.

It simplifies key input, removing the diagonals and only limiting step by step movement to the four compass directions. It lacks the vast keypressing options at any moment of classic roguelikes (in which one has to read a help menu text reminiscent of DOS command prompt help in order to figure out what 36 options one could do at any one time). It’s not any poorer for it. It’s good at what it wants to be.

sprog-boss

A simple (but not simplistic) roguelike puzzler that is broken up into short map segments for pick up and put down gameplay. Recommended. Especially for those who are intimidated by the complexity of the classic roguelike genre.

Tangledeep – Dear friends, I have barely played this game for two hours and I am IN LOVE with Tangledeep.

This is basically a traditional classic roguelike for people who are terrified of ASCII, with a side helping of SNES pixel art and JRPG flavor.

tangle-lobby

Options abound. Used to the numpad movement of classic roguelikes, complete with diagonals? Yep, you can use that option. Prefer mostly WASD compass movement, with the ability to add a modifier key or press two keys at once for the rare time you want to move diagonally? Yep, you can do that too.

Don’t like permadeath? There’s Adventure mode. When you drop to 0 HP, you return back to town, giving up half your money, XP and unspent job points. Cool with roguelikes? Then Heroic mode has you covered, where your character dies but your ‘account’ progress aka town progress, unlocked jobs, banked items and money is saved, to be passed on like heirloom gear to the next new character. (Naturally, for the compleat masochist, one can also play on Hardcore where everything is erased on death.)

Tangledeep has Jobs, aka changeable classes a la Final Fantasy. No plain Warrior, Mage, Thief, Clerics here. Instead, you have Brigands, Sword Dancers, Spellshapers, Soulkeepers and Edge Thanes. They all sound so intriguing right off the bat, but I settled for the Floramancer, a naturalistic plant-growing summoner.

You can also switch Jobs and keep the skills you have learned – presumably something min-maxers will swoon over, finding the overpowered synergies between classes.

You can capture and cultivate monster pets to bring with you into the dungeon. You can craft foods that give various stats and bonuses.

Making items stronger involve a wild concept known as an Item Dream. You “enter” the item in question and get a randomly generated map to conquer, before the item can level up.

tangle-dream

Actual combat gameplay plays just like a classic roguelike. You walk into things to do melee damage. Pressing “F” allows you to bring up a targeting cursor for ranged attacks. Spells are similar, with different AoE patterns.

You’ll pause and examine monsters when too many show up on screen at once, planning your strategy for dealing with them. You may retreat to chokepoints.

There’s depth if you want it in Tangledeep; but it doesn’t drown you right off the bat, beyond a bunch of text now and then. Like traditional JRPGs, a lot of the esoteric words on screen can be safely ignored until one is ready to absorb the concept, and just played for fun and progress with what basics can be grasped.

tangle-throne

I would have played Tangledeep a lot longer than two hours, but my back started killing me from too much work-from-home uprightness and I retreated to softer terrain, like the couch and the bed.

In fact, I loved Tangledeep so much, I deeply considered buying the Nintendo Switch version for said couch potato entertainment, even after owning the PC version through one Humble Bundle or another.

Ultimately, the only thing that stayed my hand was realizing that I had -just- missed a 50% off sale by 1-2 days, and the Switch store being in USD, not local currency. Exchange rates always make prices look more intimidating. I’m definitely going to pick it up the next time it goes on sale though.

Instead, for half the price of Tangledeep, I picked up Cat Quest, Bastion and Transistor, which were all running on steep discount. All three I owned on PC, the first two I’d tried but never completed, and the last I hadn’t gotten around to trying yet.

Cat Quest – Cat Quest is a game with an aesthetic so cartoony, you’d mistake it for just one of a thousand other mobile games out there, but the action combat just -feels- so fucking good.

catquest

Melee swing a few times and there’s a slight assist that glues you a little closer to the target. Which is all very well until they swing back at you, and that might be a little late to dodge. Enemy attacks are well telegraphed by expanding circles, so either move back or dodge early and often until one has identified the windows for safe attack.

The other delightful nuance on the genre is the concept of leveling gear when one receives duplicates of it. Loot is never completely useless, it just levels up something one might never use.

Otherwise, the game has a simple gameplay loop. Kill monsters, get xp and gold, take up quests on mission boards, chuckle at the cat puns, do said quests which basically just involve running from point A to B and killing monsters, get more gold and xp, rinse and repeat. Eventually, you unlock cool map-expanding abilities like water-walking and flight to visit more out-there locations and you defeat the big bad.

If you liked the whole process, you’re welcome to repeat again on New Game Plus+ or use more hardcore options, oddly called Mew Game, for more rewards and bragging rights.

Of all the Switch games I bought, I found myself running through this one the most these couple of days. Nothing too cognitively demanding, just lie back and hack-and-slash and level up.

The Weird

Transistor – I feel bad dissing on Transistor. On paper, it has an exceptional pedigree. Made by the folks who created Bastion, it is stylistically gorgeous and full-on cyberpunk, which is usually one of my favorite genre settings. transistor-splat

I have to surmise that there is a discordant dissonance between the controls on a Nintendo Switch versus the traditional PC keyboard. (When I loaded up the PC version for a quick run to get some screenshots, it didn’t feel as bad as when I first encountered it on Switch.)

The opening started fine, in media res, in classic cyberpunk style, surrounded by dead bodies (well, singular) and nasty corporate drones that seem to want you dead.

The first tutorial encounter told me to press a button to swing my sword. So I pressed the button, swung my sword and damaged the baddie. Then I did it again a few more times and killed the baddie. So far so good. Feels like action combat, if a little sluggish, but hey, it’s a slim woman carrying a huge ass Cloud Strife sword.

transistor-action

Then I went HUH? in the second encounter when the battle suddenly paused and brought up a turn planning sequence.

transistor-turn

After struggling to reset my expectations, I more or less understood that the game expected me to create some kind of efficient movement and attack sequence and then start up time to watch it play out.

transistor-turnstack

A few encounters after that, I was getting a little grumpy when I realized the enemies would also move during this turn planning, making a best laid plan rather moot after one attack.

Then there was the wait time in between turn planning where the enemies are free to shoot you in the face or in the butt, while pretty much all your skills are disabled, leaving you unable to do anything but run around and hide behind pillars until the next turn planing sequence came up.

Finally, there was the absolute mind-boggler of a prep screen in which nearly zero explanation was provided, but apparently all the given skills could be combined with each other in some way – be it through combos or by slotting one skill within the other.

Possibly, presumably, if one slotted the right tab A into B, one might actually be able to do some killer combos during the turn planning phase or actually use some other skill in the otherwise run-around-and-hide phase.

I mostly just stared at the word vomit of skills and combos on the build screen and then shut off the Switch. I just didn’t want to deal with it right now. A game I initially thought might be an action combat game turned itself into an odd real-time turn-taking hybrid that might also be asynchronous and some kind of build optimizing strategic puzzler.

Perhaps it is also the screen size. It’s more awkward to squint at tiny text on a handheld console and try to position targeting cursors with a joystick, as opposed to sitting at a PC and absorbing the situation on a big monitor and proper controls.

But for whatever reasons, as I said above, I just didn’t want to deal further with it right now. Perhaps another day. There’s always Bastion, which I -know- is action combat, after I tire of Cat Quest.

Kerkerkruip – Kerkerkruip is an Interactive Fiction Roguelike hybrid. It says so right in the title screen.

kerker-intro

It’s written in Inform 7, a programming language most typically used for interactive fiction in the vein of Room Description, exits with compass directions and items you can take, examine, store anything not nailed down in one’s inventory or otherwise manipulate.

keker-start

From an innovation and technical perspective, this thing is a work of art.

It’s functional, it caters for multiple runs, it has permadeath, it has a dungeon and monsters and plenty of loot in the traditional Nethack vein (complete with unidentified scrolls, cursed items and randomized salves with different effects.) It has an automapping system and a gorgeous graphical dungeon map (for an IF game.)

kerker-items

The combat system feels like it borrows concepts from tabletop RPG combat resolution. A random dice roll, followed by a bunch of modifiers. Concentrating for a turn (up to three) improves the dice roll chances, but you also open yourself up for attack by others.

kerker-combat

There are advanced concepts like defensive and offensive flow and tension that hasn’t quite sunk into my consciousness yet either.

Monsters have levels.  Successfully killing a monster gives you a special power to trigger with a command. Killing a higher level monster overwrites any lower level monsters you may have defeated. There is an odd balance where you have to try and gamble for level 3/4 monsters first before taking out level 2 & 1 monsters, in order to get strong enough to defeat the big bad at level 5 – but those level 3 & 4 monsters may very well wipe you out before you can do so.

The only reason I hesitate to recommend it is because it is godawfully hard, and ridiculously random. It’s also a hybrid blend of possibly the two most esoteric and out there game genres that exist today – interactive fiction and roguelikes – so possibly, not the most approachable of beasts.

It’s worth trying, but undeniably Weird.

Unexplored – I don’t know how I feel about Unexplored.

It and I got off to a bad start. Mostly because this game breaks on widescreen resolutions and I have the widest of monitors. It calmly allowed me to set it to 3840×1080 without protest, beyond a “this thing works best on 16:9” statement, but as I played the game, there were graphical glitches, sluggishness and most annoyingly, a tendency for the right side of any wall to be completely covered in darkness with an unremovable fog of war.

I can only surmise that the calculations for how much fog of war to remove are hard baked in somewhere.

Setting it back to windowed 1920×1080 (faithfully 16:9, thank you) allowed it to work in a significantly more functional manner, presumably as intended.

unexp-boxes

Unexplored is a top down roguelike that is NOT tile or turn-based, in that the player character and enemies are free to wander around in real time and freedom of movement on a flat plane, similar to say, Binding of Isaac.

On the other hand, it is significantly slower paced than Binding of Isaac, a twin-stick shooter it is not. At all.

It uses the strangest of plainly colored polygons to depict its dungeon, and the player character is some kind of stylized cyclops person with only one eye.

You are expected to learn and decode what all the shapes signal and indicate, over time, through trial and error. Very roguelike in that sense. Some things are crates, some are barrels, some are chests. That shape is a book. That shape is a door that can be opened. That pattern indicates a barred door, that conglomeration of shapes is a lever to open said barred door, unsoweiter. Annoying? Yeah, a bit.

unexp-spike

Through even more trial and error, I eventually figured out that pausing the game, then left clicking on things brought up examinable descriptions I expect to see in any roguelike.

Like most roguelikes, combat occurs by running into things. This one took a while to figure out. The top down aspect made me assume a little more action combat than it was capable of.

In fact, if you left click, you can actually perform some kind of combat action like stabbing with a pointed weapon or swinging a slashing weapon in an arc. It’s not the safest of things to do, as it does leave you open for periods of time. So you can also bump into things, with hopefully the pointy end.

unexp-bats

What Unexplored does very well is simulate the entire experience of dungeon crawling through a Nethack-like dungeon in relative real time and with 360 degrees of movement on a two dimensional plane, instead of just in four or eight compass directions on a grid.

It has secrets, plenty of obtuse clues, the dangerous scroll in capitalized GARBLZED text that is a gamble to read out loud, and clever little interactions.

I bottled a sprite (after reading a clue and trial and error) and the glowing sprite created light without having to consume torches.

I’ve gotten at least smart enough to fling a dagger at dubious looking things -before- I bump into them.

unexp-ants

I just find the polygons a little harder to parse than straight up ASCII text, frankly. Sometimes I don’t know what’s just room decoration or blood splatter, and what is actually an interactable object or enemy that might kill me.

Furthermore, it and I have a little design / gameplay preference disagreement. I haven’t discovered any way to rest or passively regain hp, beyond healing potions and ration consumables. I gather that is mostly by intent. There are supposedly healing springs and a bunch of bottling interactions. Meanwhile, I consider the inventory management / hotkey juggling minigame and mostly shut down before bothering to learn about it.

Me, I like my roguelikes able to refresh my HP with a keypress that says “REST until healed.” Let me die from stupid mistakes blundering into unmanageable enemies and not being able to beat a hasty retreat, not from a slow attrition death of a thousand paper cuts because I can’t find any healing source. The first makes me acknowledge that I screwed up with my decision making; the second just makes me resent RNG.

I think Unexplored has its niche. There will be a group of players who really really like what it does. I think it reflects the Nethack side of roguelikes very very well – a bunch of super esoteric things to learn and knowing those things will, in turn, enable a player to creep towards success and game mastery, not to mention game exploitation.

It’s just not really my niche.

Also, playing cyclops guy is super WEIRD.

2 thoughts on “Indie Traditionalist: Assorted Game Reviews / Opinions

  1. I didn’t like Transistor too, but heard that Hades (same dev, but proper roguelite this time) is much better. Thought it’s in early access now, so you can wait if you don’t want to bother. Also Dead Cells is pretty fun too, it’s essentially “Metroidvania meets roguelite”, though I found it pretty difficult with my bad reflexes.

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