Chances are that most of us have probably played a roguelike or a dungeon crawler before. Many see procedural generation as a modern gaming feature (though this couldn’t be further from the truth). However, few have probably experienced the genre’s humble beginnings back in the 1980s, where most of the games of this type were loosely based on Dungeons & Dragons, with text based input and randomised top-down maps constructed entirely from ASCII characters.
These early titles such as Nethack, Moria, Sam Spade and (of course) Rogue, saw our heroic little @ symbol traverse maps constructed of dots and dashes. They were tough as old nails, woefully obtuse and probably put a lot of people off gaming forever. At the same time, though, they were compelling, brilliant and way ahead of their time in so many ways.
Now that technology has finally caught up with the genre, the basic ideas of randomisation and buttload of challenge are commonplace. After all, if Rogue had never existed there would be no Gauntlet, and definitely no Dark Souls.
Stormcloud Games’ Brut@l is a love letter to these paradoxically simpler-yet-also-more-complex times. It’s a charming class-based 3D Dungeon crawler with procedurally-generated maps and monsters in which players hack their way through deadly enemies and avoid nefarious traps on an a quest for loot and glory in a world constructed entirely out of American Standard Code.
Brut@l takes its role as an old-school roguelike very seriously. Right down to the design of the dungeons, which are constructed entirely of white dots on black blocks, with elements like fire, water, and poison are brought to life with coloured characters. Each of the game’s four playable characters proudly display an @ symbol somewhere upon their person. Walls are marked with hash symbols, while doors are constructed out of pluses. The coolest trick is evident when you zoom the camera out far enough, as it reveals a faithful top down recreation of a traditional roguelike map.
It’s not just the aesthetics that hearken back to the original Rogue, as it also includes many of the mechanics from classic dungeon crawlers (for good and ill), as well as introducing a few elements from more modern titles for good measure. Just like the old dungeon crawlers from the 80’s, there isn’t any kind of tutorial, and instead you’ll occasionally see useful snippets of information scrolling in the top corner of the screen. Different coloured potions will randomise their effects between each game, giving you the options to swig it or chuck it at an enemy to see what they do. This can be frustrating initially, as you accidentally poison yourself with a potion that healed you last time.
Brut@l has a rather fun little crafting system that rewards players for fully exploring every inch of the game’s randomised labyrinths. Scattered around the rooms and corridors of each dungeon are specific ASCII code, which acts as crafting materials and can be combined to create weapons and other useful items using recipe books that you’ve collected along the way. Some characters glow different colours, which can be used to imbue existing weaponry with elemental effects like lightning or fire. Elemental weapons are used to eradicate certain enemy types, as well as unlock special doors and chests. As the game progresses, enemies that are only weak to a certain element become more common, often with several different types chucked at you in groups, and making it essential to be carrying several different elemental weapons.
As previously mentioned, brewing potions is like playing Russian roulette, as each coloured concoction’s effects change every time you play, and range from healing and protective shields to invisibility, blindness and poison. That being said, it’s certainly in your best interests to explore every corner of the map in order to increase your chances of being properly equipped to tackle the next floor, know what potions to swig and have a compliment of elemental weapon at your disposal. This is invaluable when things get difficult, and basically a formal requirement if you want to get the end of the game.
Combat isn’t particularly complex, but it’s fluid, with a satisfying variety of attacks and a decent selection of weapons to craft. You start off with just your bare fists, but as you progress, you’ll stumble across recipes for hammers, swords, pikes, clubs, axes and a bow and arrow as you descend deeper into the dungeon. Elemental attacks and weapon-specific special attacks encourage you to expand your tactics and regularly switch weapons. This variety doesn’t quite extend to character classes, as they and their associated skill trees don’t add much to the experience. The mage starts with the ability to toss arcane projectiles and get earlier access to wands. Meanwhile, The ranger is best used in solo play, as he’s the most balanced character, and able to breeze through the games early stages relatively easily.
There’s a huge menagerie of monsters to slay, with early levels mostly populated by rubbish entry-level beasts like skeleton warriors and giant rats, while on later stages, we’re treated to the real bastards, hulking minotaurs, orcs, and giant lizards. Enemies need to be dispatched efficiently, something which becomes harder as you get to later levels, where you’ll have to fend off multiple aforementioned elemental types, with low health, no armour and while evading volleys of arrows. Phew.
Like Gauntlet before it, playing cooperatively will help you out immensely as you can resurrect your comrades when they keel over by returning to the start of the floor and giving them half of your health. which means that in theory you can both push on to the next floor and, the one after it, getting through scrapes, sharing loot and hopefully not tumble down the same pit.
It’s great to see more couch co op games on the PS4, and particularly in the Rogue lite genre which has pretty much become a single player preserve recently, with only the recent reboot of Gauntlet and the latest incarnation of The Binding of Isaac springing to mind when i think about games in the genre with local cooperative play.
This being a roguelike, dying will kick you right back to the start of the dungeon and take all of your progress on the skill trees with it. Though it feels like a swift punch to the gut initially (especially if you almost make it to the end), it’s certainly a game that resides in the tough-but-fair camp. If you fully explore each level, the game will give you all the tools you need to succeed.
Dungeon runs can last anything from a few minutes to a few hours, depending on how well you do. Like Dark Souls before it, every death teaches you something new about the game’s mechanics or enemies, so hopefully you can get a little further in your next run. This helps to push you further into the game, and despite the game’s procedurally-generated levels, there are only so many potential configurations, so eventually you’ll breeze through the opening few floors like a stroll through the park. However, having to navigate the same invisible-walled maze for what feels like the hundred time can make certain parts of the game feel like a bit of a grind. Likewise, finding an elemental door early on that you don’t yet have the specific weapon to open gets old pretty fast.
Extending the playable life of the game is the dungeon creator, a user-friendly level creator that follows after the main campaign and works in a very similar way to the level editor in the old Tony Hawk games. You use a bunch of premade blocks to quickly knock together a dungeon of your very own, then spend hours tweaking it to be the bane of some poor bastards life once you’ve uploaded it.
Brut@l is a fantastic co-operative dungeon crawler, and a loving homage to the games that started the genre some 30 years ago. With distinctive visuals, simple yet enjoyable combat, a great sense of risk vs. reward running through its various systems, and a steep (yet ultimately rewarding) learning curve. Fans of the genre with an interest in its past, as well as those up for a challenge should certainly check out Brut@l.