Opinion: Dungeons of Dredmor

Oh dear. Not again.

Another Steam Christmas sale has come and gone, and if you’re anything like me, you probably made some unorthodox purchases. I’ve owned Dungeons of Dredmor from Gaslamp Games for a couple of months now, but like so many other games, it sat ignored and uninstalled, only serving as a permanent reminder to spend less money on Steam games every single time I looked at my Steam Library. Over the winter break, the game’s DLC, Realm of the Diggle Gods, had dropped to a measly $0.74 USD, and naturally I fell for the sale-trap yet again and snapped it up. This time, I felt really dumb having purchased DLC for a game I wasn’t even sure that I liked, so the obligation to boot it up swelled within me, and I took a self-punishing plunge into this fairly recent roguelike.

The gameplay in Dungeons of Dredmor is pretty similar to any other roguelike – wander around in randomly generated dungeons, fight monsters, find loot, dodge traps, and constantly pray that you don’t die. The combat is turn-based; whenever you move your character or take an action like eating or attacking, all of the enemies on the map all get a turn to do the same. This makes the combat focused on character planning and positioning. Simple strategies like funneling six enemies into a narrow corridor instead of letting yourself get surrounded are key to not biting the dust. And, as a key staple of roguelikes, permadeath plays a solid role in making you think about the ramifications of your actions, since you can lose hours of progress with a few stupid choices. However, if you’re new to the genre, Dungeons of Dredmor has a few nice options to make the game more accessible, such as the option to turn permadeath off and a difficulty selection.

The era of ASCII graphics in roguelikes seems to be rapidly coming to a close, for better or worse. In this case, I’ll make an argument for the better, since this game emanates style from every pore. The art direction is very reminiscent of early PC games, almost striking a resemblance to an old LucasArts point-and-click adventure. The sound effects and music also share that fantastic old-school feel, combining everything into a melting pot of warm and bubbly nostalgia, despite the game being released just last year. It even accomplishes the difficult feat of being genuinely funny, and layers a thick sense of humor on top of the whole package. The attention to detail is evident with everything from item descriptions to propaganda posters hanging up on the walls of the dungeon sponsored by the game’s end boss, smack-talking enemies (“i hope you have a terrible day” is a common expression) and a deep voice-over that praises you with a booming “HEROIC VANDALISM!” every time you smash a statue of evil. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and feels clever enough to make you happy it was included.

While the game is exponentially more accessible than most roguelikes available, it still has a steep learning curve. The stat screen has several dozen little colored icons which tell you what they do when you hover over them, but memorizing them and figuring out how they synergize will take a significantly long time. A lot of the game is made intentionally vague to help encourage player experimentation, but certain mechanics are simply TOO vague. I didn’t even learn how to sell items until I accidentally held down Shift when I was in a shop. The tutorial does an OK job of explaining the basics, but hiding things as elementary as “selling items” from the player serves no purpose. Also, certain elements of the UI are needlessly archaic, such as the lack of mouse-wheel scrolling, and a crafting menu that’s essentially a cobbled-together mess of icons instead of something well-explained and easy to use.

Despite being a great showpiece for roguelikes in general, Dungeons of Dredmor raises a few important questions. How many people are actively still looking to play a masochistic glimpse into the relics of gaming’s past? Does the lack of hand holding, the steep learning curve, or the overall classic style hold any modicum of a broader appeal, or are roguelikes strictly stuck in the hearts of a select niche? Breaking past the ASCII-graphics and making permadeath a selection seem like wide strides from the age-old formula for this type of game, but I’m stuck wondering just how many more people those choices could attract. However, I can at least tell you on a personal level that the game strikes a huge measure of positive chords with me, and I think that for $5 USD (available now on Steam), more people owe it to themselves to see if this genre might hit those same high notes within themselves.

The Roguelike Effect

I’ve had a real sore spot for Torchlight since purchasing it, because I picked it up during a Steam Weekend deal and felt great about getting it for 10 dollars just a few months after its release. In a karmic sort of “Fuck You” fashion, the Steam Christmas Sale started the following Monday, and one of the titles of the day was Torchlight, for 5 dollars! Five dollars less than all of you suckers paid for it a day before! Odds are, you didn’t even have time to play it, and here it is, even cheaper than yesterday!

Naturally, I did what anyone would have done and immediately uninstalled Torchlight, followed by a vow to never play it.

More recently, a buddy introduced me to the wonderfully masochistic world of roguelikes, and I’ve been amazed at how much I enjoy getting my teeth punched in by a video game. For those not in the know, a roguelike is an RPG, usually with turn-based movement, from an over-the-top perspective with reoccurring ideas like perma-death and randomized tilesets. They’re punishing, they’re frustrating, but ultimately they reward you with a great sense of satisfaction whenever you progress.

You rarely progress.

You rarely progress.

There’s been a lot of noise about the Diablo III beta this week, and it called to memory the lengthy times spent in puberty frantically left-clicking my mouse to get bigger and better armor and weapons. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had played a hack-and-slash, and the urge to hunt down some loot bit me. Last week, I decided it was time to give it a go, and bitterly moved on past old grudges and reinstalled Torchlight in a fit of Diablo-hype. For completely unrelated reasons, I also simultaneously realized it was time to watch the 1982 hit movie, 48 Hours.

"Look, convict, we're going to have to work together if we want to get purple drops."

"Look, convict, we're going to have to work together if we want to get purple drops."

As I started making my first character while listening to racist epithets spill out of Nick Nolte’s gravelly mouth, an interesting proposition arose. The difficulty selection screen had a check box for ‘Hardcore Mode,’ and a compulsion came over me. “I could pussyfoot around this and play on baby mode for babies,” I thought to myself as I stroked my chest hair, “or I could simulate diving headfirst into a wall over and over, like a real man!” I ticked the Hardcore box, and selected the hardest difficulty setting.

Things went pretty swimmingly for about 15 minutes, until I was suddenly overwhelmed by a massive cluster of enemies damaging me faster than I could heal. “No sweat, that was just my first attempt,” I reassured myself. “Can’t expect to do this in one try. Gotta pay more attention from here on out.” Each new attempt started bringing a real thrill as I progressed just a tiny bit farther than I did the previous time, but I was repeatedly distracted by things like Eddie Murphy brandishing a knife at a redneck in a bar. It didn’t take me long to realize that I should probably take it a bit slower, and try a non-hardcore character to test the waters of the game a bit more.

Nick Nolte is the only survivor. Seems appropriate.

Nick Nolte is the only survivor. Seems appropriate.

At this point, the movie was nearing its end, and I had to debate in my head if I wanted to watch the sequel, Another 48 Hours, or if I wanted to just focus on the game since hearing the word “convict” every 20 seconds proved itself too great a distraction. I turned off the movie and made it significantly farther than I had with any of my Hardcore characters (as predicted), but something was missing. The gamble of losing all of my progress due to a lapse in attention span was now transformed into something so minor as losing a few gold pieces. The charm had died down a bit, and it became a matter of monotonously left-clicking instead of the moments of tension from earlier when I was outnumbered or had run out of health potions. I decided to turn off the game, since I had lost almost all interest after about half an hour of slogging through without real penalty.

What happened here? It didn’t take long to go sour, and I can definitely say that I was having a lot of fun despite restarting the game from the beginning four times. Why did it jump from a rambunctious romp to a lethargic letdown? Then the thought occurred to me: I had been trying to play Torchlight like a roguelike. Intentionally dooming myself from the start by checking the Hardcore box, my impulsive choice had actually impacted my feelings on the game overall. It was honestly making me wonder if the hack-and-slash genre was even for me anymore, and that I might not get the same joy out of them that I did in decades past. It’s almost as if roguelikes have left a permanent scar on my soul.

Left with a feeling of uncertainty, only time will tell if Diablo III will be able to arouse me with its temptations of bigger and badder swords, or if I’ll need the assistance of a gritty ’80s cop movie to help me cope with losing Hardcore characters at a consistent pace.