TL; DR(eview) - Stormcloud Games has put together a solid procedurally-generated hack-and-slash title with a wonderful aesthetic built around an ASCII theme. Once you learn the tricks of the game, the difficulty spike doesn't really live up to the Brut@l name, but variety provides ample replayability.
This last weekend, I found myself quickly drawn in and addicted to Brut@l, the new dungeon-crawler roguelike from Stormcloud Games. Which is weird, because I'm typically not the biggest champion of the roguelike genre. Normally, I am a big fan of my character progressing over time and not having to worrry about making that one wrong move, losing all my progress, and starting over from scratch. Which is exactly what happened for me during my early struggles with Brut@l. But eventually, that thing that makes roguelikes so appealing to their fans started happening.
I got good.
I finally started learning the different enemies well enough to change up my tactics as needed. I found weapons I enjoyed using and leveled up my character effectively to the point where the thing that wound up killing me the most was not paying attention, missing a jump, and falling to my death. As I write this, I've completed two full runs through the game's 26 randomly-generated dungeons of increasing difficulty and I'm even at the top of the game's Leaderboard, which is probably a first and certainly won't last long once the game is out in the wild next week.
In Brut@l, you begin by choosing your character: the archetypal Warrior, Amazon, Ranger, or Mage. Your selection can play a big factor in the early stages of the game as it determines how much health your fighter will have, a default ranged attack, and a few starting skills from the games skill tree. But all characters are pulling from the same set of 24 skills so after only a few levels, you could theoretically have a Mage and Warrior with roughly the same build. While this eventual one-size-fits-all character customization might not appeal to someone looking for more disparate play styles, it was a welcome relief for me to be able to craft my warrior into a suitable ranged fighter later in the game to allow more long-distance strategies to play out.
Once you've selected your character, you're dropped into the first procedurally-generated ASCII-themed dungeon with nothing more than your bare fists and an unlit torch to fight through the variety of monsters. If you're anything like me and need to obsessively smash all of the destructible items in the environment, you're in luck. Doing so will net you a little bit of experience toward leveling up. It's not as much as defeating enemies but it can definitely come in handy. Additionally, pots and barrels will occasionally hide loot - which can be offered up to the gods for a possible extra life - or the game's various crafting materials.
One of the core tenets of developing your avatar comes in these Weapon and Potion crafting systems. As you progress through the various levels of the dungeon, you'll come across and collect crafting guides, ASCII letters, and potion materials. Each crafting guide corresponds to one of five weapon types: short sword, long sword, heavy weapon, pike, and bow. And each weapon requires a different set of characters to craft. So you might unlock a long sword that requires the letters "I," "M," and "P." If you have them, you'll be able to convert the guide into the weapon itself and add it to your arsenal.
From there, you can add an enchantment if you have the proper corresponding letter in any of the five spell colors: red = fire, green = poison, light blue = ice, dark blue = electricity, and purple = arcane magic that can transform enemies. Each different enchantment provides a chance of adding an extra status effect on your attacks. As you progress through the levels, you might also run across a door that can only be opened with a poison weapon (for example) so having a diverse arsenal can come in quite handy for completionists.
The other major crafting element to the game is a series of 8 colored potions that are randomly assigned in each separate playthrough and you won't be able to identify what the potion does until you use it, either by drinking it yourself or by throwing it at your enemies. It's an interesting risk-reward system until you've identified every different type. Maybe this pink potion will restore my health this game? Nope. It set me on fire. Crap. Each different potion type requires 2 of the game's 6 components to concoct so you might find yourself eventually favoring certain components and leaving others behind as space in your inventory can be very limited, especially as the game progresses.
Before I finally managed to actually proceed through the game, I was initially drawn in by the ASCII art style. In fact, I remember that being somewhat of a standout image when it was initially revealed at the PlayStation Experience in December. The character models, weapons, and even the dungeons and map themselves are all modeled off of this style - designing something with little more than the characters on a keyboard. It's a simple enough concept utilized since the early days of computers (I even made a pass at the initial Trevor Trove logo in ASCII before landing on the idea of the sprite) but I don't think I've seen it realized in 3D-modeling like this before.
Along with the character-driven design, the way Brut@l uses color really stands out as well. Most of the game is dominated by black space, with white characters establishing the boundaries of a room, the destructible furnishing, your fighter, and the standard enemies. But occasionally pops of color will leap out at you. Enemies with briefly paint the ground red with blood spatter when slain. A golden key to unlock a door or piece of treasure might hover atop a pedestal. Red lava, blue (sometimes electrified) water, or green pools of poison might fill a room and you have to navigate a labyrinth to get to the other side. Additionally, as described above, once you begin enchanting your weapons, you'll be able to add your own color to the game. Lastly, as you progress to more difficult levels, the enemies will occasionally also be imbued with their own elemental attributes, adding even more color to the world around you. The transition from black-and-white early game to a fully vibrant and colorful end game was so subtle that it took me two entire playthroughs and writing about it in this very moment to stumble upon that epiphany but it goes a long way toward keeping the game visually interesting.
This visual growth of the game may come in very handy in order to keep you engaged because unfortunately, once you've mastered a couple skills, the game can admittedly become a bit repetitive if you take the "easy" route. After about a day or two of slow progression, I managed to have a good enough run and level up enough to unlock a special attack that I was then able to get through most of the rest of the game spamming. I was certainly having fun finally progressing deeper and deeper, but it did feel slightly cheapened as I felt like the game was now longer as "brutal" as it intended. To that end, I can certainly "choose my own difficulty" by forcing myself to avoid those special attacks if I want to give myself an extra challenge in my next playthrough.
And despite having beaten the game twice, I am still interested in returning for more, which is a great sign in my book. The variety of enemies and overall randomly-generated aspect of the game keep it engaging and no two playthroughs will ever be the same. And I want to challenge myself and see how far I can progress without using those potential exploits because the core gameplay loop is really fun and destroying ASCII skeleton archers is really satisfying.
Trevor Trove was provided an advance copy of the game for review (though I had actually already pre-ordered the title anyway).