Brutal (stylised as [email protected]) is the debut from Stormcloud Games and there's nods to classic dungeon crawlers like Rogue everywhere. From the ASCII theme to the constant threat of permadeath this is certainly a game descended from Rogue, but it falls just on the side of roguelite. It's just that little bit more forgiving, but only just.
It's roguelite by virtue of softening the threat of permadeath with the chance to gain extra lives. These are gained by collecting the loot scattered throughout the dungeons and then offering an amount of your choice at an altar to the gods, also in the dungeons. The game will randomly select whether it has pleased the gods, granting you an extra life, or insulted them, giving you nothing, although one can only assume higher amounts of loot offered grants a higher chance of an extra life.
Another major difference is the fact that combat is not turn-based, instead happening in real time. Much like a roguelike, though, the gameplay and the combat move to the forefront of the experience and there is no narrative to get bogged down in, nor is there any dialogue. The combat is relatively straightforward, involving melee attacks with square or ranged attacks with R2, although different weapons and special abilities increase the options, as does the ability to block and dodge. The one complaint on this front would be that there are only a handful of weapons to choose from and more variety would have been appreciated.
The ASCII aesthetic forms the core of the striking visual identity Brutal presents and this makes it more than just another roguelite. This art style uses ASCII white lettering on an otherwise black world in order to construct the features of the setting, with certain objects like fire and electricity giving bursts of colour into the game. Weapons, objects and armour are all made up of different letters on the keyboard and this integrates well into the crafting too, as letters are needed to make weapons and coloured letters are needed to enchant them.
The crafting system works excellently and is one of the many ways the Brutal's simplicity works so well. Scattered across dungeon levels are codex books containing the blueprints for weapons and once you've found those it's as simple as finding the letters to make them and finding the certain coloured letter to enchant them. This is very easy to get to grips with and the ability to assign them to the d-pad and swap out enchantments at will makes it even easier. Potions can also be crafted with ingredients too, although their effects are unknown and need to be either drunk or thrown at enemies to test their effect. This is shuffled every time you start a new game as well, so the yellow potion in one game may have a different effect to the yellow potion in another.
The levelling system is just as simple although this needs to be deployed more tactically. There are four skill trees - all progressing in a straight line without branching - and these have to be acquired in an order when you level up. Depending on your play-style these will have to be chosen very carefully. Some special abilities, for example, can't be used with a weapon you might favour, and the ability to hold extra mana or see secret doors might be more fitting. Considering the increasing difficulty of Brutal's dungeon's it is also unlikely you will fill them all in, so it is important to choose wisely.
The difficulty is really what gives Brutal that roguelike feeling. Although it's forgiving in the sense that you have the odd chance to try and gain an extra life, the difficulty curve is steep, luring you into thinking it's easy and then hitting you where it hurts. As the levels progress there is less food to fill up your food meter, harder enemies like Nymphs that can steal your weapons, and there's also less ingredients to craft potions, all of these quickly forcing the player to play better or die.
In tailoring your play-style to increase chances of survival it is also important to consider which class you start as. The differences between them aren't massive but there are different amounts of starting health and also different pre-loaded upgrades on the skills trees, meaning that a mage has more magic upgrades unlocked etc. The four classes suit different styles including magic, ranged and close quarters combat, although each player can use any weapon if they work to unlock the required upgrade. Choosing a certain class from the beginning just makes getting certain upgrades easier and quicker.
In terms of level design, the dungeons are procedurally generated, with each area revealing itself once the player either walks through the threshold or unlocks it with a key. Planning ahead is difficult, then, and sometimes reactions need to be quick to deal with emerging dangers in a room. There are a variety of reoccurring designs, though, such as mazes, treasure rooms and some of these need to be unlocked by weapons with certain enchantments as well. The objective is obviously the find the door to advance to the next level, but players are certainly encouraged to look high and low for resources, especially given the scarcity as the game goes on.
Giving the player an occasional extra life, allowing them to save, and the real time combat are the main things that separate Brutal from being a more traditional roguelike, but the influences are still very much there and it distinguishes itself in order to shape its own identity as an ASCII themed dungeon crawler. The black and white with occasional colour, steep difficulty and satisfying combat shows that its no bad thing to be less roguelike, and its simplicity ties all of these features together in a neat little bow. While nodding its head to games of the past, then, the slick visuals and smooth gameplay bring that formula to the present in an engaging way.
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