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Dungeons of Dredmor Preview @ RPGCodex
Preview - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Fri 17 June 2011, 21:19:42
Dungeons of Dredmor Preview
Wandering into a Monster Zoo- a typical Dungeons of Dredmore experience.
I was recently given the opportunity to take part in the beta of Dungeons of Dredmor, the soon to be release graphical roguelike developed by indie developer Gaslamp Games (coder Nicholas Vining and artist David Baumgart). As someone who has played roguelikes for many years, in particular what I think of as the ‘Big Three’ (Nethack, Adom and Crawl), I was excited to hear about this game, and eager to get a taste of the procedurally generated action. A great deal of speculation has been thrown about on RPGCodex about exactly what this game is: is it really a Roguelike? Is it ‘casual’ or ‘hardcore’? Has the game sacrificed anything by choosing sprites and hand-drawn tiles over the traditional explosion of colored ascii, or by going with a largely point and click interface rather than the baroque array of keystrokes employed by old skool roguelikes? Does it look like it was drawn by weeabos?
First things first: this game is definitely a roguelike. Grid-based gaming area? Check. Procedurally generated maps? Check. Random loot (including random artifacts, a feature no doubt inspired by Linley’s Dungeon Crawl)? Check. Turn-based gameplay? Check. Permadeath? Yes, but optional (shame on you for turning it off). Like Crawl and Nethack, the game takes place entirely in a single large dungeon, each level of which is a separate map that begs to be explored and plundered. There is an ample spread of stats, ranging from 6 base attributes to 16 resistances, and a number of bonuses that affect combat (such as critical hit chance, chance to block, chance to counterattack, etc.) and dungeon exploration. Roguelike veterans might be pleased to know that having played the game on and off for a few hours total, I am just beginning to understand the rudiments of all of these statistics and how they work. Inventory management plays a major role in the game as well; every piece of ammo is tracked, and the player will find themselves juggling a plethora of food, booze and crafting items along with their loot, wands and backup equipment.
Dredmor’s most obvious break from roguelike tradition would of course have to be it’s hand-drawn graphics. The game environment is represented in a sort of top-down orthographic perspective that developer Nicholas Vining described to me on IRC as "traditional super nintendo bullcrap perspective". This is indeed the same or similar perspective to what a lot of older third and fourth-gen console games use, and the level of detail in which most assets are drawn is comparable to this era of gaming as well, giving the game an endearing (if you like this kind of thing) retro look. As for artistic design, the monsters and the player avatar are rather cartoonish in appearance, with the latter bearing no small resemblance to the hero of LucasArts’ Monkey Island series. Due to the cartoony art design and the perspective that this game shares with many older console games (and thus many Japanese CRPGs), it might at first glance appear to have been heavily influenced by Japanese anime and manga, but I quickly found out that this is a false first impression.
Some examples of different level tile sets.
As for how well this translates into a roguelike video game, I am of two conflicting opinions. On the one hand, I love most of the artwork, especially the dungeon tiles and the item graphics. These give the game a coherent visual aesthetic that would be almost impossible to achieve through ascii (although Crawl’s use of colors and related ascii effects is pretty cool). Like many old arcade and console games, each level has its own theme defined by the floor tiles, dungeon features and even the appearance of the monsters common to that level. For instance, the first level has a rather generic gothic dungeon look to it with grey flagstones and heavy wooden doors; a couple of levels down you find yourself in a level that resembles a series of techno-magical laboratories (complete with Djinn enemies and humanoid mollusk enemies that bear a strong resemblance to a certain Wizards of the Coast IP). Other themes involve fungus-filled caverns, icy cellars and what looked kind of like the inside of a wooden ship. Overall the dungeon features, monster sprites and item graphics are very well done and well matched.
The only downside I have found to all of this is that the inclusion of animated sprites seems to have come at the cost of a decrease in diversity of enemies- the need to draw and animate ever single character in the game means that we do not get the wild variety of critters found in the ascii-based games, where simply assigning a character and a color is usually all the visuals you need for a monster. That being said, the devs did get a lot of mileage out of the monster sprites they designed; the sprite for a red firebreathing dragon on one level might appear further down as a blue ice breathing dragon, and so on. As for their actual characteristics in game, they seem to have a wide variety of abilities and attacks, which should pose fun tactical challenges at all stages of the game once balance tweaking is done.
A bevy of Dredmorian monsters. Do you see any pink-haired watery-eyed children or cat-lolis here, folks? I didn’t think so.
A nitpick that I have with the game is that the player avatar looks rather bland, and your appearance does not change based on what you equip or the skills you specialize in. This is obviously another limitation of a small developer using animated sprites, and while I sort of wish my character didn’t look like a pubescent cabin boy, it’s not a deal breaker by any means. Those who like to play paper doll dressup with their Diablo character might be disappointed, but anyone who is primarily into meaty roguelike gameplay probably won’t care too much.
I found that the interface for this game is pretty slick and easy to get the hang of. Moving about is done via keyboard (WASD- you can also point and click to move), and the mouse pointer is used to interact with adjacent dungeon features and items. The ability to pick up items from the ground simply by clicking on adjacent squares (you can shift-click to drop directly to inventory, or you can click to grab the item to the mouse cursor; thankfully you can grab things on diagonally adjacent squares) makes inventory management much smoother and less aggravating that it often is in other roguelikes. Using consumables from your inventory is as simple as pressing ‘I’ and right clicking on the object in question. Consumables can also be stashed in a utility belt which remains visible on the main window at all times, and which also lets you quiver-up ammo and wands for targeting on your enemies. As far as I am concerned, there are no real drawbacks to this system, if anything it is an improvement over the interfaces of traditional roguelikes.
Chew on that, crunchy stat lovers!
As for game mechanics, DoD distinguishes itself from other roguelike games through its skill trees and crafting system. Although there are no named classes in the traditional sense, you essentially create your own class during character creation: you get to choose seven skill trees, and are not allowed to add new ones later in the game. The game boasts a total of thirty four skill trees (!), including five melee weapon proficiencies, two ranged weapon proficiencies, three defensive skills, and seven schools of magic. In addition there are skills that work in tandem with other skill trees, such as those that help you cast spells more efficiently, give you buffs or special attacks in combat, and so on. There are some rather unique miscellaneous trees such as the ‘fungal arts’ series (which lets you grow mushrooms for personal use and gives the ability summon fungal pets), a series of skills devoted to wand use, and the archeologist tree, which helps you avoid traps and allows you to do weird things with unique artifacts. Finally, there are the crafting skills: alchemy, smithing and tinkering- more on this later.
That’s enough skill trees to give any roguelike fan some wood, amirite?
Each skill tree has between three and seven upgrades, and the player gets to upgrade a single tree each time they level up. For combat skills, an upgrade usually just means bonuses, but in some cases also usable powers. For the magical disciplines, each upgrade represents access to a new spell. I found that each magical discipline seems to have a fairly wide range of buffs, debuffs, attacks, summons and the like, although certain disciplines focus more heavily on one area over another- for instance, “promethean magic” is mostly about dealing damage with fire, whereas golemancy is almost entirely about summoning. Mathemagic is largely about debuffing and teleport spells. All in all, I found most of the disciplines pretty interesting, although I sometimes find myself wishing they were even more specialized than they are… it seems that in many cases choosing more than two or three magical disciplines gives you several redundant abilities.
The crafting skills are another major feature that sets DoD apart from other roguelikes. Alchemy obviously lets you make potions from base components, but it also lets you distill booze from fruit and manufacture acid and gunpowder, both of which can be used as components for making traps or ammo. Tinkering has two main uses: on the one hand it lets you disarm traps (which can be placed by you later), or new craft traps from components. It is also useful for players who specialize in ranged weaponry, since it is used to make thrown ammo (bombs) and crossbow bolts, or to upgrade crossbows.
Smithing lets you create armor and weapons from metal ingots, and to upgrade these weapons. This skill combined with the Krong anvil shrines (described below) allows you to create some rather potent artifacts from scratch as long as Krong cooperates.
Ingots, who knew they were so awesome?
All crafting skills use kits and recipes. At the beginning of the game you start out with all of the kits used in your crafting disciplines, and each kit comes stocked with several recipes. You can also find more recipes by searching bookcases found throughout the dungeon. Components are found throughout the dungeon, but many of them are themselves the products of crafting reactions- for instance, acid made with the alchemy skill can be used to make a trap, or a nasty thrown weapon. The crafting interface is simplicity itself- just drop components into the kit interface and press the button, or simply select a recipe and have it autofill the components from your inventory. All in all this system is rather fun to play with, although I often find myself with a cluttered inventory due to obsessive component stockpiling. The real innovation with this system in my opinion is not the crafting itself (which is rather simplistic) but the part that it plays in an effective character build- for instance a tinkerer with thrown weapons or crossbow skill can make themselves some rather fine ammo via crafting, and a warrior can pick and choose armor that fits his fighting and defensive styles.
A Comparison With The “Big Three”
Having established the game’s roguelike credentials, I have to point out some ways in which is it simpler, dare I say les ‘hardcore’ than the Big Three. One difference, which I must confess was something of a letdown for me, is the way that time is implemented. All actions seem to take the same amount of time. Equipping an item, eating food, drinking a potion, attacking and even forging a weapon or sophisticated mechanical apparatus seems to a single ‘turn’. This means that there is no hasting, no slowing, no outrunning your enemies or being chased down (if there are two or more they will corner you, however); time in this game is implemented as simply as it is in chess or checkers, there is only the ‘turn’. To stretch the checkers analogy a bit further, the player and monsters can only move along the four cardinal directions, and as far as I have seen, nothing can perform melee attacks on an adjacent diagonal tile, although missiles and targeted spells can be launched along the attacker’s of sight. The end result of all of this is that it is rather easy to flee from creatures that don’t use ranged attacks, and that more often than not, by simply holing up in a corner, you can avoid being melee attacked by more than two critters at the same time. Fortunately the AI is clever enough to follow you and block off escape routes, so fleeing will only get you so far.
Another big difference between Dredmor and other roguelikes can be seen in the way food is handled. There is no starvation in Dredmor. That being said, in order to regenerate hit points or magic points at a reasonable rate, you need to eat food or drink booze respectively. Since in the Big Three roguelikes you can regenerate mana and hit points by just sitting around (often quickly enough that running around a post in order to heal yourself is a viable tactic), I don’t really see this as an example of dumbing down the genre. In the other games, you essentially trade food for hit points when you camp out (time not spent exploring makes you hungry and brings you closer to starvation), whereas here you eat something in order to regenerate. Thus, in both Dredmor and the more traditional games, you will not survive for very long without food and other consumables. The game lacks another common feature of the Big Three that I like to call ‘dungeon sushi’: the butchering of monster corpses for edible meat. Considering how ridiculous this is in practice in most games, I don’t think this is necessarily a deficiency but simply a design decision. Food and booze are often found on the ground or in chests, and they can be purchased in vending machines or stores. To be objective here, ‘food’ and ‘booze’ are really just part of a class of single use items (which would include ‘potions’ and various mushrooms) that bestow effects on the user- with food and booze simply bestowing the effects that let you regenerate HP and mana.
Lutefisk for the lutefisk god! Aww come on, it is too funny!
Something else that is “missing” from the game is a religious piety system. There is no ‘praying’ in this game in the sense that it exists in, say, NetHack or Adom; no piety farming, no ‘panic button’ to push when you are about to die, no rewards or punishment for killing something with the right or wrong alignment. As far as I know, there are only three gods in this game, and they basically exist as a handful of dungeon features and a simple quest mechanic. The first of these gods is Inconsequentia, the Goddess of Pointless Side-Quests; if you interact with one of her shrines you are given the option to take part in a procedurally generated side quest that generally involves finding things or killing things (or more often both), and earns you the reward of a unique artifact. The second god is Krong, the god of anvils, a mercurial deity who will either permanently curse or empower an item that you place on his anvil-shaped altar. The final god is the Lutefisk God, an inscrutable fishy entity who accepts only offers of lutefisk (basically a form of embalmed fish that the Norwegians consider edible) at his altars. Luckily for you, there is the commonly available “lutefisk horadric cube” which transforms any object (well, not another horadric cube…) into lutefisk. Great piles of lutefisk must be sacrificed in order to receive the award of a high quality item. To be honest, I don’t really miss the Nethack/Adom religious mechanic in this game; piety farming is a tedious and boring endeavor in any case, and the whole ‘prayer as a panic button’ feature has always seemed kind of lame to me. As for the Crawl system of defining character abilities and limitations through their religion, while I love it in that game, Dredmor finds its own way to diversify game play experience through the myriad of character builds possible through its extensive skill tree system.
As a final note to this preview, I would like to try and describe the zany humor and quirkiness that pervades the game. Every object, character statistic, skill icon, monster and many dungeon features have a brief, humorous mouseover text description that balances humor with informative description. I can’t promise the humor will please everyone (Dwarf Fortress references abound!) but it worked for me. Beyond this, there are things such as the Lutefisk God or Inconsequentia that are innately humorous, and monsters such as the Thrusties (black imp like creatures that pump their hips at you) and psychotic thieving leprechauns, that can amuse based on their visuals alone. One or both of the devs seems to have an obsession with Nordic culture (as seen in the prominence of lutefisk, Viking equipment, and skill descriptions that reference Vikings), and there must be at least a dozen different cheeses among the various food items found in the game. The pervasive silliness of the game and the cartoonish visuals give it an overall lighthearted, Pratchettesque feeling, but this silliness is belied by a solid chassis of statistics and game mechanics to make even the most hardcore Roguelike fan happy.
So to wrap up, as someone who has invested far more time than I care to contemplate into playing traditional roguelikes, I really enjoy this game. Is it as ‘hardcore’ as the Big Three? I have no definitive answer- in some ways it is simpler, and in others more complex. The game is certainly not easy, especially if you play it with permadeath on the highest difficulty level. It offers great replay value due to the massive number of skill trees, and presents a wide variety of tactics through the many character abilities and crafting options. At its heart it is really about dungeon crawling, grabbing loot and chopping up monsters, which of course means that it is true to its predecessors in all the ways that matter.
According to interviews and blog posts, the game will cost “less than ten dollars”, which seems like a fair price for a shiny, new, finished (imagine that) and presumably bug-free roguelike. Right now the game is in the beta testing stage, with bug squashing and balance tweaking moving apace, so keep an eye out for a release this summer!