The Dungeons of Dredmor

Posted by Jack on 2011-07-17 at 03:02
Tagged: gaming

I grabbed "Dungeons of Dredmor" today on Steam. Gaslamp Games, the publisher, is promising Linux binaries, but I really wanted to crack into it, so I spent the $4.50 on it and fired it up in Wine.

Let me say, for less than the price of a latte at Starbucks, it's a whole lot of fun. It definitely calls forth the memories of Nethack and all of its other rogue-like brethren. It also is a bit reminiscent of Diablo (a similarity given a nod with the Horadric Lutefisk Cube), but in true rogue like fashion, it's less about story and more about trying to squeeze the most out of a character before you die.

Yes. Permadeath. I was pleased to see that it's on by default - although even having an option is further evidence that it's walking the fine line between Nethack and Diablo 2 (which implemented permadeath as optional "hardcore mode" after beating the game once through). As always it's both a blessing and a curse. Blessing because it makes you feel the fear of real death, a feature lacking in many modern games where a death means hitting F9 and restarting from where you were two minutes previously. Permadeath adds to the tension which is why it's the hallmark of a rogue-like. It's a curse because, obviously, it can mean that you just spent 5 hours and have nothing to show for it except another run at your high score.

My top score is about 12k. It's not impressive, but after maybe 10 characters I'm finally getting the hang of it. Unfortunately there is no manual, so it seems that, aside from a very basic tutorial that covers the barest essentials (and will be old hat for rogue veterans), you're basically on your own to figure out what everything means.

There's a good selection of (34!) base skills, each with a linear progression between three and eight feats/skills/spells you can add beyond the initial one granted just by choosing the base skill. You get one point per level. Now, a linear tree in a game like Dragon Age was very disappointing (and indeed I was kinda disappointed with Dragon Age from a mechanics point of view), but this is a perfect optimization for a rogue like with permadeath. A broad set of base skills with shallow skill trees following just means you don't spend much time playing an identical character if you die a couple of times. Each base skill gets you started off right so you can tell the difference in play style immediately. Very important when you may be starting over dozens of times.

A fresh character can choose 7 base skills to build upon. 7 skills is plenty to make sure your character is broad enough to survive the game. There's also a good mix between wizard, rogue, warrior and crafting skills so there's plenty there for characters of all stripes. As an added bonus, they added a "last choice" option (in case your previous build didn't get as far as you thought it should have) and a "random" option which I'm sure will be the basis for a lot of fun for gamers seeking a new challenge. Unfortunately, the only way to view the skills in a tree is to start a character and look at the sKills (sic) menu. On one hand this encourages experimentation but on the other hand I'd like to know what I'm getting into. What does "Necronomiconomics" mean? Or "Viking Wizardry"? You have no clue until you start a character.

Aside from skills, you have a huge amount of character attributes. These aren't your normal D&D traits either. Your primary attributes are "Burliness", "Sagacity", "Nimbleness", "Caddishness", "Savvy", and "Stubborness". In addition there are many other stats, like magic resistance, chance to block, resistances, etc. It's a nice level of complexity. Your character also has your typical "slots" : melee weapon, ranged weapon, torso, head, feet, shield, a couple of magic rings and a necklace all of which can be filled with all manner of magical and cursed trinkets.

Battle is pretty straightforward turn based. Lots of different damage types. Plenty offensive and defensive skills to use. It's possible to block, dodge and counter as well as other skill specific extras automatically employed in combat (like blackjack). Some monsters seem to be immune to some skills. I haven't gotten far enough to see if there are any real nasties (like physical immunes or ranged casters), but I haven't been disappointed so far. The set of templates seems a bit small, but again I've only gotten to level 2 so I can't judge.

Crafting is also neat and sufficiently complex. If you choose a crafting skill, you usually start with some device to activate and a set of basic, though useful, recipes. As you go through the game you can expand your repertoire by finding bookcases which teach you new ones. It's especially useful for keeping a ranged character equipped with ammunition or a mage stocked with booze mana (yes they are equivalent). Turning ingots into 9 bolts can be very helpful when luck hasn't provided you with enough. Traps are also craftable, but since the dungeons are absolutely rife with the things, I've found that they're more useful to just pick up and reuse (that is, if you have the skill to do that).

Honestly, the menus and interface are the weakest part of the game. Icons in general are all too small. It's very difficult to tell the difference between different wands / bolts / food items in your belt. The inventory management had the right idea (set # of squares like Diablo, each item takes one square and some are stackable) and even a much-needed "sort" function that I quickly became a fan of, but it's a bit too clicky for me. For example, as far as I can tell, there's no way to just "pick-up" an item... you need to pick it up and place it in your inventory. It doesn't matter if you've got enough space you have to click move click to get it done Correction: Commenter eselyoutee notes that you can shift + click to automatically place it in your inventory. I also discovered you can just drag to your person..

Attributes, and stats (and other things like damage types and resistances) are symbolized by very small and incomprehensible icons. I'm starting to get the down pat, but when you're comparing two different swords and it's not obvious what their attributes are because it just shows "-weird icon- 2" or something, it's a pain to try and decipher.

As mentioned, crafting is a well-done mechanic but the interface is kludgy too. For some crafting it's simple. Take some "native gold", put it in the ingot press, smelt, and there you are: two ingots of gold. But for some recipes that you actually have to look up, it's a pain to look at the recipe, select it (at which point the game puts its red outline in the crafting slots) and then try and figure out what goes in there. The killer thing here is that the recipe interface knows if you've got the ingredients so why on earth doesn't it just take them out of your inventory and get them ready for you to hit 'smelt' or whatever verb it is? I don't have eidetic memory, friends. Correction: I've also discovered the "autofill" button under the boxes that blends in with the decor a bit. I still don't get why it wouldn't just automatically do that and return them to the inventory if you close without activating, but nonetheless it makes crafting easier..

Likewise the whole belt / active spell thing is harder to use than it needs to be. Like Diablo before it you have a left and a right click attack. Unlike Diablo it seems that the left click is always your melee attack, and your right click has to function as your ranged and all of your spells/skills. That in itself isn't so bad (you're going to want a melee attack no matter what kind of character you are), but in order to, for example, switch to your ranged attack instead of a skill, you have to either go into your inventory or hit SHIFT + # for your belt. I can't say how many times I've been trying to use the hotkeys and gotten that reversed. Trying to switch to a skill and thinking I needed shift at which point I do something stupid like eat a piece of fruit and proceed to take a round of beatings from the enemies standing around me. In my opinion Diablo did this perfectly. Have some inventory you can quick switch to, but allow a set of keys (like number keys, or F keys) be assigned to any item / skill for either left or right click. That way I can setup the hotkeys any way that my brain wants to. I can make F1, F2, and F3 my favorite bolts / wands and then F5 and F6 my primary skills, etc. (I particularly like the F keys because on most keyboard they have built in groupings). The whole shift thing doesn't work for my brain.

Of course, all of this interface griping is minimized if for no other reason than Dredmor is a turn-based game (again, in true rogue-like fashion). I can take the time to dick around in the inventory box and drag ingredients hither and yon because I have an infinite amount of time before anything else is going to happen to me. Even in battle, making a quick selection is unnecessary because (if I'm still alive) I could take ten minutes to make my next move. That said, it breaks the flow of the game, and making a mistake taking your turn will lead to (one of) your deaths.

Interface griping notwithstanding, there's a lot of fun material in Dredmor. I haven't gotten very far into it, but there are myriad items, a bunch of damage types, a massive number of different spell effects (both negative and positive), tons of skills, and a whole lot of crafts. The game is a very light-hearted romp from its items and skills to its art direction and monster utterances. Combine that depth and irreverence with randomly generated dungeons and you've got quite a time sink on your hands.

All in all, I'm looking forward to playing it more and I'm hoping that some of the interface improvements can be made in subsequent patches. And c'mon... at $5 even those that aren't pre-established rogue-like fans are practically guaranteed to get their money's worth and more.