Standing in a void of black punctuated by white symbols is my character. She is made of alphanumerical symbols: a form of communication known as ASCII made famous in games by the likes of Rogue. I am descending a 26 floor dungeon to face the Guardian of the Dungeon. I attack with my kicks and my shield. Later I’ll find letters of the alphabet that can be used as crafting components in broadswords, axes, spears, and bows. I’ll find potions I can throw at enemies, as well as wands that fire a variety of offensive spells. My enemies are beasts with no other purpose than to kill me. I am playing Brut@l, the third person action/dungeon crawler/roguelike for the Playstation 4.
Brutal (I’m not using the @ symbol it’s offensive) appeared on the marketplace August 9th in the year 2016. I played a few hours after its release, but later that day I also purchased No Man’s Sky sending me into a world of wasting time. I didn’t play as much Brutal as I wanted. Nevertheless I have played enough to get a good taste, and that’s really the spirit of the ranking. If ever I need to add, subtract, or modify these following words, I will do so in good sport accompanied by notification.
When I initially booted the game I instantly loved what I played. Players begin a run by selecting one of four starting characters: warrior, wizard, ranger, or amazon. Besides starting skills and the character model the characters don’t feel very different. It’s generally smart to pick the amazon because she’s a lady, and there aren’t enough games about women kicking ass out there.
The game feels a bit odd at times but the combat engine feels nice and contains a suitable level of simple depth. The controls are serviceable and the combat feels nice. There’s plenty of mobility as you dodge behind enemies, or slide in between their legs, to pop in a few extra free hits. Jumping on the other hand feels cumbersome and sloppy due to either the floaty jumping animation or the somewhat isometric camera angle. I have ended many runs just from falling into bottomless pits. Still, I’m excited to eventually get good enough to experience what lurks beyond the threshold of the dungeon–at the bottom of a seemingly endless barrage of orcs, spiders, zombies, and witches.
You’ll fight these and more as you traverse the depths. They’re designed with enough detail as to differentiate them from one another, though the ASCII henders recognition therefore differentiation of the more humanoid enemies. I like the way everything falls apart into a pile of broken numbers and letters when you destroy them. It feels oddly satisfying without the need of excessive blood and gore–although you’ll see puddles of red erupt amongst these encoded shapes of language.
As novel as the combat and art style are I find the exploration unlikeable and tedious. Floors last a long time, making games that go on for hours being there are 26 of them in the game! These floors are full of countless items the player can destroy, and it’s often crucial to destroy these objects being they grant rewards in the form of xp, food, treasure, and crafting components. Breaking these objects feels tedious, and going through entire floors diligently leads to the depletion of hunger.
A hunger meter slowly decreases the longer the player stays alive. Hunger is restored by the plentiful amounts of food littered around in the form of pizza, fish, and meat (replenishing exponentially increased amounts of hunger and health in that order). This is a tough balance because more often than not the player must eat food to replenish health more than they need to replenish hunger due to the fact that healing potions are much rarer to find. This has led me to circumstances where my character is starving and out of food; a situation where HP slowly depletes as my character starves. It’s an interesting balance to watch out for, yet one that makes me want to rush through floors when I really cannot. The various items in the game are important for your character’s survival if you hope to persevere through the later levels.
Floors rapidly progress in difficulty and I first noticed a spike in the curve around floor 3, where teleporting witches spawn as well as chunks of floor that hurt the player when they stand or walk on them. These elements seem cheaply difficult at first until the player learns how to properly maintain resources such as food and healing potions. It reminds me of survival horror in that way. Games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have a finite amount of crucially important items, and dungeons in Brutal are generated similarly. The major difference is these levels, unlike in survival horror, are randomly generated.
Also there’s permadeath. Interestingly there are altars in almost every floor, and these are where you can spend found treasure in the hopes that the gods will grant you an additional life. This is the only way to do so, and it means once you die you can respawn where you died with full health and carrying everything you did when you died. It’s a nice feature for a game that is longer than contemporary roguelikes. The gods seem to reward the player randomly–I have yet to figure out what exactly triggers their favor, rather it be an amount of treasure, or an amount equal to all the treasure on the entire floor. The game’s still new so a lot of information is just not out there yet. And that’s pretty cool!
The random generation can be interesting but I do not get the sense that the randomness is random enough. Sure, you may get a room of exploding bad guys that will severely damage the player on one run, and that can definitely make things interesting on a run-by-run basis. But floors are large enough that I’m going to get a similar experience every time. When the items are limited, including weapons, the player ends a run with a similar set of items than the last run roughly most of the time. This may be the fault of the first few floors, as floor one and two are certainly easy and contain plenty of healing items when compared to later floors. I simply haven’t gotten too far yet as I’m still learning the game. This section will surely alter in the future and when it does, I will write up suitable notification. For now, I’m writing about my taste of this game, and from a run-by-run basis things feel too samey.
While the game might not be focused on producing the most random experience every time, it is focused on features similar to a RPG. There is leveling up, there are skill trees, and there are materials to craft together to form usable items.
Leveling is simple–you get experience points for killing things, and breaking objects. Enemies give different amounts of xp, and breakable objects reward 1 xp every time. This makes breaking objects important during early levels, and not so important later levels, for xp.
One level nets one skill point spendable in the skill tree on the pause menu. These skills are interesting in that certain features of the game are gated behind them, such as the ability to use bows or wands. One skill shows hidden rooms, which are truly difficult to find without the skill in question, and it also automatically identifies potions. Similar to roguelikes like Dungeons of Dredmor, potions are unidentified thus mysterious until they are either sampled or offensively thrown. Most potions are negative, such as the obviously named Potion of Poison or the less obviously named Potion of Vampire’s Curse which debuffs players into taking more damage and healing enemies when attacking. Interestingly players can throw this potion at enemies to receive health every time they are attacked by them if the player manages to do so with the clunky aiming system.
See, aiming in Brutal sucks. It’s automatic, so the player can’t directly designate where they want to attack. Such a feature may be improved drastically when (if) the game comes to PC with mouse support. I constantly find myself in situations where I shoot an arrow at an enemy instead of at the trap that would then blow up and catch the entire group of enemies on fire.
Materials are genuinely fun to gather because items are fun to craft. Players find blueprints which show which letters make weapons, and thus they can then make that weapon when they find the proper letters. This means players will never just find a sword. They will find the blueprint for a sword, and then they can build that sword when they find the letters for it. Players can then find glowing letters representative of certain elemental enchantments. There are fire, ice, poison, electric, and arcane enchantments, and so far it seems as though fire and ice are the effective ones. Ice has a percentage chance to freeze enemies, while fire burns zombies to death (they can’t be killed any other way). Doors and chests can themselves be enchanted requiring the same enchantment to unlock. Otherwise electricity, poison, and arcane do not seem effective or important in combat.
The game is difficult enough to warrant its genre. I have seen, or rather read, of players that best the game’s 26 floors on their very first run. Did I believe these people? Was I impressed? I was impressed and I wasn’t extremely surprised that someone did so. With proper management, attention to detail, and possibly drive to complete floors quickly, beating this game one’s first run is totally feasible. And while repetition is somewhat the focus with this game, with runs different from one another and there being seeds to generate the same exact dungeon, I would be rather disappointed if I beat this game my first try. There’s not much to do once one has beaten the game except collect trophies and missing pages from the game’s bestiary. Those collectable and challenge objects are fun, I’m glad they’re in the game don’t get me wrong, but the game doesn’t feel different enough run to run. I enjoy playing the game. I just can’t shake the feeling that I get the same stuff every run, just in different order and at a different pace.
So how does this game rank?
1. Enter the Gungeon
3. Pixel Dungeon
I like this game a lot. When I first started playing it I was sure that it would defeat Enter the Gungeon. However as novel as this game’s presentation is I do appreciate the music and art of Enter the Gungeon more. While the simplicity of Brutal’s art style lends it more to repeated plays, the gameplay and randomization does not. Still, it’s a high quality game that released with little to no fanfare (a curse of being released the same day as No Man’s Hype) and I personally believe this game deserves more attention than it has received.
I will be playing this game much more than I already have. Perhaps after more experience it will rank higher in my mind. I’m not saying this is etched in stone by any means. This is science after all, and science is constantly evolving!