There once was a day when playing action games had a prerequisite other than a screen and controller. What was this magical accessory, you ask? An imagination! Nowadays it’s easy to become immersed in amazingly well realized worlds, but things weren’t always so beautiful. Believe it or not, but at one point game designers managed to construct action games that only consisted of ASCII characters. Anyone who has been on a message board in the last decade knows the string of characters that look like Kirby, flipping the bird. Now just imagine that as the map for an entire game world. Those were dark, dark times. Well, it was actually just darkness with white characters, but you catch the drift.
These monochromatic masterpieces serve as a jumping off point for the cleverly named PlayStation 4 release, [email protected] The top-down ASCII maps that acted as the inspiration for this unique new take on the roguelike brawler are still very much present, only with a bit of a twist. Retro perspective is used as a mini-map that players can use to help navigate the title’s randomly generated dungeons. Thankfully this viewpoint isn’t used for actually traversing environments. All it takes is a thumb’s glide across the PlayStation 4 controller’s touchpad to bring the world to life, in three dimensions.
ASCII, And Ye Shall Receive
Remember that moment in Grand Theft Auto 3’s introduction, where the game’s traditional top-down 2D perspective suddenly zooms in on the character from above, tiling the camera to place itself behind the character? This moment of revealing a literal whole new dimension of gameplay is what [email protected] is attempting to achieve, only for a design sensibility that is far more ancient. Once the third-person camera has been established, it becomes evident that the different objects within the game’s world are built out of letters, cobbled together to form recognizable structures. Fireplaces, picket fences, and even whirling blades of death are all interesting examples of the amazing items that are created using the magic of the alphabet.
The next logical step in any action title is kick the proverbial tires of the combat engine, by attacking damn near anything in sight. This is when it becomes apparent that virtually everything that can be seen on screen, shy of a few static set pieces, can fall victim to the player’s destructive aggression. As much fun as it is to beat the ever-loving bejesus out of enemies, there is something equally as satisfying when engaging in a personal round of, “Break All of the Things!” Obliterating these environmental structures nets a pithy amount of experience towards leveling up, but additionally can yield items such as gear, gold items that are exchanged for in-game cash, or the occasional overly-combative sewer rat.
Initially players venture into the unknown with a rather limited subset of items. An unlit torch, rudimentary shield and a will to conquer are all that stands between the adversaries that populate the dungeons of [email protected] and the single-toned protagonist. Only through dispatching just about everything on screen, will a combatant’s true capabilities be revealed. These progressions can take the form of discovering enhanced gear, unlocking a new skill by grinding for experience, or equipping a bevy of player-created weapons. Each of these avenues are critical to explore in order to survive in this extremely cruel world. All it takes is one critical misstep to reset everything back to square one. Yep, perma-death is back once again with brutal vengeance. So be sure to watch your step.
Curious Character Combinations
As mentioned earlier, though initially unarmed, there will eventually be opportunities for players to augment their arsenal. Mainly, these enhancements come to fruition using a combination of discoverable weapon recipes that are strewn about, and the handful of collectible letters that are hidden within each stage. Following the mandatory letter requirements set forth in the aforementioned recipe, the ASCII characters are then crafted into objects of mass destruction. Picture a baseball bat that has dozens of nails sticking out of it. Now just imagine that this bat’s body is made of two parallel “L” characters, with a “U” rounding out then blunt end, featuring nails that are constructed from upside down “T” and “F” symbols, that are menacingly jutting out from the body. This makeshift mace is just one example of the many different ways that the player is empowered to design the experience that best fits their play style. Complimenting this customizability further is the ability to enchant weapons with elemental and magical properties, using colored letters that are also scattered throughout every level. On its own, the open-ended weapon system generates enough variety to deliver a uniquely distinct trip into the murky depths of digital purgatory. But this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg…
Just like the protagonist, enemies also come in a variety of different builds, skillsets and loadouts. A welcome byproduct of each labyrinth’s dynamically generated design is the feeling that there is always something different waiting behind the next padlock. Which brings us to the level structure itself. Each “floor” of the game is made up of a series of different grids. These grids are reminiscent of the early eras of ASCII based level rendering, which predated the concept of scrolling level design. Due to hardware limitations, environments could only be rendered one screen at a time. Much like in the days of old, once a player leaves their current room, the next portion of the floorplan reveals itself. Updates to the layout are also reflected in the retro styled mini-map. Dynamically generating these layouts on the fly results in a series of winding corridors, leaps of faith, and predefined battles. Each stage’s necessary set-pieces are further complimented by a dead end or two, just for good measure. Once the exit has been reached, there will be a large hole that opens up in the floor, beckoning all to proceed deeper into the abyss.
[email protected]’s continuous descent of death goes on for a grand total of 26 stages, culminating in a face-off against the “Guardian of the Dungeon.” In the nature of full disclosure, it is worth mentioning that I was never able to reach this final confrontation while reviewing the game. But before you cry foul, just know that this game is extremely challenging. Furthermore, aside from the rare extra life that can be unlocked by sacrificing all accrued gold at an alter that only appears once per level, there is very little safety net. It also doesn’t help matters much when these unidentified deities are about as fickle as Taylor Swift at an all-you-can-date buffet. It feels like the random generation process dictating the level design is also hard at work determining if each offering is worthy of any sort of reward. Further complicating matters, a tithe can only be attempted once per alter. Ironically, the inconsistency of the entire process left me as one begging the almighty for even the slightest amount of assistance.
It is impossible to look at a screenshot of this title without being at least slightly intrigued as to what is going on. Consisting of a primarily dual-toned black and white aesthetic, each environment seems to draw direct inspiration from its predecessors. Though the base of the world is rather minimalistic, colors come into play when designating different states of matter. For example, obviously fires are red and water is dark blue. These states can be applied to both objects in the player’s inventory and other items in world, such as zombie characters that can only be killed by setting them ablaze with a lit torch or craftable explosive projectile. The sparing use of color early on, helps to emphasize its importance in the game world. It was a solid decision in art direction that helps intuitively teach the player about the game world, without the need to club them over the head with immersion-breaking help windows.
As was mentioned earlier, it is worth reiterating that all stages are procedurally generated. Like it or not, this does mean that each stage’s layout ends up feeling rather generic. After a few sessions this will become more evident because certain layouts and elements appear to be tightly coupled to each other. This is not to say that everything feels exactly the same every playthrough. It would actually be more accurate to think of playing through these similar designs almost like one might approach the sensation of déjà vu. It may not be identical, but it sure as hell feels like you’ve been there before. Thankfully the game still looks fantastic and the combat is still competent enough to forgive this transgression. Hasn’t Blizzard been pulling the same garbage with Diablo for the last decade anyway?
Did I forget to mention that this is just the discussion of the single-player campaign? [email protected] also revives the long-lost art of couch multiplayer. It goes without saying, but everything that you enjoy by your lonesome is exponentially more enjoyable with up to three additional friends. The icing on the cakes is the inclusion of a level designer. Do you think you’re diabolical enough to construct the gauntlet from hell? The in-game tools empower aspiring designers to put up or shut up, and then challenge all of their friends to do the same.
If you couldn’t tell, [email protected] is a game that warrants exploring. The dynamically generated world and character leveling systems help to emphasize its infinite replayability. After a few plunges into this violent abyss the repetitive grind will set in a bit, but the solid combat helps to take the sting out of infrequent bouts of déjà vu. Plus, the inclusion of couch coop and a fully featured level designer only further cements its value. Have no fear, adventurer. This is a quest that is well worth embarking upon.