Brut@l Review: Plunging the Depths
Ben Sheene / Aug 10th, 2016 No Comments
When I first saw Brutal (stylized Brut@l), it immediately caught my attention as “that ASCII game.” A game where everything from wizards and goblins to fireplaces and axes are represented by letters and symbols? That’s a visual premise too tantalizing to ignore.
Brutal oozes with a love for the early days of gaming where technical limitations allowed imaginations to run rampant. It is with this nostalgia that Stormcloud Games brews an intoxicating formula of randomized old-school sword and sorcery that players will drink up.
Rogue by Numbers
Brutal comes at a time where the term “roguelike” applies to any game or genre with some random elements and slightly difficult gameplay. It’s a buzzword meant to catch the eye of players looking for random, ever-changing experiences that still maintain strict rules. The indie circle has created some roguelike masterpieces, such as Spelunky and The Binding of Isaac, but often enough, games that use permadeath and randomly generated levels have little in common with 1980s Rogue.
Inspired by experiences like Dungeons & Dragons, Rogue threw players into procedurally generated dungeons where they would fight against monsters and find treasure. A few minutes in, Brutal feels like a direct sequel to the decades-old game. Players are given the option to choose between four heroic archetypes — Ranger, Mage, Warrior, or Amazon — and then dropped into a dungeon that is never the same.
Players start with a limited skill set based on which class they select. Warriors and Amazons start out stronger and with more health, Rangers get a bow, and Mages have magic attacks. Initially, these starting classes dictate how players advance through the first ten or so floors. Leveling up awards a skill point that can be invested in a limited skill tree that follows fourth paths. These paths unlock special attacks that consume stamina and are weapon specific, give players more inventory space, or even grant the ability to craft magic talismans.
Dropping players in with no armor and no weapons instills a sense of caution. Death means the end of that particular run, but it also sparks an urgency to explore, and to fight tooth and nail in hopes of getting a necessary upgrade.
Every new floor of the dungeon is packed with the unknown. Players won’t know what waits inside a room until they enter it. Potions can be brewed in the game, but the effects are unknown until consumed or thrown at an enemy (luckily, potions stay the same until the next run).
Despite the random elements, rules remain the same across every facet of Brutal. Floors enchanted with fire always burn, rats or bugs eventually attack you after breaking a barrel they are hiding in, and no new venture into the depths is ever the same.
As with any roguelike, there are going to be runs that feel impossible and others that feel catered to you. My first time in the game I lasted five floors until I fell to my death (one of the most cringe-worthy ways to negate minutes or hours of progress). The next, I died on the second floor, overwhelmed and underprepared.
When I initially completed my first playthrough and beat the end boss, I was going on close to six hours for all 26 floors. As players progress, enemies become stronger and more plentiful, traps are everywhere, and maps become massive. It’s harder but, if luck is on your side, you’ve gained levels and weapons that will take the edge off. Admittedly, there are times when actually finishing a full run of Brutal can feel daunting, especially considering how some roguelikes take only an hour or two to complete.
A fully leveled character is capable of plowing through most situations, but difficulty spikes exist. In my successful run, I got to the point where I found one of the strongest weapons in the game and was able to spam my special attack. Not only do these special attacks grant a few seconds of invincibility from literally everything, they damage enemies. I was able to jump in some enemy mobs, hit my special attack, and clear out a room without breaking a sweat. I became more worried about falling to my death or have a poisoned floor or lava pool melt my health away.
Players also have to concern themselves with hunger. Food items replenish a hunger meter that dictates how fast stamina or mana regenerates. Late in the game, I was using food items to desperately heal myself and had nothing to fill my stomach.
It is possible to obtain an extra life by offering gold at an altar of the gods. The more gold you give up, the better chance the gods will be please and grant you a bonus life. While lives can be stacked, the cost grows every time and it’s possible to be left penniless with nothing to show for it.
There are systems in place that make Brutal’s randomness fair while remaining difficult. It’s possible to struggle the entire run and come out on top, but it’s just as possible to become god-like. However, it would be interesting to see what else Stormcloud Games could throw into the mix to challenge players.
Limiting the invincibility frames of special attacks would prevent their abuse. Having enchanted weapons run out of charges or making them degrade would make players be more cautious in their use. In all, more status effects and buffs could drastically alter each new dungeon dive in fun ways.
ABCs of Death
Stormcloud’s devotion to the medieval fantasy aesthetic expresses a love for the past and a love for how we used to play games. In this world, there are zombies, trolls, werewolves, magic spells, enchanted weapons and potions. Thirty years ago, consoles and PCs weren’t capable of this kind of detail. Whether through board games or the simplest Atari titles, players had to fill in the details with their imagination.
For Rogue, everything from enemies, items, and the player were represented by letters and symbols. In Brutal, the framework of everything is built the same way. 3D models have faint outlines to give them fluidity but are primarily constructed of ASCII to give them depth and detail.
Seeing enemies explode in blood and text is absurd but also quite brilliant. There’s a definite craftsmanship to how Stormcloud created a world with some of the most basic building blocks available and made it feel like a true adventure game.
It’s a fantastical experience watching a sword being constructed out of white letters you find littered across the dungeon. It’s even better when you find the right enchanted letters that will set your sword on fire or make it hiss with poison.
Like Rogue, Brutal is meant to fill players with this sense of being a hero in a world where there is the endless possibility of adventure. Some of the late game enemies will likely give you a child-like sense of glee at how they’ve come to life through imagination and ASCII.
As exciting and wonderful as the ASCII look can be, it also tends to make the world feel repetitive. I will admit that it’s a joy to look at the map and see it laid out flat as if you were actually playing Rogue, but blacks and whites are extremely dominant in Brutal. The splashes of colors truly pop but 26 floors of pure black and bright white or grey can leave players yearning for just a bit more variety.
When I first stumbled into a cave, I was pleased because it felt new despite it being dark and dim in an already black area. But when I finished a full run and the dungeon and cave were the only pieces of scenery, I was disappointed.
Brutal does a lot of familiar things in such unique ways that it is hard not to enjoy diving in for another quick dungeon, even after viciously dying minutes earlier. The game has couch co-op, which can be great if you have a friend.
Players are also able to create their own dungeons with an extremely friendly editing tool. It’s something the community will definitely embrace to extend the life of the game and show off how devious the core mechanics can get. Stormcloud would also be wise to use the editor as a way to create community dungeons and introduce new mechanics or enemies to the game.
“Roguelike” is certainly an exhausted term in gaming, despite how aptly is summarizes most experiences. Yet, Brutal is one game that earns that title for evoking the game and pure sense of adventure the term derives from. It’s easy to pick up and play, and no experience is ever truly the same.
Every time I enchanted a weapon and saw letters whizzing around, fusing themselves with power onto an axe or a sword, I was thrilled. Eating a hunk of meat to stave off hunger and heal myself from death had me breathing a sigh of relief. These are the kinds of things that make Brutal thrilling again and again. Now it’s time to slay another dragon.
Brutal was reviewed on PlayStation 4 using a code for the game provided by the developer.
tags: Brut@l , Brutal , Brutal Review , review , Stormcloud Games