7DRL Contest 2011 Reviews

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Reviews of 2011 7DRL Challenge Entries

Reviews by Eben Howard

Stygia by Perdurabo

Stygia opens with a well designed ASCII block title screen and proceeds to tell a dark introduction. We are informed that the surface of the world is a frozen wasteland who's sun is long gone. The only way to survive is now to move deeper into the Earth where heat can still be found.

I really like the heat mechanic which forces you to keep going deeper to escape the cold. Plentiful items with neat add-on abilities makes item grabbing quite fun.

Play Experience: Cruising around the game's world give you the sense that you are indeed looking for shelter from the rapidly cooling surface of your world. As you heat level decreases, you feel the pressure to move on to deeper levels, but if you rush you'll face powerful monsters before you're ready. Such is the fate of one adventurer who, too much in a hurry, became easy pickings for a vampire. I highly recommend this game. It's a neat addition to the rogue-like genre!

Defender of the Deep by Pat Wilson

Defender of the Deep is a fun twist on the usual story. You start out as either an orc, kobold, or goblin and must destroy all the elves, gnomes, humans, and dwarves you can on your way up and out of the dungeon.

While this twist is not new, it is still unusual enough to warrant special attention. It's a nice change of pace from the usual rogue-like theme. Pat has done a great job capturing the essence of each of the three player character types through a praying mechanic. Praying makes the orc stronger, the kobold invisible, and curses all the enemies of the goblin. There are a variety of items to pick up and just enough health potions to keep you alive, but not enough for you to get cocky.

Play Experience: I tried out all three of the player races, and they were all quite fun in their own way. Each has a fairly obvious way to play to its strengths, but that doesn't mean you absolutely have to. My goblin found platemail and an axe and started tearing up the good guys in direct combat. My orc found so many mana potions that he was reading scrolls left and right, until he cast fireball to close to himself... I personally found the goblin the most fun to play, primarily because the animation for spell effects is more fun to watch than just bashing things. The curse effect gained from praying is cool too, as it has a little animation on each target hit with it. The only weird thing in the game is that the text telling you what you're standing on seems to be at the incorrect offset. It doesn't actually correspond to the game world. Since this is just a display error, you can still pick up whatever's underneath you on screen, it's not really a big deal. Even though I only managed to get part way through the second floor on several attempts, I would highly recommend this game to try out. It's a well implemented rogue-like that's fun to play.

Reviews by Joshua Day

Detribus by Ido Yehieli, Corey Martin, Oddmund Stromme

(Flash) (4-way movement: arrow keys)

Minimalist 1-bit aesthetics, a haunting chiptune soundtrack, and elegant lighting and animation give this game an ambience that is not to be missed. Still, it is more a puzzler than a roguelike. Four-way movement (like that in POWDER and the authors' own Cardinal Quest), ranged combat against melee-only enemies, and confined spaces with limited field of view will have you counting cells, egging your foes on to line up and be shot. The game is embedded right in their website, so it's easy to try.

Eben Howard's EmoSquid

(Java) (26-way movement: vi-keys w/ shift & alt)

It's a bit overwhelming at first glance, what with its 3D world visualised in planar cross-sections. The text was cramped and a little hard to read on my display, making it a challenge to figure out what was what; my poor color vision cannot have helped. j and k are reversed in the vi-key layout, and it takes some time for alt-to-dive and shift-to-ascend to become second nature. Once you get through all that (and it's not hard to do), you get to the real experiment.

The point here is the movement system, and it works well for what it's doing. It's not as free and intuitive as Earl Spork was last year, and it seems like the move from 8-neighbors to 26-neighbors mostly just makes room for small enemies to mob you. Once you discover how to out-manoeuvre your enemies so you're taking them on one by one and keep track of the expansive, largely open spaces you're swimming in, you do develop a certain sense of freedom. The music plays in, here, and it's a pity that the realities of hosting have kept Eben from distributing the whole collection as he intended it to be heard. The game needs to be optimised so the freedom of movement can be enjoyed, and map generation needs to take more advantage of depth.

The length and difficulty of the game make it a hard sell as a small roguelike, and it will certainly help to have the full tracklist (Eben offers it upon request -- I will acquire it and see what difference it makes.) It has a vast scope and needs considerable polish. Wait for the post-7DRL version.

Ben Hemmendinger's 3D/2D Dungeon Crawl

(ssh) (4-way movement & 8-way movement: wasd or vi-keys)

If you played and loved first person crawlers before Wolfenstein spoiled players with unrestricted movement, this game will be like going home. The first thing you see when you turn around will be a door, lovingly rendered in ASCII. The tunnels you traverse are color-coded so you won't get mixed up (more than can be said of Bard's Tale), with a handy compass and minimap so you don't need to break out that long-neglected graph paper. Peek behind any other door and your party of four will engage a band of monsters -- again, lovely ASCII art for the warriors on both sides -- in combat on a small grid with relatively fast movement (like a space battle in Master of Orion) with the effect that tactical manoeuvring achieves what a menu selection would achieve, but with finer flavour. This is all there is just yet: The polish is extraordinary, but the scope is rather small. To play, simply ssh sevendrl@benhem.xen.prgmr.com with password 7drl, and party like it's 1982. It won't take you long, and you'll enjoy it.

If you want a better idea of where Ben is coming from with this, get this TI-99 emulator (2.8 mb), which comes packaged with Tunnels of Doom and runs fine under Wine.

Pawel Slusarzcyk's Piraten

(Windows/Wine) (8-way movement: numlocked numpad)

From time to time the newsgroup sees discussions on how we can make a good pirate-themed roguelike, and from time to time someone tries to make one. We have bits and pieces of the puzzle, but it's hard to make something genuinely good. Pawel's focus has been on integrating conventional roguelike combat for boarding parties with a naval map for plotting attacks. There's nothing particularly oceanic about the naval section (no winds, currents, or headings), and the player has complete initiative (no enemy ship will ever initiate combat), so this behaves like an elaborate menu. The game is fairly opaque about health and money. At a port landing, you are informed that you have spent "some money" to heal your crew; you are never told how much you spent or how much remains.

Boarding (ambiguously called "attack") takes place on a fixed map drawn to look like two ships with gang planks between them. It's actually fun, once you figure out how to keep track of who's on which side (color, apparently), and learn always to go help the ally with the worst odds (the AI, as should be expected, picks its battles at random.) I'd love to see the game, or a game like it, reworked so that a ship screen is the center of all player activities and can be zoomed to at any time. This is the direction that Privateer: Ascii Sector has taken. Broadsides are conspicuously missing.

Pawel acknowledged in his announcement that Piraten suffers from "many little issues, unclear mechanics, low gameplay," but it's a fun little toy in any case. Anyone who wants to make a pirate themed roguelike should give it a try.

Tim Morton's Magicko

(Java) (8-way movement: numlocked numpad or non-standard binding centered on P)

There are two constraints on the player in this game. One is that it takes a turn to charge a magick; second, the shape of the player's bolts, which are narrow next to the player but wider three cells out. It is counterintuitive (but clever) that while charging takes a turn, firing does not. Slowing enemies by wetting them and blasting them with cold seems to be the best tactic going in a game where useful player attacks are half as fast as enemy attacks, but where the player still only has a range of five (ice and arcane will travel further). There's a temptation to use grindy, stair-scumming style tactics, escaping up stairs to heal and charge magicks, and descending again to fight.

Players of other roguelikes are going to have some muscle memory to overcome. Shift is bound to area effect casting (ctrl casts spells in a direction and alt casts it at the player character) and operates as a keystroke, not a modifier. < > for stair-climbing and ? for help, therefore, are actually bound without shift. Players who prefer vi-keys will fumble with the new P-centered movement scheme (which has the virtue of being a one-handed binding, at least.)

The qwer/asdf binding for magic takes some getting used to for players unused to Magicka, and it would be nice to have a mnemonic display -- perhaps wlsc/laef (water, life, shield, cold / lightning, arcane, earth, fire), color coded, to remind the player which key associates with which magick. This coupled with other unfamiliar keybindings make for a steep learning curve in what is otherwise a simple game.

Other than water+cold=ice and water+fire=steam, only shield consistently mixes with other charges for interesting results (causing a cell to cause the effect of the spell, or, in the case of earth, to create an impenetrable wall). For a game about interactions, it would be nice to have more of them. It might also be nice to have enemies with more obvious vulnerabilities and distinctions -- a burning enemy, an earthen enemy, etc. -- so different fights would feel different from each other. There are skeletons, immune to arcane magic and freezing, in later levels. In seven days, it's hard to see how anyone could do much more from scratch.

It is seriously impressive for a seven day effort. This is one that we should hope to see extended -- with more enemies, interactions, and environments -- or mixed, like the magicks, with last year's Demonhunt, just to see what happens.

Jeff Lait's Vicious Orcs

(Windows/Wine, Linux) (8-way movement: vi-keys or arrows/numpad)

Year after year, Jeff reminds us that if we want to do more in seven days, we need to start with more. To say that Vicious Orcs is influenced by Smart Kobold is putting it lightly; this is an extension of the same game with the same engine, just as Smart Kobold was an extension of Jacob's Matrix and Jacob's Matrix extended Letter Hunt, and Letter Hunt used code that predates it. This game is more polished than most major roguelikes. You can see your reflection in its shoes.

At a few hours in length, it is a chewier morsel than Smart Kobold was. It is also Jeff's most conventional game in years, notwithstanding that the geometry is still vaguely non-euclidean and the portals back to town are reminiscent of the twistiness of Jacob's Matrix (and of Portal, which influenced it). You will want to play this game, but you can't come at it the way you come at most 7DRLs. You certainly can't afford to be careless, or stingy with your gold. It took me a great many tries to learn to manage my resources the way the game needed me to; it didn't help that I was reluctant to use much magic because of the text of the Book of Secrets.

Thematically, the game is similar to Smart Kobold, but with a good dash of Numeron's The Man in the Mirror. The twist unfolds more gradually than in Smart Kobold, but you do have to pay attention. The town is effective. Villagers use speech bubbles to chat, and it's not just fluff.

Nikolaos' Devil MIGHT Laugh

(Linux, Windows/Wine) (8-way movement: arrows, numlocked numpad)

This game is better than Nikolaos gives it credit for. The central conceit, that as you proceed you become more and more human and therefore more and more susceptible to damage, is reminiscent (in its own way) of Geoffrey White's 2010 7DRL A Quest Too Far. The maps are jumbled, the color scheme (with its stated predilection towards red) makes it hard to identify where things are -- the player character, several types of enemy, magma, some walls, and corpses, are just a few you'll be mixing up. There are a few control bugs, such as where 'l'ook responds only to arrow keys, but the game plays fine besides. One run was cut short when level nine failed to connect me with stairs up, which are scattered liberally about the levels for that very reason.

The taunts and atmospheric messages are handled with a flair of humor. They would be more affective if they were bound to places and entities instead of coming up at random. Some of the simplest, like "You are hungry," are strangely evocative for a roguelike player. The player wields a progression of hellish implements of torture.

Where the game really shines is with the elements that seem most broken. As a damned soul you can, at great cost to your "soul" points, fight enemies with impunity. To preserve your soul, you will instead try to trick enemies into stepping into magma, which is easy because they don't seem to mind it. When you become corporeal, you no longer cross magma safely, and must arrange your trap more carefully. The trick there becomes old hat within a few levels, but the caverns become more open and magma becomes rare. You find yourself more often weaving between enemies, bearing their cheap potshots, right to the stairs.

There is great potential in a reliance on exploits that become impractical with time. Devil MIGHT Laugh stands as a fine amusement, an interesting learning curve, and a solid seven day effort. Its level generator need polish, but its central conceit works.

Kaw's Light

(Linux, Windows) (8-way movement: vi-keys)

This game does not shy away from lighting. Brogue led the charge by attaching lights to creatures, wall mounted torches, and even dungeon features like fungus (GnomeSquad, inspired by Brogue, does too), but is reluctant to cast unlit corners into utter blackness until late levels where a palpable darkness limits even the rogue's own light. Light, on the other hand, calls darkness dark. Getting illumination where you need it is an important play mechanic, and torches and tinder take precious inventory slots when you can only hold four items.

Messages are refreshingly transparent about exactly what roll yielded the damage dealt. (The game announces that a rat attacks with "[75.00%] [1d4]", for instance.) It would be nice to see this kind of openness more often.

Braziers and fireproof blankets hint at puzzle elements that did not make the cut. It feels, too, that the dungeon is meant to transform under the influence of light; only items seem to appear and disappear. Wandering in the darkness should be more dangerous, and perhaps more directly painful, than it is. The fov used to cast the light creates hard edges; some blending (based on the total visibility across a cell) would help, and is simple to implement. Walls should be illuminated more brightly, and from a greater distance, than floors; the opposite seems to hold. The player character does not cast a shadow, which is wonderfully atmospheric when done well. The lights in Light are its primary strength and, therefore, its primary avenue for growth.

The game is simple and clean and a pleasure to play. It also presents relatively few tactical challenges, and won't yet hold your interest past the initial curve; it feels like an overcorrection for last year's Harmless, which was excellent in every respect but underplayed because of its steep tactical difficulty. A post-7DRL Light will almost certainly be a great game; as a 7DRL, it feels like a tech demo. If you are looking for a roguelike with an aesthetic adventure bent, give it a spin.

Oohara Yuuma's Kusemono

(Linux) (8-way movement: vi-keys or numlocked numpad)

This is the recipe for a great 7DRL: Great code reuse and great attention to detail.

Rather than 'y'es and 'n'o for prompts, Oohara Yuuma uses 'o'k and 'c'ancel, avoiding the overlap with movement commands. For most commands ('Q' for quit, 'm' for map), repeating the original key will cancel, too. When choosing which potion to quaff, the choice can be entered as a digit so a numpad-wielding player can keep his hand in place. This kind of attention has been paid to all facets of the game. Like Jeff Lait, Yuuma has reused old code (his Last of Candle, which is itself an interesting game, was the starting point.)

The game is well (and thoroughly) documented. Not just the novelties, either -- you could give this documentation to a roguelike novice and expect it to be understood. It's a good thing it is well documented, because it takes some effort to figure out just what those novelties do. Here's a rundown: Instead of just hp, the player character has hp and "shield points". These shield points are regenerated by killing enemies. They are lost when the player takes damage, in lieue of hp, until they run out. They can be spent on magic. They are, therefore, a combination of hp, mp, and food; a perfect implementation of rgrd discussions on anti-grinding measures. You can only heal yourself by having fun.

Then there's sneaking. Modal sneaking is not new. Modal sneaking done well, is. When you sneak, you are particularly noticeable along certain lines (a queen's move, indicated in the interface by white dots on the map). Running gives you three moves a turn, but it does not give you three times as many turns: there are no weird synchronization problems. Your enemies can, in perfect health, run two steps a turn; you take three steps, they take two, you take three, in alternation. Maps are squarish and all corridors are wide so the player can always be mobbed. Considerable thought has gone into making sure that every component of play interlocks with the others.

Play this game.

Adam Gatt's God of Change

(Linux, Windows) (4-way movement: vi-keys or arrows)

As a concept, God of Change is about the vicissitudes of life and fortune. As a game, it's about making use of your current situation as quickly as you can and, when the tide turns, knowing when to sit in a comfortable nook and hope to wait it out. You do not regenerate. You do not gain experience. Enemies mean nothing to you except what their distinct properties make them mean, and those properties -- and the map itself -- will change. Constantly.

The nominal goal of each dungeon level is to find the stairs down. I doubt whether I have played a roguelike (some versions of The Slimy Lichmummy aside) where it is harder to make it to the second dungeon. The secondary goal is to find upgrades: Better weapon, better armor, scrolls, and wands. Both goals are served by exploration, so finding your way around the map as quickly and peacefully as you can is to your advantage. But the friendly orcs who let you pass today might just be lightning-zapping, hardened, undead, aggressive orcs tomorrow. Perhaps you should wipe them out, just to make sure?-- but while that will cost less health than wiping them out when they're unfriendly, it still costs health. The decisions are real, meaningful and constant.

Which is strange. The most striking contribution of this game is to show that random change need not make the player feel insignificant. The dice will squash you regularly, but they seem fundamentally fair because they are fundamental to the game and its world. It is interesting to note that Adam has minimized the influence of randomness outside of level generation and mutation; combat is nearly deterministic, for instance.

A few properties feel incomplete: Territorial monsters will not drive other monsters away, nor do they content themselves with driving you out of their home; allied monsters show relatively little zeal to fight for your cause, counting on you to lead enemies right into their waiting maws. But the sheer range of properties should make other developers envious, and will entertain a player longer than a 7DRL should. The final dungeon is fun to navigate and the final battle is clever, but probably too easy for such a challenging game.

Heroic Fisticuffs' GnomeSquad

(Python + PyGame)

Reviews by Tim Morton

Jeff Lait's Vicious Orcs

(Windows/Wine, Linux)

Having played a few runs into Vicious Orcs I have to say I'm very impressed with Jeff Lait's latest 7DRL entry. The portal system works well (and is pretty cool to boot), and the seamless transition between dungeons is very nice. The interface is well thought out, and this roguelike really feels like it has a lot of polish. The gameplay feels fresh, and there's enough action to keep people busy for quite a while.

I'd love to see more variety in the early stages with regards to enemies, as it feels like most of the interesting action doesn't come out until some way into the game, but this roguelike is fun, and very easy to pick up and play. Jeff appears to have put quite some effort in making this game more accessible to new players, which is great. I recommend anyone looking through this year's entries to give it a try.

Reviews by Adam Gatt

The Man in the Mirror by Numeron

(Java, 8-way movement)

The Man in the Mirror is a 7DRL that I found to be engaging and fun to play. I have played it through to the end and enjoyed it, and now see that it is made by the same person that made the enjoyable Domination game that I remember from the 2009 7DRLC.

The first thing to mention about the game is its appealing sprite-based graphics. The sprites are clear and well done, they blink and change facing as they move, and when in combat they flash helpfully and other small animations occur (and when the player is very injured the screen edges tint red). The user interface is also good looking and welcome, with a nice inventory system, and dialogue boxes for the game's dialogue. Finally, the graphical effects when the player hallucinates are also impressive, with tiles pulsing in different colours and colourful yet featureless silhouettes acting as false enemies and obscuring real enemies. These graphical touches make the game more appealing, and suitable for those scared at a screen full of characters.

The premise of the game is that you are trapped in a mental asylum with your dark double who attempts to help you out of your predicament and engages you in somewhat interesting dialogue. This character is represented by a demonic doppelganger visible through a shimmering portal. As you approach the portal, so does he, and you come to realise that he mimics your movement and behaviour exactly, up until you pass through the portal and can now control him directly. Your dark side lives in a shadow world that is an exact reflection of the asylum, except that it is represented as a dungeon and aslyum orderlies are skeletons and zombies. I found this atmosphere to be very engaging, as I didn't know which side I found more disturbing; the dungeon of monsters or the sterile aslyum where doctors attempt to straight jacket you and subdue you for questionable experiments. This is keenly made to focus when you kill a skeleton on the dark side and find the corresponding bloodied corpse of an orderly on the "real" side; or when you hack apart a dangerous "nightshade" in the dungeon only to discover what it actually represents.

This alternate worlds mechanic is certainly the most interesting part of the game, indeed it is the premise, but apart from the attractive reskinning and shift in tone, its uncertain if anything else changes. One one hand is a clever system where some doors are locked in one world but can be bypassed in the other, but alternatively gameplay felt identical in each half except for the map being rotated 180 degrees. Another central mechanic of the game is a sanity meter that depletes while you are in the real world; let it reach zero and you will experience the aforementioned hallucinations. When you enter the mirror world, the bar is inverted and your low sanity meter becomes a matchingly high "insanity" meter that depletes until you have to come back through the mirror. This balancing act serves to make the player spend roughly equal time between the two realities but, once again, gameplay differences between the sanity and insanity bars are not evident, resulting in a gameplay style that is identical to if you only existed in the real world and simply had to return to the mirror to invert your sanity. Also of note is that the reflection of the world through a portal, especially in rooms with several portals, reflects a level of technical expertise.

The length of the game seemed suitable to what could be accomplished in seven days, and I felt reasonably satisfied by the time I reached the ending. I would call the game slightly on the difficult side, a fair amount of random chance in the combat system left me dead very early on in my first few plays. Nevertheless when you learn how to use the mechanics to maximise your chances, the game becomes manageable (if still somewhat difficult) as you juggle potions and try to mitigate the risks of exploration. A final note is the boss fight, which was interesting and intimidating both due to its buildup and its marked difficulty. Not that having a hard boss fight is a bad point, however, as getting stomped by a boss only spurs the motivation to try and overcome the challenge (which I did after depleting a sizeable portfolio of potions).

Links to External Reviews

Reviews by Geoffrey White


Reviews by Heroic Fisticuffs


Reviews by Darren Grey


In addition to individual reviews all of the 7DRLs have been rated on different factors by a committee of reviewers. Full results here: