Roguelike Highlights: Iter Vehemens Ad Necem

New readers may wish to read my introduction to roguelikes first. Also, know that you can click on the screenshots for larger versions.

“Iter vehemens ad necem” is a Latin phrase meaning “a violent road to death”. The game Iter Vehemens ad Necem, known as IVAN for short, is a roguelike that is aptly named. Most roguelikes are hard, and end with the player’s death the vast majority of the time, but IVAN takes a special, cruel pleasure in killing the player in the most violent ways possible. A typical session might see you get caught in a spider’s web, poisoned by said spider, and left to die slowly, vomiting the whole time. Or you might get stuck in a bear trap and assaulted by a zombie that gives you leprosy, so you must watch helplessly as your limbs fall off, until the leg with the trap on it falls off, which frees you… but then you have to try and roll around without limbs and eventually starve to death. Or a kamikaze dwarf might detonate next to you, causing the wands you’re carrying to explode, blowing your arms and head off and leaving your corpse to dissolve slowly in a cloud of acid rain.

Sound like fun?

Actually, IVAN is a lot of fun, at least at first. It has a bunch of cool things going on, not the least of which is that individual body parts are tracked separately, so you and your enemies can have your limbs severed. But don’t worry, a simple health potion will let them grow back. Or, you could pray to the right gods and get your limbs replaced with steel ones. Or balsa ones, if you’re unlucky. In fact, there are a plethora of different materials in the game, ranging from standard varieties of wood and metal to things like ommel hair, leaves, phoenix feathers, raw pork, or even banana flesh. All of the equipment in the game, which runs the standard fantasy gamut of swords, axes, and pieces of armor, is made from one of these materials, and can be changed into others with the right scrolls (and a high enough Intelligence stat). Extending these materials to your character’s limbs was a stroke of genius. Smashing through enemies with two arms made of mithril is quite the experience. IVAN also tracks fluids, which means both you and your enemies will bleed, sweat and vomit, coating the floor, walls, and each other with your secretions. Sometimes these secretions are poisonous or acidic, which can lead to some truly embarrassing deaths (dissolved by acidic vomit, anyone?).

To display all this, IVAN uses simple tile graphics rather than the more traditional ASCII symbols often seen in other roguelikes. While small, these graphical tiles are quite detailed, showing what you and your enemies are wearing and holding as well as the various coatings of blood or sweat on each item. There are even some animations, showing blood dripping from sword blades after a fight and swirling clouds of smoke after an explosion. There’s also some excellent lighting effects, including directional lighting that casts realistic shadows when blocked by walls or other objects. This makes it easy to discern what’s happening at any given time without having to learn the visual language of the game. The controls are easy too; there aren’t too many keyboard commands, and all of them can be seen at a glance by pressing “?”. Equipping items is all done from a central screen, which is a nice change from older roguelikes, but for some reason separate commands for eating, drinking, dropping items and applying items remain. Those who have played Brogue will miss the context-sensitive inventory commands, but you’ll still get up to speed quickly. The only real issues I have with the controls are that the vi movement keys are not supported, so you’ll need a keypad to play properly (which means you’ll have a hard time on most laptops) and the actual commands often use capital letters or other symbols. The capital “E” for the equipment screen is definitely the worst offender, but you’ll also need to reach for things like “!” on occasion. This makes it harder, but not impossible, to play with one hand, if you needed to.

With no character generation bogging things down at the beginning, IVAN is easy to pick up, and has plenty of crazy mechanics to play around with (and get yourself killed). And IVAN has the sense of humor to match. Gone is the bog-standard “descend to the bottom of the dungeon and kill X / retrieve X” storyline. Instead, the player is a slave, growing bananas on his or her native island under the harsh rule of colonizers from the empire of Attnam. If you hang around the starting village, you’ll see tourists and other banana growers, most of whom used to be highly educated professors of various subjects before being forced into servitude. If you chat with them, you just might be drawn into a heated debate about loop quantum dynamics. Anyway, as a slave you would usually have to work a 12-hour day growing bananas, but the overseer has singled you out to deliver a message back to Attnam. Since you haven’t been eaten by lions or giant spiders yet, he deems you to have good survival instincts. Which you’ll need, because to get to Attnam you must go through an underwater tunnel packed with horrible monsters. And you’re basically naked. Good luck!

There’s more to the game after the tunnel, actually, but I won’t spoil that here, except to say that it’s got the same dry sense of humor throughout. I will note that IVAN is a smaller game than most roguelikes; Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, for example, has an epic 27 dungeon floors plus a slew of side branches, but IVAN has much fewer, with danger ramping up more rapidly. Which is for the best, really, because you won’t get too invested in your character before you’re violently killed. Which you will be.

You see, after getting to a certain point IVAN becomes very frustrating. For each of its novel design elements, there’s another that aggravates. For example, there’s no leveling; your character simply gets better stats and skills through use. This makes sense in theory, but in practice it rewards some rather illogical play. To get more hitpoints, you need to improve your Endurance stat, and to do that, you have to get hurt. Which means you might want to let enemies beat you up over and over, retreating to heal up between bouts. Or you might intentionally eat a poisonous spider corpse, because if you survive the poison you’ll come out stronger. Want to carry more stuff? You’ll need more leg strength, which means you should carry a heavy load and then run around everywhere (IVAN has separate running and walking modes) until you pass out, then repeat. How about Agility? For that, you want to run around unencumbered instead. Oh, and let’s say you find one of the rare Scrolls of Change Material, and you want to give yourself a bitchin’ right arm made of mithril. Well, turns out that your Intelligence stat limits which materials you can pick, so you need to boost it to get the good stuff. How, you ask? Well, by chatting with the townsfolk about loop quantum dynamics. Over and over. And they only actually talk about that stuff maybe once out of every ten times you chat with them.

Sound like fun?

And I haven’t even gotten to the worst part: IVAN scales the difficulty of the monsters based on how well you’re doing. To me, this is the biggest sin a roguelike can commit. Let’s say I find a powerful artifact weapon early in the game. Great, right? Except if I equip it, I’ll start running into tougher monsters that I probably can’t handle yet. Once, I tried using a wand of polymorph on a tough enemy and ended up with a tougher one. He cornered me in a room, chopped off my arm, and had nearly killed me. In desperation I prayed to one of the gods, and he gave me a new arm made of arcanite. My arm strength went through the roof, and I easily dispatched the enemy. Then I walked around the corner and ran into Guugzamesh the goblin king, an enemy so tough I’d never even seen him before, who promptly killed me. This was on the second floor of the underwater tunnel. The difficulty scaling ruins any satisfaction I might have had in doing well by immediately punishing me for it, and doesn’t leave me wanting to play again. IVAN fans will argue that the game is still fair, that deaths can be avoided with the right strategies. But those strategies don’t make sense and aren’t fun at all.

I should point out that IVAN is unfinished, at v0.50. It also hasn’t been updated since 2005, so there’s unlikely to be a new version coming, although there are some variants you can read about here. And while there’s more I could whine about — the need to carry a box to store wands in so they won’t explode, for example — IVAN is still fun when played in the right frame of mind. If you can ignore the impulse to grind for stats, and simply play with the knowledge that IVAN will kill you, you can have quite a good time. Grab it for free here, soak up the humor, play around with the different materials and fluids, get a few limbs severed and reattached — and most importantly, try to die in the most spectacular way possible.

That’s what it’s all about, after all.

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