Roguelike Updates: Caves Of Qud Goes Commercial

Readers unfamiliar with roguelikes may wish to read my introduction to the genre, and possibly peruse some of my Roguelike Highlights posts. And maybe read about why we might want to start calling them deathcrawls instead. Also, as always, you can click on images to view larger versions.

Long-time readers will remember that I quite liked Caves of Qud when I played the original freeware release back in 2013. I also lamented that it hadn’t seen any updates in a while. Well, developers Freehold Games have resumed work on Caves of Qud, releasing it on Steam Early Access with regular updates. They also must remember that I enjoyed the freeware version, because they sent me a copy of the Early Access version for free. Sweet!

While there are a lot of updates, the core experience of the game is largely the same, so if you are unfamiliar, I direct you towards my earlier post about it, which describes what it is (a very-far-future roguelike about searching for ancient science-fiction technology) and why it’s great. Here I will focus on what’s new, and what I hope to see in the future.

The most obvious change is the new tileset. I was afraid I wouldn’t like it, as I was partial to how the original ASCII graphics conveyed a sense of an overgrown wilderness littered with the rubble of an ancient high-tech civilization. From screenshots, the new tiles didn’t look much more informative than the ASCII since they are decidedly low-fidelity, and I feared that the jungles and caves of Qud would seem too sparse and clean. In practice, however, I like the tiles, especially after the developers tweaked them a bit; they look much better now than they did when I first started playing. There are still some tiles missing, but what’s there works well once players learn to recognize creatures and plants. There’s also a graphical filter that simulates the scanlines of an old cathode ray tube monitor. Apparently this bothers some players, but I love it. It feels like peering through an ancient machine scavenged from the detritus of Qud, and fits with the style of the tiles as well. But if you don’t like the scanlines, they can be tweaked, and the tiles can be turned off entirely in the game’s options menu if you prefer the original ASCII graphics.

The only other change that is obvious upon starting a new game is the faction system. There are now a whole slew of factions in Caves of Qud, from obvious ones like the Villagers of Joppa (the town in which the game starts) to stranger ones like Grazing Hedonists or Highly Entropic Beings. Players’ reputations with these various factions determines whether the factions are hostile or not. Also, certain unique creatures that are encountered out in the world have their own procedurally generated reputation with different factions, displayed along with their description when examined using the game’s excellent (l)ook command. One might learn that Warden Ualraig (a huge four-legged, horned creature who can fire freezing vapor from his hand) is disliked by the Children of Mamon for ruining their festival, for example. If one were to attempt to kill Warden Ualraig (I do not recommend this) and somehow succeeded, one would therefore gain some favor with the Children of Mamon. Faction status also changes if one starts getting into lots of fights with a faction’s members, or performs quests for them.

Along with these new factions come the occasional warbands that can be encountered while exploring Qud. The most common of these (at least early in the game) are the Putus Templar, a society of True Kin (read: not mutated) humans who despise mutations and seek to purge Qud of all mutated creatures, and the Seekers of the Sightless Way, a bunch of psychics that love sundering adventurers’ minds and otherwise ruining their day. Interestingly, playing as a True Kin character grants bonus reputation with the Putus Templar, which means they will not attack on sight and their warband leaders are even willing to trade. These bands don’t only care about the player, either; in one memorable game I ran into a well-equipped and terrifying band of Putus Templar fighting it out against equally well-equipped and terrifying Seekers. I hoped to win the Putus Templar paladins to my side by helping them fight the Seekers, but all this got me was some psychic-induced confusion that had me stumbling around blindly while my mind was repeatedly sundered until I died. Definitely one of my more memorable deaths.

Beyond these new features, however, the game is remarkably similar to what I played back in 2013. The interface is essentially unchanged, and the mutation system, bartering, skill system, tinkering, and explorable locations were all familiar. This was initially a little disappointing, but I soon got over it, because these things are all pretty great already (and there have already been several updates during the game’s stay in Early Access; see below). Soon I was back in the groove, looting the ruins of Qud for the wondrous technology of the Eaters of the Earth.

It was interesting to see how new players responded to the game. Many were understandably excited about its in-depth character creation system, which lets players create mutated humans with a slew of interesting mutations that provide advantages, disadvantages and special abilities. Many were also put off by the relatively simple presentation, the interface which is occasionally poorly explained (a result of the limited documentation I complained about when I first posted about the game) and the perceived harshness of the perma-death mechanic. These responses reminded me of my very first attempts to play the game, when I didn’t get very far before giving up. Early on, when one is still learning the game, death comes quickly and most players will find themselves repeating the early quests, which are the least interesting part of the game.

On the one hand, I like how the game’s quests and locations get more and more interesting as one gets further in the game, but on the other hand, this means that new players will not know how much more is in store for them. Initially it may indeed seem that the characater creation system is the best part of the game; I assure you there is plenty more to like, you just need to survive long enough to find it. The early quests lead the player to relatively boring caves rather than the much more intriguing ruins that are encountered later, not to mention some even cooler places that I don’t wish to spoil. New players would be forgiven for thinking that these early caves are indicative of what is to come (I mean, caves are in the game’s title) and may not feel inclined to continue.

This is coupled with the fact that the perma-death in Caves of Qud can feel more punishing than in other roguelikes. Given the open world design of the game, players can — and, it could be argued, are encouraged to — take their time exploring the wilderness, carefully scavenging for equipment to face any dangers that might present themselves. All of which means that a lot of time is invested in each character, and a sudden and nearly unavoidable death can put an end to all of it in an instant. A snapjaw scavenger, one of the easiest enemies in the game, might just happen to carry an explosive grenade and throw it in your face as soon as you step into view. You drop from full health to zero, in an instant, with no chance to avoid it. Such incidents are rare, but they do happen; a mutated human encountering the Putus Templar has very little chance of survival, for example. Many players may wish to turn off perma-death in the game’s options to avoid situations like this.

I admit that I too have felt the sting of a character’s death after long investment. In fact, I had hoped to lead a character to the end of the game’s storyline before writing this post, as I wished to see if the developers had added anything yet to the unfinished tale (finishing the game’s main storyline is the developers’ primary goal during Early Access). I had succeeded in reaching the end of the unfinished questline with a True Kin character in the original freeware release, and was anxious to see what would happen next, and also how all of the late-game locations looked with the new tileset. Sadly, my best character was killed before I could achieve this. I’d like to tell you her story, but first I need to go into some details of the character creation.

In my first post I discussed how I’d gravitated towards True Kin characters (known then as True Men, but now converted to a gender-neutral term), as I liked the challenge of surviving this hostile world on the strength of wits and skills alone, rather than special abilities and mutations. I also really liked the tinkering system, which favors characters with high intelligence, and is therefore easier for True Kin who have higher statistics than mutated humans. This time I wanted to try some more mutated characters, and found I had the most fun with gunslingers. They start with a pair of borderlands revolvers and little else in the way of equipment, but they do work well with my favorite style of play.

From continued playing after writing my first post about Caves of Qud, I found I enjoyed building characters based on dodging. Armor and clothing in the game have two important numbers associated with them: their armor value (AV) and dodge value (DV). Most armor gives a higher armor value but a negative dodge value, so it protects from damage but also makes one easier to hit. Certain equipment, however, gives little physical protection but makes dodging easier. A character designed to take advantage of these items can dodge most attacks, completely avoiding damage. The Agility stat gives bonuses to a character’s dodge value and also increases accuracy with ranged weapons, which means it’s a good stat to take for a gunslinger, and I soon found a set of mutations that worked well for this. The triple-jointed mutation provides additional agility at the cost of strength, and also gives an extra chance to dodge attacks on top of the standard dodge value. For some extra defense I took the electrical discharge mutation. This lets a character build up electrical charge over time and then discharge it all at once to damage nearby enemies. Finally, I could not resist the psychometry mutation, which let my gunslingers divine the nature of technological artifacts, learning their tinkering recipes.

Playing as a mutated human means leveling up one’s mutations as well as one’s stats and skills, and indeed it means that stats and skills are lower than they would be for a True Kin character. But my gunslingers were able to gain ever more powerful electrical discharges, and increase their triple-jointedness to get more agility and dodging. Unfortunately, raising the triple-jointed mutation to very high levels meant sacrificing more strength, and I was only willing to go so low. Also, my gunslingers were limited by what equipment they found. If they were lucky and found more stuff suited to dodging they would do well, but unlucky hauls found them at a big disadvantage. I did get one of them pretty far, but he was eventually killed by a turret when I got greedy and tried to take it out for the treasure it was guarding. Silly me.

So I found myself returning to True Kin once again. Their better stats, skills and starting equipment make it easier to build an agile, dodging-based character who tinkers up useful technology. The best choice for this is a Syzygyrior from the Toxic Arboreta of Ekuemekiyye, the Holy City. Unlike the Priest of All Suns or the Priest of All Moons, the Syzygyrior represents the conjunction and opposition of the sun and moon (this is, in fact, what syzygy means; thanks for reaching me new words, Caves of Qud!). A Syzygyrior is therefore trained to be ambidextrous, proficient at using a weapon in each hand. This ends up being surprisingly useful for an agility-based character, as certain skills in the Short Blades tree allow for offhand attacks with a short blade based on Agility rather than Strength. Syzygyriors can quickly learn to make offhand attacks with a short blade every time they strike, making them very powerful in melee.

At least, that’s how it worked when I started playing. A recent update has revamped the Short Blades skill tree to make it even more useful. Now these Agility-based attacks apply to the main hand as well, and a new skill, Rejoinder, allows a free attack with a short blade any time an enemy misses the player with a melee attack. With a high dodge value, this happens all the time, so there are tons of free attacks happening. Since Syzygyriors start with equipment that boosts dodging ability, and quickly gain the ability to strike with each hand every time they attack, they become formidable in battle even before they start collecting ranged weapons.

So I created a few Syzygyriors with high Agility and high Intelligence, to make them into whirling martial arts masters who also build their own laser rifles. It was tons of fun. My best was named Ayongala Ko. I took advantage of the new feature to randomly generate appropriate character names; Ayongala Ko joined others like Ekenti and Ifefafuto from Ekuemekiyye, but characters from other arcologies have their own naming styles. The same is true for mutants; my gunslingers had names like Shrushwikas and Yy-yuyuroq. Anyway, Ayongala Ko got quite far in the main questline, surviving the horrible garbage chutes of Golgotha, and was scavenging in some ruins to properly equip herself for her next mission when she encountered a sparking baetyl. Baetyls are ancient artificial intelligences, but most of them are malfunctioning after running for a thousand years or more. They tend to ask for items in exchange for a reward. Often, these items are nearly impossible to obtain, but this time the baetyl asked for five 10-foot strands of wire, promising to reward Ayongala Ko with increased prowess. Ayongala Ko knew exactly where to find such wire strands; they littered an area she’d explored already, and it should be simple enough to find them.

It was, at first. But then she ran into a warband from the Seekers of the Sightless Way, who were far tougher than the usual denizens of this place. These guys love to use mental attacks, and that was Ayongala Ko’s one weakness. During character creation, I hadn’t bothered to increase her willpower stat, since I needed her other stats more urgently and I assumed she’d find some injectors that could temporarily increase her mental armor. But she hadn’t found any. The warband leader sundered Ayongala Ko’s mind for a frightening amount of damage. Ayongala Ko ducked around a corner to try to lure the leader closer. He came, and she fired a burst from her masterwork carbine. But this barely slowed the warband leader down, and Ayongala Ko perished to his next mental attack. My best character, who had seemed nearly invincible, was dead.

Despite this setback, I am having a great time with the Early Access version of Caves of Qud. At the start I mentioned that the new graphics and faction system were the only really obvious updates from the freeware version, but there have actually been quite a few minor ones during the time I’ve played. In addition to the aforementioned overhaul of the Short Blades skill tree, there have been other skill adjustments, new items, new tile graphics, and systems adjustments. Sometimes these changes were not compatible with older saves, but I was able to resume my characters by reverting to the “previous stable” version in the Steam options. When those characters eventually died, I was excited to start a new character to see what changes had been added in the meantime.

There are definitely more things I’d love to see, of course. Given how involved the character creation system is, I’d love to see it combined into a simpler interface rather than spread out over separate screens. In the current system, I have to pick my character’s statistics before I can choose mutations, but since these choices depend on one another it would be easier if I could do it all on one screen. The same for picking professions; it would be nice to know what those options are before choosing statistics and mutations. Also, there’s no way to view the skill trees when designing a character, so it’s difficult to do any long term planning for character development until one has already played several games and is aware of the options.

Other than that, I’d just love to see more stuff. More technological items, more things to tinker with, more unique places to explore, more friendly towns to visit. My time with gunslingers means I’d love to see more pistols in the game, as they currently seem much less useful than rifles. Also, since I’m partial to technology, I’d especially like more items that can do things that mutations can’t. Currently many of them are retreads; a flamethrower is the same effect as the burning hands mutation, a portable wall is basically the same as the psychic mutation force wall. It would be cool if these things served more unique purposes, so it was worth pursuing both. I’d also love to see some tweaks to the level generation. Currently it’s a little too easy to see the patterns used, especially for adjacent screens in the open world areas. Performance improvements would also be nice, as certain things (like sparking baetyls) seem to bring the game to a crawl. Fortunately, the developers are already working on most of these things.

So, is it worth buying into the Early Access version? For $10, I think so. Remember that, as with any Early Access game, you should only buy it if you think that what’s on offer right now is worth it, because there’s never any guarantee that the developers will finish it. I got my copy for free, but I’m already anjoying it enough that I would have gladly paid. Having said that, I am mostly excited about the promised updates, which include sound and music (the game is currently completely silent), unique tile graphics for everything, improved user interface, and further system tweaks and new items. It’s also likely that development will continue even after the Early Access period, as the developers have voiced longer term plans to add full questlines for many different factions in the game, among other things. I hope they are able to keep improving the game for a long time to come.

Still undecided? The original freeware version is still available if you want to try it out, but be warned that it is limited to ASCII graphics. It does give a good taste of what’s on offer, however, and the Early Access version contains lots of improvements as I’ve explained above. A few forays into Qud’s jungles may make a convert out of you. Live and drink, friend.

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