In recent years, I’ve grown bored with dungeon crawlers. Too often are we seeing projects that use buzz words like rogue-like to ultimately sell us the exact same game over and over, offering little to no creativity or innovation. So when I picked up the soon to be released, 8/9/2016, Brut@l by Stormcloud Games, I did not have high expectations as far as gameplay is concerned. While this game is not wholly original in concept or depth, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I really enjoyed this particular dungeon crawler because of a number of simple design features/choices that made it a much better experience for me than most dungeon crawlers I’ve played recently.
Visually, I was very impressed by Brut@l because it’s intentionally limited as far as graphics options are concerned, yet an impressive looking game none the less. It’s essentially SanctuaryRPG (2014) done in 3D. The world is very barebones, having only floors floating in a dark chasm of empty space connected by walkways. The floors can’t necessarily be called rooms because there are no walls. This is basically a series of black square plates connected at the edges floating in space. The objects on those black floors are numerous and highly detailed, while still all black. The four playable characters/classes are all black as well. The truly impressive aspect of the game’s graphics is how all these black objects, both the static and moving, are differentiated through simple surface details. The in game objects are given life not through their shape, but through the use of expertly placed text symbols. Just like with SanctuaryRPG, the only things used to add color to a world of black are text based symbols. They have been placed in specific configurations to bring personality to a game that is otherwise all simple black objects. Most of these symbols are white, but certain other colors are used to define elements. Red for fire, green for poison, and so on. It’s like playing a very scaled down version of MadWorld (2009). But the graphics are not simple or lazily done. One could call them minimalist, but not bad.
You are given a world of smoothly running characters, enemies, and objects. Explosions are very expressive and their effect on the game’s world is noticeable. Enemies have character both in behavior and appearance. Even the weapons, as simple as they are, are clearly differentiated from each other whether at basic form or with elemental enhancements. The HUD at the top corner of the screen is probably the most complicated looking part of the game with its several bars and text components. You have several stacked lines of information jam-packed together in an efficient, but highly readable manner that doesn’t take up too much of the screen. It shows class, power level, health, mana, hunger, experience points, money, and a picture of your character that changes based on their current status. You also have a weapons HUD in the bottom corner that allows up to four equipped items at one time and text telling you what’s currently equipped. The characters themselves also have some level of facial expression even though it’s all done with simple white and red lines. The text style used for every part of the game is a simple san-serif font that reads very well over the mostly pitch black world. Text is white with various colors being used to highlight key details. Everything has smooth edges and a clean finish. Ultimately this is a beautiful game that won’t impress you in the way Skyrim does, but it will be a pleasant visual experience.
The gameplay is reminiscent of a very polished version of Gauntlet. It’s your classic permadeath dungeon crawler style with some, but very limited character development options and a basic weapons scheme. The controls are locked so no remapping unless you do it out of game, but the control scheme is pretty decent. You can only equip one weapon at a time, but you can map four to the d-pad and switch between them in real time. You do physical attacks with the square button and ranged attacks with R2. In the case of the bow, which must be equipped like any other weapon, square is for quick shot and R2 for charged shot. The game auto-aims projectiles to the closest target in the direction you’re facing. It works very well, but still makes you aim a bit. You can jump with the X button and everything else is used mostly for menu navigation. You can access the map at any time, which will only show you the parts of the floor you have already seen. It’s very helpful and shows locations of enemies, doors, and special objects. The enemies pause whenever you go to the map or your inventory. The combat system is simple but effective, making it a game that is easy to pick up but still requires strategy. You can choose between four different classes. The warrior is your heavy brawler, the mage is obviously your magic guy, while both the ranger and amazon are mixed players that have both close and long range capabilities. Each class can use any of the weapons in the game, but different classes have different skills that make certain weapons more or less effective for them to use. For instance the bow. All classes can use the bow, but only the ranger and amazon have skills that enhance the bow’s effectiveness. The ranger and amazon are exactly the same and have the same skill map. The amazon seems to have been included just so there would be a playable female character.
The game’s leveling scheme is very straight forward. You collect experience by killing enemies and breaking things. Every broken object of any type nets 1xp. Enemies vary based on what they are. When you level up, you get a skill point which can be used to unlock a skill in the character’s skill map. Each character has a total of 24 skills organized in four rows which must be unlocked in order from left to right. Some skills exist for all classes such as an eight spot increase to your inventory capacity and others are class specific such as the mage’s ability to see secret rooms. You always start with certain skills pre-unlocked depending on which class you are. The key factors you need to watch in this game are HP and hunger. You constantly get hungry as you play. Even just standing still increases your hunger unless the game is paused. You decrease hunger by eating food, which is scattered throughout the dungeons. Food also increases HP, but there are other ways to increase HP that don’t decrease hunger as well such as potions. Hunger does not affect HP like in most games. It affects the speed of your mana regeneration and full hunger prevents you from being able to use special attacks. Depending on your play style you could technically beat the game without ever paying attention to hunger, but I wouldn’t suggest it. You do not have stamina in this game, but your combo is limited to a certain number of swings depending on the weapon, class, and currently unlocked skills.
The crafting system in this game is very original and well done, but not without flaws. You can craft weapons by finding blueprints. These must be found every game because of the permadeath system. Once you find a blueprint you need to find the corresponding letters of the alphabet to craft the weapon. Letters, referred to as Ascii in game, are the materials used to craft weapons. You can find white and colored Ascii. The white ones are used to construct weapons and the colored ones are used to enchant them with elemental properties. You start every game with no weapon and must use your fists or your torch as a weapon until you find a blueprint and the necessary ingredients. Then once you find the correct colored letters, you can enchant the weapon. Weapons can only have one enchantment but you can replace one enchantment with another. My only problem with the crafting system is that you can’t craft the same weapon more than once. There are a number of different types of weapons such as a bow, multiple types of swords, and a club. But you can only carry one of each at a time. So let’s say you love the club like I do when playing the warrior. You can’t have a fire club and an ice one. You can only carry one club and must choose what element you want it to have and then settle for another weapon to have the other element. It’s technically not required but very useful to have weapons with all elements as quickly as possible because certain enemies are weak to a specific element, with some being immune to damage outside of that element. There are special doors to bonus rooms that require being hit by a certain elemental weapon and some chests like that as well. This also becomes a huge problem in co-op play because only one of you can have a specific weapon that you may both really like such as the bow. I’m not 100% sure that you can’t find a second blueprint of the same weapon because the game appears to have three slots in the crafting menu for each weapon type, but I never found more than one blueprint for any single weapon type during a single play. The potion brewing system is very interesting, but also tough. You find ingredients, which have a max limit of nine in your inventory regardless of how much space you have. You must also find bottles. Every bottle can be used once to brew and use a potion. Once a potion is used, the bottle disappears. But bottles are extremely common to find so it’s not a huge problem. The brewing system is based on colors. There are eight different potion colors with different recipes. You know all potion recipes at the start of each game. But what each color does changes randomly at the beginning of each game. A dark blue potion can be for health one game and then invisibility the next. You never know until you try a color out. Or if you’re the mage you can unlock a skill that tells you what the potions do. Potions can be drank or thrown at enemies.
The game has a pretty fair life system. You have a decent amount of starting HP which varies slightly between classes and a fair amount of food and healing items scattered throughout the game. But not so many that you don’t have to take the combat and rationing seriously. When you die, you have to start from the beginning, but you can get extra lives by offering money to the gods at altars. Each floor has one altar. The offering system is a good idea, but it’s not implemented very well. You have to offer money to the gods but the amount of money is unspecified. You just take a guess and hope it’s enough. If it’s enough you get an extra life. If it’s not enough you anger the gods, causing the altar to break and the money to still be lost. The only thing I could figure out about the required offering amounts is that it goes up each time but I’m not sure by how much and if there is a minimum first offering. There’s probably a system of consistency but I’m not yet sure what it is. What I like most about Brut@l is that the gameplay is not overly combat heavy. Combat is the main point of the game, but enemy distribution is done in a balanced and conservative way. Too many dungeon crawlers and roguelikes pummel you with wave after wave of enemies at an unfairly high rate, causing most players to die in the first two or three floors. Stormcloud Games did not take this route. They chose to create a balanced game that is much more about dungeon exploration then mindless combat. It’s more similar to an Elder Scrolls experience where you search a dungeon for loot and an exit with the understanding that occasionally you will have to fight enemies. But the focus of the experience is not the enemies. Yet there are still quite a lot of them and they do get harder as you progress through the floors. Just as much if not more of this game is about planning and general strategy, forcing you to make decisions about rationing items and which enemies to ignore. Your ultimate goal is to get to the bottom of 26 floors and defeat the boss. You can exit each floor as quickly as you can find the exit. There are no prerequisites to leave once you find the exit, but there are definite merits to exploring each floor entirely. But again, the point of the game is not endless combat and that’s what I really liked about it. This also creates much longer rounds. The first time I played Dungeon Souls (2015) I maybe got to floor two and got a game over in a matter of minutes. My first round of Brut@l lasted eight floors and took over an hour. Admittedly I was stopping to take notes along the way, but it’s still a much more drawn out experience that focuses more on crawling the dungeon and less on the enemies. And for the record I only died because I fell off a ledge. Combat was still not my main problem even almost a third of the way through the game.
There is a co-op mode and it’s a lot of fun. Sadly it’s only two players and only local multiplayer, but it’s a much different and also very enjoyable experience from the single player mode. Even my girlfriend got really into it. You cannot pick the same classes, nor should you. The best way to play is to pick the mage and then a second class that complements the weaker player’s play style. It’s important to work together and ration everything as a team because the drop rate of items doesn’t increase from the single player mode and nothing, save for extra lives, is shared. If one player picks up a weapon blueprint only they can have that weapon. Or they can drop it so the other player can have it, but both can’t wield the same thing. So for example playing as a ranger and amazon won’t be super effective because only one of the players can make use of the bow, which is the strength of both classes. Money is not shared, but money is only used for “buying” extra lives from the gods. That means only one person should be picking up all the loot because it converts directly to money and can’t be dropped. Healing items have to be shared, but the mage can easily brew healing potions without testing potion colors so both players should designate him as the brewer because he can pass potions on to the other player by dropping them. When one player dies in co-op mode, the other player can resurrect him/her at the cost of half their current HP. What sucks is that the body respawns back at the beginning of the dungeon so the other player has to run all the way back to start. Enemies don’t respawn so it’s not a huge problem but it does waste time. If the living player instead finishes the floor alone, they can resurrect the other player at the start of the next dungeon because they will still be dead. The only problem with the co-op is that because it’s shared screen you can only move within seven floor units of each other. Once you hit that maximum distance you will just run in place until you close the gap.
Overall, I really liked the gameplay. It’s not without flaws, such as the fact that falling off the few edges there are count as instant deaths, but for the most part it’s a very enjoyable, solid gaming experience that lasts hours instead of just minutes at a time assuming you aren’t falling off ledges to your doom all the time. You can save and quit to be reloaded back at the exact spot you stopped with no progress lost. The only changes that would have made me enjoy it more would be online co-op up to four players and no permadeath or at least an option to turn it off if you want to.
The sound is 50/50 in Brut@l. The effects are great, but the music is mediocre at best. There’s not really a soundtrack or dedicated background music. You play much of the game with no music in reality. Every so often the same dramatic minute or so of music will play even when it’s completely inappropriate because no enemies are nearby or even necessarily alive on the floor. I don’t really know what the plan or vision for music was in this game. But the sounds effects are very well done. Slashing, jumping, blowing stuff up, enemies growling, and chests opening all sound perfect. It’s like going back to the old days of Ocarina of Time without nearly as much time being wasted for each object appearing. There are no sound options, but if there were I would recommend playing the game with effects at max, music at zero, and playing your own preferred music or the Skyrim dungeon music in the background.
The writing is plentiful in this game, but there is no actual plot. You just jump into the dungeon and start clearing floors. I didn’t even know there was a boss of the game until I read it on the game’s site because there doesn’t appear to be any other bosses on the floors. Or at least not the first eight of twenty-six floors I reached. The tutorial is very thorough and useful complete with a fair, but not overwhelming amount of text and detailed pictures with button combinations to go with it. Each weapon has an explanation about its origins and uses. The same can be said about the enemies which are catalogued in the field guide. The field guide updates as you encounter enemies and gives you advice about how to deal with them. But the field guide requires you to find missing pages throughout the dungeon to complete the entries for each enemy. It’s the only part of the game that isn’t affected by the permadeath. The text is mostly used in this game to inform, but it tries to be funny where appropriate at the same time. As far as most dedicated dungeon crawlers are concerned, I’d say the writing is above average just because of the amount of text Stormcloud Games took the time to include.
Brut@l’s replayability is hard to quantify. It’s essentially all replay value until you defeat that final boss on the last floor. But because it’s permadeath, you will be replaying the same floors over and over until you finally make it. The levels are procedurally generated so you won’t be getting the exact same layout every time. By the time you beat the final boss you probably won’t feel the need to play through the game again. Granted you could do it as a different class or with a friend or different friend in the case of co-op. But even with the multiple classes, the weapons abilities are the same for all four playable characters. Only the skills change which may not be enough to motivate another completion. There are leaderboards for several different categories such as monsters slain, loot collected, and total time played. There is also a dungeon creator mode where you can create and share your own levels. The creator allows you full creative control and will let you build every aspect of the dungeon from scratch if you want to or pre-create the floor layout for you. As expected, this process can and will take a lot of time. You can even submit dungeons online so other people can try them out. There are also 25 trophies including a platinum to add a little extra replay value. Most of these are accomplishments that must be completed in single-player mode in a single play, but none of them are unfair. If you somehow manage to make it to the end of the game, there’s a good chance you will have completed most of these in the process. I’m actually comfortable with the $15 price tag for this one. If you approach it as a game to beat and not just a game to play until you get bored with it like most dungeon crawlers, I believe that it’s gonna give you at least 15 hours of solid gameplay, assuming you aren’t so good that you beat the whole thing on the first try. I’m making the assumption that, like me it will take you a number of tries and that you will have to get some experience in before you settle on which character to use. There’s also the dungeon creator and the co-op. $10 would be the must buy price, but the current $15 is definitely not unfair.
I very much enjoyed playing Brut@l. As a person who is way over dungeon crawlers, I was very surprised by how much this game impressed me and the amount of enjoyment both I and my girlfriend got out of it and that’s having not actually defeated the final boss yet. It’s a well-made game with a good, balanced combat and development system that ultimately provides a solid foundation for a good time. I’m not gonna say you must buy this game, but it’s definitely worth putting on your to-do list even if you aren’t a huge fan of the genre.
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