I was recently offered a beta key for the upcoming [email protected] dungeon crawler and then a curator key for the recently released Ouroboros Dungeon. What better time, then, to also review the classic crawler, Unexplored?
Sadly, all three are Steam only, but they’re also cheap as chips. Let’s get into it.
I’ll start with the quickest to review, because it’s also the least interesting of the three. It launched on May 5th and features quite a pretty 3D view of the dungeon and some nicely drawn weapons.
Sadly, Ouroboros Dungeon lacks depth and after just an hour and a half on a single playthrough, I had no desire to play it again. It’s incredibly repetitive and features clunky combat and a loot system that just doesn’t make much sense (my “Belt of Stamina” granted me a magic boost - this is common, the naming appears to be almost completely random).
But it’s the combat that lets it down the most. In particular, the auto-target system that can’t be turned off, combined with later enemies which spawn minions right next to you, the game becomes a constant struggle to hit what you’ve placed your mouse cursor on. Throw in the infuriating trope of “can’t move while firing” and I found myself yearning for the sweet embrace of death so that I could honestly say that I gave it a fair shot before moving on!
However, perhaps given its low price of £3.99 I’m being harsh. You can check it out on Steam.
You gotta love a gimmick, and [email protected] delivers in spades. Playing as the titular ampersat (an @ symbol), you return to your village to find that all the villagers have been robbed of their language. Five mysterious towers have sprung up around the village, reeking of evil. You decide to investigate.
I’ll get this out the way early: this game has a fairly terrible interface and at times borrows too heavily from its C64 inspirations. However… bear with it. If you can get past the early clunkiness, there is a real gem of a game here. Movement is smooth, combat is surprisingly deep. And enemy AI is quite varied. For example, Kobolds and Zealots will actually run away from you if you lower their HP to a near-death level.
Monsters are represented by letters, and you can unlock bonus words by defeating the corresponding monster letters with your melee attack. Every level also has a bonus letter to “free”, which returns it to the language of the villagers.
Combat is also pleasingly varied. You have a ranged attack which uses a combination of your active spell, and your staff. You carry an offhand melee weapon for close quarters combat. And you can dash in one of 8 directions, which has a cooldown.
Music is fairly terrible if I’m being honest. But the sound effects are actual C64 SID-generated noises, which (if you’re old enough) really does invoke a sense of nostalgia.
The levels are hand-crafted, although graphically they’re extremely basic. That said, there are some nice set pieces, such as an Indiana Jones style boulder to run away from, while shooting targets to lower a bridge. There are also plenty of secrets, both visually and otherwise, and some nice “find the key” challenges to keep you occupied while taking down the enemy spawners. And there’s also an endless procedurally generated dungeon run which I haven’t unlocked yet.
When you return to the village, either by choice, or by death, there are some nice progressions available. Your character can level up, gradually unlocking fairly generic stat boosts in a typical “skill tree”. You can buy armour and weapons, or renovate the stores to unlock better equipment. You can also repair various statues around town, revealing some story elements.
I’ll admit that I only heard about this one when I heard that its yet-to-be-released sequel won’t feature Linux support (it’s also currently an Epic Store exclusive). However, don’t let that put you off this phenomenal release from 2017. Indeed, [email protected]’s biggest problem is that Unexplored is only £6.99 and just a fantastic experience all round.
It’s a hard game to describe however. Ignore the fact that you play a one-eyed blob for a moment. Even then, it’s quite hard to explain! And its case isn’t helped by a brutal learning curve.
Okay, here goes. It’s a true roguelike, but realtime. So… I’ve dropped the Roguelike bomb and eyes are rolling. I’d better check it off, before you get your pitchforks out:
- Procedurally generated levels? Yep.
- Unidentified equipment, potions and scrolls? Check.
- Throw potions as well as drink them? Oh yes.
- Varied, exotic melee, bows, staves? Sure thing.
- Varied armours, rings and necklaces? They’re in.
- Class selection with stats? Of course.
- Brutal learning curve? Absolutely.
- Amulet of Yendor? Yep… wait what?
Oh yes, borrowing from Rogue, Nethack, Pixel Dungeon and likely quite a few others, the goal in Unexplored is to find the Amulet of Yendor by defeating the dragon guarding it, then leaving the dungeon.
I only have 7 hours in Unexplored so far, so all I can tell you is that, true to the roguelike moniker, it’s brutally difficult. In fact, true to its legacy, you’ll need to persevere a fair bit to really uncover how good this game is.
And it is. Silky smooth movement, wonderful combat with main hand and offhand options. A huge number of melee weapons accompany bows, staves, daggers and shields to let you build your characters as you see fit.
I mentioned classes above, but really, all they are is an equipment choice. And they are unlocked through various play styles. For example, if you kill a skeleton, it’ll just get back up after three or four seconds. But kill it then perform the Last Rites scroll and it’ll be gone for good, and you’ll have unlocked the Cleric class for future runs, which starts with a mace and shield, instead the usual sword and dagger combo.
Despite its (frankly excellent) procedural generation, Unexplored has shoe-horned in story elements. Along your journey you’ll uncover books which hint at your struggles to come, describing the bosses you’ll face in the next few levels and giving clues on the best way to proceed.
Those levels, by the way, are interlinked in interesting ways, with multiple staircases leading to different levels, or different entry points to a single level. Sometimes you’ll have to solve puzzles, kill monsters, or pray at an altar to unlock certain paths. Other times, you’ll have to find a blink staff, or a teleport scroll. Sometimes, you just need to fall down a cliff face, or use a “Descent” scroll. It’s incredibly varied.
As are the enemies. They start small, like rats, bats, lizards and spiders. But you’ll quickly be facing Kobolds, Ogres and Trolls. In many cases, your only option against these enemies is to run, or hide. Until you find the right equipment, then you’ll have more options. That might be throwing random flasks in a frenzy of panic, testing unidentified staves, or simply wearing heavy armour. There are also turrets, which are invincible and can only be avoided, or perhaps turned off with a level or pressure plate somewhere.
Unexplored is not without some flaws, of course. The interface is a bit cumbersome - especially when right-clicking on an item to read its text, where the slightest movement of your mouse thereafter cancels the pop-up. Also, there’s slight screen flickering of certain elements when played in a window. Oddly, the full screen experience is perfect. Finally, the graphics are pretty basic at times, particularly dropped items which just look like white silhouettes.
But I’m nitpicking, honestly. Unexplored is endlessly varied, constantly tense and very, very slick in the gameplay department. This is a must-play really. You can pick it up on Steam.