In an industry drowning in pixelated retro dungeon crawlers, the fine folks at Scotland-based Stormcloud Games have jumped back even further with their 1980 ASCII art-inspired rogue-like, Brut@l. However, is a unique aesthetic and an admirable balance in difficulty enough to overcome its technical shortcomings? Mostly.
The artistic styling of Brut@l is perhaps its most noteworthy feature. The world is chiefly shaped from letters and symbols, some of which are even collected during the adventure in order to craft and enchant new weapons.
It’s mostly a two-tone game, with a deep black serving as the backdrop behind popping white symbols arranged in to walls, tables, and treasure chests. Every so often there’s a welcoming burst of color, be it an orange fire, a purple cauldron, or a swarm of monsters erupting in to a fountain of blood. Saving the colorful bits helped differentiate a monster’s elemental attack type, or defined certain hazards, like lava, poison, or electrified water, so I’m glad it wasn’t overused.
The map system is also worth mentioning. Rather than menu surfing or playing through a distracting overlapping HUD display, pressing the map button simply switches Brut@l’s camera from its 3D angle to a zoomed out, top down display. In a brief moment it changed from what I’d become familiar with, to a top down ASCII map that resembled something I’d see in a game of Dwarf Fortress instead.
The aesthetic just works. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in a 3D game, and whereas gameplay is usually the primary aspect I’d concern myself with, it was the visuals that acted as Brut@l’s major draw. Unfortunately — and I hate to say this — if you stripped it away and slapped a typical fantasy theme over top of the ASCII framework, I don’t think I would have played Brut@l, nor do I think it would have been as enjoyable.
That’s both a testament to how strong Brut@l’s visuals are in terms of the overall package, and also speaks to how much I feel it relies on its aesthetic a little too much to push the adventure along. Brut@l is far from bad, or unenjoyable, and I definitely had fun with it, but the rest of the game just felt a bit too familiar.
As is par for the course, the maps in Brut@l are procedurally generated. However, like Minecraft, if you enjoy one of the layouts enough, each world is given specific seed codes that you can manually enter on a subsequent playthrough. I don’t usually play games in this genre for their predictability, so this isn’t something I found myself using at all. Still, it’s nice to have for folks who prefer more structure in their dungeon crawling adventures.
Another slice of Brut@l that I didn’t (and probably won’t) find myself using much is the included dungeon creation toolkit. Just like the name implies, this mode allows users to craft their own ASCII dungeons at home and play through them alone or with a friend. You can think of it as your chance at being a virtual dungeon master, designing complex layouts and challenges for your buddies to overcome. Or you could just be a dick and throw an overwhelming number of monsters at them, watching them suffer from the comfort of your couch.
Combat is your typical snap-target Arkham-style flow, mixing strings of attacks with well timed dodges. It’s bromidic but not overly challenging at first, since most of the early enemies can be thwarted by simply dodging behind them and pummeling away with your fists. It was definitely nice to have a fair attention to balance in a genre most noted for unapologetically bashing your face in to walls ad nauseum, though.
Brut@l doesn’t get off on sending you back to the start screen, but rather wants you to explore, to craft, to level up, and discover what makes it tick throughout its 26 floor dungeon. And it does this by making the player feel like they have a fighting chance, no matter the odds.
Instead, some of the steeper challenges come in the form of unfortunate platforming segments. Dying in Brut@l means
dying in real life it’s back to square one, and the design decision to have pitfalls used as instant death traps is a questionable one, considering platforming is rarely used and doesn’t feel very good to begin with.
Jumping is a bit on the floaty side, and sometimes the procedural nature of the world seemed to be working against me as I’d be forced to white-knuckle my way from platform to platform in order to push further. It’s all random though. I could go floors without seeing platforms, and other times I’d open doors only to fall in to the abyss seconds later. This isn’t at all how I want to end a great run, and it became more frustrating than fulfilling as time went on.
In fact, three of my best runs were marred by awful platforming segments or surprise pitfalls that I didn’t observe fast enough. It could be the fact that the camera doesn’t rotate, making it a bit tough to see what lies to the south of the current screen, but mainly because the platforming in Brut@l just doesn’t feel good — though it’s heavily punished when you fail.
It’s very unfortunate when the game wants you to focus so much on the action, the crafting, and the aesthetic, but then throws these unenjoyable, frustrating moments at you at random. It’s like “oh, okay, I’ve gotten fairly good at avoiding traps, I have a solid grasp on combat, and I’ve been finding and crafting gear for the last 25 minutes… and now it all comes down to this one jump…” only to miss it and have everything I’ve worked for, everything I’ve enjoyed doing up until that point, completely erased.
Brut@l presents an interesting aesthetic, an enjoyable hook, a near endless supply of replay value with its dungeon creator and local co-op support, and a fair amount of balance for a procedurally generated rogue-like, but its clunky platforming could definitely use more time under the microscope in order to fine tune the experience, or at least punish players less for its own technical shortcomings. It’s absolutely worth playing though, especially if you’re a fan of the rogue-like sub-genre, even if the experience once you strip away its novel art direction.
*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a PS4 copy of Brut@l that was provided by the game’s developer, Stormcloud Games. While I’m sometimes given games to review, I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for the game is completely irrelevant.