Going deeper underground.
If you dig back into the annals of RPG history, the very first adventure games were all completely text- based. Yes, this is reaching back to well before many of you were born, but before you dismiss the rest of this article as a bunch of old fossils, keep in mind that despite the current era-of-next-gen-this and uber-immersive-world-that, the formula hasn’t really changed much.
The Fortran coded Colossal Cave Adventures (1976) was programmed by Will Crowther during his academic years and was roughly modeled on the Mammoth Cave system in Kentucky. Adding fantasy to the world was magic bridges and axe-throwing dwarves, all the drama flowing from the biggest thing in computer games at the time – interactive text.
But how to represent the adventure graphically? Well, just a few years later after various versions of Colossal Cave Adventures had begun to appear on college computers, a group of nerds from UC Santa Cruz came up with a character-based (ASCII for the programmers) graphic environment that you could move around in. That game was Rogue, and if Baldur’s Gate is considered the grand daddy of all RPGs, then Rogue is the unequivocal ancestor. The term Rogue-like has long since been considered a sub-genre of RPGs, characterised by randomly generated levels, turn-based movement and most frustrating of all, permanent death. That’s right, hardcore mode was the only mode back in the day.
Enter Sword of the Stars: The Pit. Created by Vancouver-based studio Kerberos Productions, developers of the strategy series Sword of the Stars, comes a dungeon diving spinoff set in the same universe. Taking us back to the old school era of Rogue with a fresh lick of paint on a 2D canvas, this fast action turn-based RPG initially looks trivial in the first minutes of play but quickly reveals itself as a veritable alternative for gamers looking for quick-burst of RPG play sessions.
Fund Me Up, Before You Go Go
Funded partially by an indiegogo crowd funding campaign, Sword of the Stars: The Pit is the first self-published title by Kerberos Productions. This seven member developer team have a long term goal to become fully independent and The Pit is their first foray into publishing, distributing and marketing – as well as developing – their own games.
A loose and mostly forgetful story graces the game’s introduction. A colony on Arbuda IV, a retirement home for veteran soldiers, has been afflicted with a zombie-like disease ravaging the entire population. Legend tells of a cure high up in somewhere the Feldspar mountains in an enormous underground alien research facility known as “The Pit of the Bloodweaver” (or “The Pit” for short). The Bloodweaver was an alien mad scientist of sorts and The Pit was his petri dish of hideous experiments. Deep in the underground levels of The Pit you will find the cure that will save Arbuda IV’s troubled colonies.
So send in the team, right? Nope. This is going to be a one-man show – John McClane style. Choose your hero from three classes; Marine, Scout or Engineer, each having their own unique perks and abilities. Levelling your character is quick and relatively hassle-free by increasing one of your three stats (might, finesse and brains) and choosing from over a dozen skills including weapon specialty, healing, trap detection, hacking and my personal favourite, foraging. The ubiquitous rot piles strewn throughout The Pit hold all sorts of surprises and your foraging skills will be well tested.
The levels are all randomly generated rooms, hallways, treasures and creatures, just like it all was over 30 years ago. Your hero moves fluidly throughout the environment with each step ticking over the timer until you encounter enemies. The stop-and-go mechanic then kicks in and you can shoot, stab or burn your enemies depending on what’s in your arsenal. Melee attacks from smaller creatures are generally less severe than the gun toting robots, but it doesn’t take much for you to catch some nasty disease. Not only are you afflicted with a damage over time spell (DOT) which can turn the odds of the skirmish against you, the disease can worsen and inflict even more damage before you begin to recover.
And then there’s the traps! With various styles and severity, a colored symbol on the door will signify that you will be hit with an effect of some sort as you pass through, it’s your responsibility to remember which symbols mean good traps (adding temporary buffs) and which mean bad. You will mostly just get hit with small things like reduced speed or “you lost a loaf of moldy bread,” but watch out for the blinding traps. For a full 30 seconds you are completely incapacitated while monsters chomp away at you, the only thing you can do is to try to escape by running into walls.
The Pit has four levels of difficulty ranging from easy to insane, but I have not been able to get past level 8 on normal difficulty yet.
The Pit has four levels of difficulty ranging from easy to insane, but I have not been able to get past level 8 on normal difficulty yet. This is not because of the difficulty of the monsters or running out of ammo again, but because of those despicable blinding traps. Walk into one with an enemy around and you are toast.
The Pit teaches you to be a resourceful dungeon clearer and by trial and error you soon learn strategies to counter certain death. Things like clearing the area of enemies before spending the next 20 seconds prying open a weapons locker, or conserving food items to later craft into delicious sandwiches at the cooking stations. Every level you descend into The Pit is met with tougher and more numerous monsters, maintaining discipline from the start is essential in order to survive.
Keep your blade handy for slicing up the rats, your pistol to take down diseased bats and your rifle for the robot sentries. Grenades are effective for a room full of ghouls but don’t seem to drop very often, so conserve them for when you really need them The shotgun has an larger effect area for the groups of small nasties and the assault rifle can shoot up to three creatures in a single turn. The tools are all there to get you through and while it may sound easy enough, the devs at Kerberos have by no means made it an easy ride.
The 2D environment initally feels like your back in front of the old 286 but there are clever inclusions that add to the atmosphere. The line-of-sight mechanic will keep a “fog of war” directly behind you and around corners, meaning if you are busy picking a lock you you can be rudely interrupted by a set of fangs. Listen carefully and you will hear their movements, but not always. The sound effects of bullets slicing through flesh and puncturing armour plating all seem genuine, as does the squish of foraging through the rot piles. A stylish retro-synth soundtrack resonates with sci-fi character.
There is enough loot, stats and special abilties to give Sword of the Stars: The Pit decent replay value with the play styles between the classes being vastly different. The marine can take the hits and starts by packing the big weapons, but he walks into traps and has difficulty interacting with technology. The engineer can hack into almost any tech but is vulnerable to large groups of enemies. The scout balances the two with increased finesse and ability to detect traps but suffers when under fire from ranged weapons. Any way you choose to play you will be challenged, even on the easier difficulties.
A review code of Sword of the Stars: The Pit was provided courtesy of Kerberos Productions.
An Old Star At Heart
Sword of the Stars: The Pit may not have the strongest story or characterisation, but this was not the goal of the developers. The team at Kerberos Productions have succeeded in creating a replayable world of taunting difficulty and darkened suspense. Not bad for a two dimensional, turn based blast from the past.