Brut@l: Kicking ASCII and Taking Names | A Short Pause Review
If you couldn’t guess by the title, Brut@l is a quiet, relaxing game about exploration, nature, and finding one’s true self. Its hardcore title belies its subtle undercurrent of warmth and gentleness. I’m, of course, being overtly facetious here, because Brut@l wears its heart on its sleeve. The game’s title doesn’t beat around the bush; Brut@l is a tense, tough-as-nails rogue-like dungeon crawler in which danger could be lurking around every unforeseen corner. While it’s not without its faults, genre fans and newcomers looking for a challenging hack-and-slash romp will find a lot to like here.
Release Date: 8/9/16
Developer: Stormcloud Games (@Stormcloudgames)
Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), PC
The first thing you’ll notice when booting up Brut@l is its incredibly slick visual style. More Tron than Dungeons and Dragons, this is a game that is not your typical fantasy-RPG from a visual perspective. A striking black and white monochromatic palette is accented by neon primary colors to create a graphical style that is really unlike anything else out there today. At its core, Brut@l is an updated homage to the ASCII-based adventure games of yesteryear in which dungeon romps were constructed entirely of letters and symbols. Developer Stormcloud Games takes this once old-fashioned style and gives it a novel, modern twist. No longer shackled by the limitations of two-dimensional text adventures, Brut@l brings ASCII into the third-dimension. Now rooms, destructible furniture, weapons, enemies, and everything in-between are constructed of letters and symbols in a 3D setting worthy of modern dungeon crawlers. It’s always a sight when I shatter a vase or defeat an enemy and watch them collapse into their disparate letter-parts. To top it all off, Brut@l is a technically sound game, perfectly complementing the striking graphical presentation. The resolution is sharp, and the rock-solid, 60fps framerate the game sports not only increases the title’s visual fidelity, but makes it buttery smooth to play as well. Even after a dozen or so hours with the game, I still find myself mesmerized by Brut@l’s visual stylings, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see other developers try to copy and mimic what Stormcloud has done here in the future.
In terms of playing the game, Brut@l is — at first glance — your standard rogue-like dungeon crawler. You hack-and-slash your way through hordes of devilish baddies who get increasingly harder to kill the further along you get. The dungeons are procedurally generated, and permadeath means you start right back at square one should you find yourself slain by the forces of evil. Beneath the surface, though, there is a subtle depth for gamers to explore. The hack-and-slash combat feels great and, while it would have been serviceable as a mindless button-mashing affair, there’s more to it than simply “hit square repeatedly.” Every enemy you encounter has a pattern and weakness for you to discover and exploit. When you add in the game’s dodge mechanic, the combat takes on an arcadey, Dark Souls-lite (very) type of feel. Enemy variety is terrific throughout, meaning you’ll always have a new foe to try and solve and defeat. I also really like the included “Field Guide,” Brut@l’s take on the tried-and-true RPG beastiary. Encountering an enemy will add them to your guide, unveiling half of their character entry. Hidden throughout the dungeon are ripped pages which you can find to complete the other half. This second half is important as it reveals the enemy's weaknesses and the best tactics with which to fight against them. It's a neat mechanic, especially since the Field Guide entries are the only things that carry over from one playthrough to the next. The ripped pages are few and far between, so make sure to snatch them up once you come across them.
Combat is not the only area where Brut@l exercises its depth. An RPG-like skill tree, weapon crafting, loot, and potions serve to keep things fresh and interesting as you grind your way to the bottom of the seemingly endless dungeon. Standard RPG fare like increased health and magic dot the four different skill trees available to your class. While nothing revolutionary, the perks are useful enough to keep you grinding toward that next level which will net you your next skill point to spend. Crafting finds you making weapons out of the letters you discover in your environment. While you start out with your bare fists before you scavenge enough items to build your first sword or axe, the item drop rates are generous enough to yield results before too long. You're beholden to the procedural generation when it comes to items and dungeon layout, but my experience in this regard is generally positive. There were only a few instances where I couldn't come across a letter or an item I really wanted, but I guess that's part of the game's survival-charm.
Loot, interestingly enough, simply refers to currency in Brut@l. You'll amass a wealth of gold through your travels, and that wealth serves one purpose: a sacrificial payment to the gods in the hopes they will grant you an extra life. This is a vitally important element in Brut@l because, as I mentioned, once you die that's it. You're sent back to the beginning licking your wounds and starting over. There's a catch with your sacrificial payment, though; you'll never know at any given time how much loot is required to generate an additional life. Should you choose an amount that is unsatisfactory in the eyes of the fickle gods overseeing Brut@l, you'll find the sacrificial altar destroyed and all of your loot you just tried to sacrifice gone. Choose wisely when presenting your offering to the gods. Protip: The amount required to gain an additional life increases everytime you are successfully granted one. Each successive altar will demand a larger amount of loot than the preceding one.
I want to make special mention of the potion system in the game, because it's a mechanic I came to really like. Potions and their usefulness are a tad obtuse at first blush, but those who take the time to discover their purpose will find their journey to the bottom of the dungeon much more manageable. At the beginning of every dungeon run, the potions are randomized across a variety of different colors. On any given playthrough, players will not know which potion is assigned to which color. As you craft potions throughout your run, you'll need to discover which color bestows which effect. Some are helpful to you and harmful to enemies, and vice versa. I loved experimenting with the different potions and figuring out which ones I found most helpful. Take my advice and find out which potions are assigned to which color early in your adventure when the enemies are still easy to dispose of. Mastering the potion system is one of the keys to making a long run in the game.
While there's a lot to like about Brut@l, there are some issues that hold the game back. The game sports four separate classes to choose from at the start, but outside of the Mage class, there isn't much to differentiate them from one another. They all use the same skill tree and, at a certain point, they all start to play very similar as you unlock the same skills and upgrades. I would have liked to have seen a little more distinction between the Warrior, Amazon, and Ranger, a fact that is compounded after multiple playthroughs. This extends to the procedurally generated dungeons as well. There are only a few different kinds of rooms the game generates and, while the enemy variety, item placement, and dungeon layouts keep things interesting, there's only so many times you can go through the darkened cave or lava maze before a "been there, done that" feeling sinks in. A few more environmental options would have been a welcome addition.
Then, there's permadeath. I get it, I really do. Permadeath is a big part of the classic rogue-like genre, and normally I don't have an issue with that. It's a mechanic that stings everytime you lose a life and get sent back to the beginning, but it's one genre fans have come to embrace. It imparts a certain challenge and carefulness the player must deal with when playing, while also forcing the player to learn the rules of the game world to fall back on during subsequent playthroughs. The problem with permadeath in Brut@l is that the dungeon runs are REALLY long. The game does a great job encouraging exploration with its loot, crafting, and leveling systems, and anyone who hopes to have a long successful run through the dungeon's 26 levels will need to thoroughly investigate each floor they find themselves on. It's incredibly deflating, then, to spend four hours on a run, only to suffer defeat and have to start all over again. Most rogue-like games can be experienced over the course of a relatively short period of time (Spelunky runs can last minutes, for example), while those that are longer experiences typically offer some sort of progress marker (Rogue Legacy sees your character upgrades carry over on subsequent runs and Galak-Z breaks up its episodes into seasons that can be finished in a shorter sitting). I would have loved to have seen the option to create a permanent save after levels 10 and 20, for instance. Something like this still embraces the challenge of getting to these levels — which, again, can take hours — while also providing some kind of reward for those who've made good progress. I know this is going to be a controversial complaint to hardcore genre fans, but losing four hours of progress after a long, hard-fought run is a total buzzkill, especially for those short on time to spare. That said, even in spite of these soul-crushing, dungeon run-ending defeats, I still keep coming back for more time and time again.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I fired up Brut@l. I knew the game was a stunner in the looks department, but I didn't know what I was getting into outside of that. What I found was one of this year's most pleasant surprises so far. Brut@l is an absolutely gorgeous, technically sound dungeon crawler that is fun to play. It's tense, challenging, and demands the player learns the rules of the game world to survive subsequent playthroughs. While it offers familiar tropes when compared to other dungeon crawling rogue-likes, its unique style and interesting mechanics do just enough to make it stand out of the pack. I haven't even mentioned couch co-op play and the truly excellent Dungeon Creator, which lets would-be designers play around in Brut@l's development sandbox and craft diabolical levels of their own. While class variety and permadeath can be frustrating, it says a lot that I keep coming back for more, despite what hard-to-swallow defeats I may have endured. I've yet to make it all the way to the bottom of the game's 26th floor (this game gets tough!), but I don't plan on giving up anytime soon, and that's maybe the highest compliment I can offer Brut@l.
A review copy of Brut@l was graciously provided to us by the kind folks at Stormcloud Games
- Incredible visual style
- Techincally sound
- Enemy variety
- Subtle mechanical depth
- Lack of class and environmental variety
- Permadeath following a LONG dungeon run