Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

Pixel Journeys is taking a break this month while I continue my reviews of all 25 of this year's in-challenge 7DRL winners - here's the first part.

I should mention, before we resume, that I was preceded in this by the guys at Cymon's Games. If I had known that they had done this when I started I probably wouldn't have bothered, heh. I agree with most of what they say, and where our opinions differ I at least can see why they differ. Each of my own 7DRL reviews contains a link to the page on their site so you can quickly see their take on the game. And to the folks at Cymon's Games, please allow me just to quickly say: good work.

This column's a week late, so let me waste no further time in getting to the games. This time, we look at Cypress Tree Manor, Domination, Backwards Gravity, The Favored, Persist, TetRLs, Expedition, and SpiritsRL.

10. Cypress Tree Manor
Written by Nils Fagerburg in Python 2.5 with PyGame for Widows and Mac OSX
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post:

This game is not real-time, it is presented in simulated ASCII, and it has no experience or inventory system. It is a short game that starts fairly easy and remains so. It is mostly fair.

Description: Zombie survival roguelike after the apocalypse. Get away from the zombies, get into the single-occupancy bunker, and get rid of anyone trying to stop you!

Be warned, it uses the vi keys. You should also check the readme for additional keys. It also warns that a level generator bug means that not all games are winnable.

This is a fairly nice short game. Each level is full of zombies and humans. The zombies only want brains, but all the humans are trying to find the bunker key by any means necessary. There are more zombies (at least on the bottom level), but the human opponents are rather more dangerous.

On the bottom-most level is the bunker, which the player will have to enter then close and lock the door of with the bunker key to win the game. The key is hidden in one of the many furniture items scattered throughout the mansion. There are other keys as well (which tend to be less valuable) and also many weapon, health items and food items. Food can be used to distract zombies to cause them not to fight back while you kill them, health items replenish your appalingly small number of hit points, and weapons are, of course, useful to fight back. All the weapons are melee. The best one appears to be the chainsaw, which is fairly rare but powerful. Whether chainsaws should be horded to preserve them or used the moment they're found... this question I leave to you.

One thing to keep in mind is that you can carry unlimited items; the display on the bottom of the screen is just the first few in inventory. It appears that you have no way to drop things. To use items, press their number. If you have too many items to fit in the eight visible inventory slots, use [ or ] to cycle them until you see the item you're interested in. Although the game uses the Nethack pick-up key (comma), it uses more of context-sensitive system for other things. Pressing space both searches objects and takes stairs.

Weapons are of varying attack strength and durability. All weapons eventually fall apart when used enough, and it seems that other humans using them also depletes their uses. This brings in some fairly interesting resource management, since without a weapon you're fairly weak. All this combines to make loot scavanging the highest priority: having more weapons means you can do more damage, and longer.

You also will have more health items. You start at maximum health, five "hearts." You don't heal naturally over time it seems, but using medical items (health packs or boxes of pills) restores one heart.

The best strategy seems to be to scan each level as much as possible for items. At first you have nothing, which is when you're at your most vulnerable. After you find an axe or chainsaw you are more than capable of surviving on your own, but you must always be careful of your weapon. It's easy to miss a break message and inadvertently pound away with just your fists for a while.

By the way, the game is written in Python 2.5, which is not the most recent version. Python recently had a big version update that broke backwards compatibility, so versions 2.6 and 3.0 probably will not run the game acceptably. 2.5 is probably the fastest and most stable version at the moment. To run it, make sure the Python 2.5 directory is in your path, start a command prompt and cd to the game's directory, then enter "python.exe" (without quotes, of couse).

Verdict: Surprisingly playable and challenging! A keeper.

7drl-domination.png11. Domination
Written by Numeron in Java
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post:

This game is not real-time, it is presented using tile-based graphics. It has no experience system, but does have a very limited form of inventory. It is a short game that starts fairly easy and gets a little harder. It is fair.

Description: It's single-player, turn-based, team-oriented, roguelike capture-the-flag, complete with line-of-sight and weapons (in the form of spells).

The player, joined by four AI-controlled teammates, are on the green team on the left-hand side of a five screen battlefield. The player only controls his one character, who has an oval head; the others on his team are autonomous. On the right-hand side of the playfield are five blue players, the opposing team. Every screen is color-coded by the side which controls it, or is gray if neutral. This doesn't seem to matter for anything except progress towards winning and ensuring the teams capture bases in order.

In the center of each screen is a base square. By spending ten turns on a base, the player and his teammates can move it one "state" closer to their side's control: if it's blue it will turn gray, and if gray it'll go green. However, a base's state can only be changed if the base one screen left belongs to that side's team. That is to say, the player's team must capture bases in order from left-to-right. The opposing team is under similar constraints in capturing bases from the other end of the battlefield.

At the corners of each screen are magic spells that can be picked up by characters from either team. A given character can carry two of these. When collected the actual spell bestowed is chosen randomly from a set. There are healing spells that replenish a character's health bar (shown over all characters in sight), haste spells that double movement and combat speed, and shields that ward against damage for a short while. Fireball is a moderately-powerful ranged attack spell, and web spells freeze nearly characters (friend and enemy) in place. There are interesting tactical nuances to the spells: invulnerability makes capturing a base a snap, but it doesn't protects against webs and haste spells don't speed base capture.

Combat is done in the traditional bump-into-enemies way. When a character, including the player, runs out of health he's out of the action for a few turns then reappears at his side's base. This means defeated characters have less distance to travel to get back to the contested screen when they're losing, a subtle but effective difficulty adjustment. There are no items other than the spells, but that works well for this game, keeping the focus on the tactics. All carried spells are lost when a character dies.

The game is not too hard really and can be easily defeated with practice, but it's not a pushover either, and bases at the Line of Scrimmage tend to change sides back and forth a couple of times before the focus of the battle moves down the field.

Verdict: A surprisingly engaging game. Multiplayer could actually work out very well for this, as could higher difficulty settings, more spells, additional battlefields, multiple character classes... er, not to try to turn this into Roguelike Team Fortress. Heh.

7drl-bg.png12. Backwards Gravity
Written by Elig in C++ for Windows, using the curses console library
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post: Dreamhack Devblog

This game is not real-time, it is presented using console ASCII graphics, and it has no experience or inventory system. It is a quick game that starts very easy and remains so. It is fair.

Description: A experimental side-view, platformer roguelike. With variable, Mario Galaxy-like gravity to boot.

Some slack, of course, should be extended to 7DRL games for the severely-limited time frame of the challenge. Just because some of the games turn out to be amazing, it doesn't mean that this is guarenteed to happen, or even that it is entirely the fault of the developer whether it goes one way or the other. Some of the people who participate are not experienced programmers, either.

It is difficult to recomment Backwards Gravity as a general game, that anyone might want to play. It shows some nice ideas, but it's just too incomplete and lacking in play value. Elig didn't even offer a binary download for play; the version linked to above, and the one I tested, is a version compiled by Cymon's Games. (I tried compiling it myself, but failed to get it to emit a binary.)

There is a hint here, however, of something nice. The player is the @ sign in what first looks like an overhead-view world, but is in fact viewed from the side. Mostly, the player can move left or right, but he can also go up and down anywhere there's a period, which represents walkable spaces. Think of them as ladders the player can grab onto. The player cannot move diagonally with just keys, but if he's jumping or falling he can move left and right in the air, which is effectively diagonal movement.

In addition to movement keys, there is a jump button (helpfully reminded by the game when jumping is available). This causes the player to jump "away" from the ground below or above it. When the player reaches the top of a jump, however, gravity reverts to down.

Verdict: A creditable effort, but really too buggy for play. It's an awesome idea however. With some more work this could be ready for play. Until then, it's probably best to stay away.

7drl-favored.png13. The Favored
Written by Joe Larson (of Cymon's Games) for Windows
Other opinions: Cymon's Games (guest reviewer), IndieGames
Victory post:

This game is not real-time, it is presented using console ASCII graphics. It has no experience system, and only the barest form of inventory. It is a quick game that starts at moderate diffi ulty and gets harder. It is completely unfair, but on purpose.

Description: Progress upwards through four levels. Progress if you DARE! Kill helpless rabbits and climbed their piled corpses to reach the next floor. It would be easy, except....

There exists a game, a kind of quasi-roguelike, called robotfindskitten. Actually it's not so much a game as a kind of joke-delivery medium. The original developer (it's been widely ported) calls it a "zen simulation." The game consists of a single screen filled with letters. Among them is the player, the Robot. One of the letters is a Kitten. The idea of the game is to bump into things, which reveals what kind of thing they are in a status line on-screen. When the thing that is Kitten is bumped, the game ends in victory. There is no combat, and no way to lose. The entire point is to see and laugh at all the "things that are not kitten," of which there are hundreds. Many of them are quite funny.

The Favored is a game only slightly more than Robot Finds Kitten is a game. Each of the levels contains a large number of rabbits. Rabbits move around diagonally and have no attacks. When one is killed, its corpse appears in ASCII-art at the top of the screen; the player can only carry up to four of these, and more being lost. Running into the up-stairs when carrying a dead rabbit piles it there. Six dead rabbits means the player can go to the next level.

There is a catch, however. One of the rabbits on the level is special, a bunny favored by the gods. If this rabbit is harmed, the player is treated to a short ASCII animation of his character being killed by a lightning bolt and the game ends. The player, to win, must avoid touching this perilous hare. It would be simple, for none of the rabbits does a single thing to attack or avoid the player, if it weren't for the fact that there is no indication, in the game, of just which is the deadly bunny.

Later levels have fewer harmless rabbits, thus increasing the chance that the kill switch is thrown. There is a tiny amount of strategy in that extra dead rabbits can be carried over from level to level, but it is fairly simple. The real reason to play this game is all the funny, random death messages with which the game rewards players for killing rabbits.

And that's it. It is completely possible to win, but it's entirely a matter of luck as to if that will happen.

Verdict: More of a joke than a game... but it is a funny joke, nonethless.

7drl-persist.png14. Persist
Written by jab for Windows and Linux, probably in C++
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post:

This game is not real-time, and it is presented in console ASCII. It has no experience system, but it does have an inventory (without item scrambling). It is a short game that starts hard and get a bit easier. It is probably fair. (But even so, I made little progress in it.)

A survival game, in a strict sense. No monsters, no mazes, no treasure. Just a large forest, some incredibly deadly rivers, and you struggling to figure out how to live.

I think I see the point of the game: to utilize the various resources at hand to make yourself sustenance and keep yourself hydrated, and live as long as possible. Sadly, other than "picking up" some grass to munch on and (somehow) water to drink, I didn't get very far into this. I did notice, though, that other than a little freestanding liquid here and there, water is incredibly deadly in this game. Also, gathering up a lot of grass enables the player to combine them into various pieces of clothing. Unfortunately, the game liked to crash whenever I picked up too many items, so I wasn't able to get much further than this.

I went over to Cymon's Games to see if he had any insight into it, and it seems he was almost as stymied as I was.

Verdict: Hard to get into and harder to make sense of. I was unable to determine if there is any more to this game than just wandering around making survival tools. The idea of a roguelike take on Lost In Blue is intreguing, though. Hopefully the next version will be a little more discoverable.

7drl-tetrls.png15. TetRLs, formerly TetrisRL
Written by Sir_Lewk for Windows, probably in C++
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post:

This game is not real-time, it is presented in console ASCII, and it has no experience or inventory system. It is a very short game that starts easy and gets a little harder. It is fair.

Description: A Russian scientist who seems to have learned English from Yakov Smirnov forces the player to shove oddly-shaped crates around a bin-like warehouse. While doing this, the player is pestered by rats.

This game's name recognition has gotten it a bit of play in the blogosphere, and the character of the Russian scientist is humorous, but I really wasn't too overwhelmed by this one.

The main play is more like Sokoban than Rogue. Blocks are generated one at a time at the top of the screen. Instead of falling, the player must get behind them and push them across the floor until it gets to the spot he wishes it to stay, at which time he can lock it into play with 'D' (the capital letter) and get another one. Blocks need not be anywhere near the bin before being "dropped," and making solid horizontal lines doesn't remove anything, which only serves to further the simularities to Sokoban. The player can "rotate" pieces with shift-R, but it will be returned to its start location if he does this. This can be abused to get pieces out of stuck corners.

A certain number of blocks must be dropped to proceed to the next level. While he's doing this, rats are randomly generated in the area, who walk up to and try to bite the player. So long as he focuses on killing them when they appear they're not too much of a problem, but they do provide a reason to place pieces efficiently; placing each piece heals the player for a small amount of health. Also, if they're not packed in solidly there won't be room for an additional block, making it impossible to proceed.

The player gets rewarded in a minor way for completing lines, but they don't disappear or anything. It doesn't even look like they're recorded for score. Progress is entirely measured in pieces dropped.

I wish there were more to say about the game than this. While competently implemented and polished, the game is really too simplistic. It's fun to place once for the joke but it's not hard to win. After you're done, you're done.

Verdict: It's cool... once or twice. The secret super-power of roguelike games is replayability, but this game doesn't seem to have a lot of that. Definitely worth going through once, however, to experience the entertaining Russian Scientist character. Further development might be interesting to see, but I'm not sure where Sir Lewk can go from here. I know I really shouldn't complain about this; I've been spoiled by the large number of surprisingly polished games I reviewed last time.

7drl-expedition.png16. Expedition
Written by Slash in Java
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post:

This game is not real-time, and it is presented in simulated ASCII. It has no experience system, but it does have multiple types of inventories. It is a long game that starts moderately hard but seems to get easier. It is mostly fair.

The version reviewed, 1.6, is a later version from the one that won 7DRL.

Description: Our intrepid @ sign has explored countless dungeons, fantasy realms, castles, vaults, and even spaceships. Now he faces his greatest challenge yet: the New World.

Developer Slash is one of the most prolific 7DRL participants, a multiple-winner responsible for such strange productions as CastlevaniaRL, MetroidRL, ZeldaRL, and MegamanRL, an ASCII-art platformer, which deserves some kind of prize for misguided fidelity to the concept.

Converting popular console games into a roguelike format is not an idea that really impresses me, but Expedition, a rather nifty Christopher Columbus simulator, is quite a game. The player begins in Spain where he buys supplies and equipment and hires men. After stocking up it's time to set sail. (Hint: you'll want at least 180 days of food just to survive a round trip to the Americas, and some more to live on once there.) The process of crossing the Atlantic amounts to leaning on the left-arrow key for a minute or so. Once there and landed, the player transfers supplies to his land expedition to keep them alive on their way. Natives are everywhere, who the player, in the traditional roguelike fashion, sets about slaughtering and taking their stuff, which tends to be easier if you bought good weapons and hired strong fighters back in Spain. (This is honestly a little disconcerting; the game provides no means of peaceful interaction.)

Some of their stuff takes the form of valuables like gold bracelets and pottery, and some in the form of additional food. After looting the land for as much as you can carry, it's time to load everything onto the ship and sail back to Spain (by leaning on the right-arrow key). Provided the player can find Spain again (it helps to remember that your home port is at 38 degrees latitude), you automatically sell your look upon entering port and can begin the process all over again with more men and equipment.

The sense of wonder in the game is, admittedly, a bit lacking. I haven't found any hidden cities, ancient temples or cultural artifacts other than the simple trinkets that get sold upon entering port. This doesn't necessarily mean they're not in there, but I've yet to see them. The game's primary concern is keeping your men from starving; if you don't prepare well with excess food upon leaving Spain/your ship, it's easy to lose most of your men to hunger before you can make it back to port/your supplies. Provided that you err on the side of caution both when deciding on how much food to take with you and in picking fights with the indigenous peoples, it shouldn't be too hard to get a good toehold established in the Americas.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the game is that it is poorly documented; some important controls are not mentioned in the Readme, and one that's mentioned in help, 'r' for ranged attacks, has another function besides that, and doesn't seem to do any attacking either. Fortunately there aren't that many keypresses to learn, and a little experimentation makes it easy to figure them out for yourself. (One that I remember is 'i' for inventory.)

Verdict: Holy smokes, it's roguelike Seven Cities of Gold! Well okay, it doesn't seem to be quite that deep. It skews a little too heavily towards building efficent wealth-harvesting routes and away from wonder and awesomeness, but the infrastructure is here for a truly incredible game. The ghostly Hand of Bunten can be seen at work here.

7drl-spiritsrl.png17. SpiritsRL
Written by Xecutor for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, mostly likely in C++
Another opinion: Cymon's Games
Victory post:

The version reviewed is 0.4.21. The version resulting from the 7DRL Challenge was 0.2.11.

This game is not real-time, and it is presented in simulated ASCII. It has something of an experience system, but it doesn't have a real inventory system. It is a fairly long game that starts out challenging and gets harder. It seems to be fair.

You got your roguelike in my Shining Force! You got your Shining Force in my roguelike! Two great things that go great together.

What if if you took a roguelike but made it so you could directly control multiple characters instead of just one? And, so that it didn't get annoying to have to switch contexts so much, it bunched each character's moves together? And to make it more convienent, it let you decide what order to move your guys in? And so your uncontrolled guys didn't get swarmed by monsters, it bunched their moves together as well, allowing you to get your guys in formation to prepare for their attacks? Of course, so you can't take advantage of your maneuverability, each character can only attack once per turn.

But wait, you object, that sounds an awful like a turn-based tactical game? Indeed it does, and that's really what SpiritsRL is: a game that takes advantage of the simularities between rougelike games and grid-based tactics wargames to blur the line between them. It's actually probably more wargame than roguelike, but it's got ASCII characters and was made for 7DRL, so I'll let it slide.

It's not a bad game either.

Setting aside the premise (which I frankly couldn't make much sense of), the player starts off by selecting from a number of fairly generic choices. He picks from two sets of moves to take with him (which are named after Greek letters), and also chooses two "guardian spirits" from a list of numbered selections. Then he begins the game, which is a series of set level layouts. Levels are generally composed of walls, monsters, doors and switches; the switches, when stood upon, and be flipped, which can open or close doors elsewhere on the level. These can often be used to control the flow of opponents, helping to stop the player's party from being overwhelmed.

The player has a cursor overlaid upon the game screen, controlled with the arrow keys. With this, he selects his characters, moves them around, and gives other orders. The game, it should be noted, is a bit slow; one of the big advantages to using console graphics is that it's fast. If you're going to use ASCII characters for everything in your game, does it really matter if they smoothly slide around the board?

The player can move use any or all of a character's movement allowance at any time in his turn, and also use its attack at any point. A legal move can consist of moving two spaces up to a monster, attack it, then three spaces in retreat and flip a switch, and still finish out the remainder of its move. Characters can even mix their actions together. This kind of flexibility in movement is rare in computer tactical wargamming, in which generally the player attacks at the end of a move but not before.

Characters have shield strength, health and power scores. Power can be replenished by absorbing it from downed opponents, and killed guardian spirits can be revived. Enemies are largely generic, and vary in power by their representing letter (with later latters of the alphabet being stronger, and capital letters much stronger). Guardian spirits don't have shield, but can replenish their health by absorbing those defeated enemies. After a map characters have the opportunity to raise their various useable skills and stats.

I'd like to say more about the game, but really, roguelike tactical strategy is nearly a perfect description. The game is fairly complete now relative to the length of its development. All I can suggest at this point is go; go forth and play.

Verdict: As the inestimable Cymon notes, this is closer to being a tactical wargame, ala Fire Emblem or Shining Force than a roguelike. This is hardly a point against it, but it should be noted that the game is not really a dungeon crawl.

In around a week's time we'll finish up the last eight games, or as many of them as I can get to running. Say this because I've had trouble getting one or two of them to run. If I can't get some to work, I might substitute some of the out-of-challenge 7DRLs to fill out the list....