The Dungeon Crawler Is Back, People!
Reviewed on PS4
The last Gauntlet game I played was Gauntlet Dark Legacy, developed by Midway Games West, back on the PlayStation 2. I believe I played the original Gauntlet Legends developed by (now defunct studio) Atari Games on the PlayStation, but when I think Gauntlet I think Dark Legacy. A dungeon crawler, you play as one of 16 characters and traverse through a series of dungeons, eradicating the enemies and bosses you encounter to save the realm. You know, typical hero shit. You can play the game solo or cooperatively with up to four friends via local play—I know, a rarity these days—and collect loot, potions, and magic to beat the eight worlds and their respective dungeons. Of all the characters, the archer was always my favorite. Man, the good ol’ days… Those days of nostalgia aren’t behind us anymore, however: Stormcloud Games’ first game, Brutal (stylized as Brut@l), coalesces the classic dungeon crawler elements of Gauntlet with modern sensibilities of procedural generation. Oh, and a damn cool ASCII aesthetic.
The narrative of Brutal is rudimentary, damn near non-existent: you select one of four characters—Ranger, Mage, Warrior, or Amazon—and descend into the game’s ASCII world. It’s as straightforward as that—there’s nothing else. A lack of narrative in a dungeon crawler is acceptable if the characters are distinct. Unfortunately, while they do start out diverse with varying health bars, mana pools, and starting abilities, their diversity is transitory: the Ranger plays no different than the Amazon who plays no different than the Mage who plays no different than the Warrior. Really, when selecting these characters, you’re choosing between punching, kicking, or just flailing your arms around in a madman flurry before getting your first weapon. But you don’t play Brutal for its barren narrative or indistinguishable characters, though. No, you play Brutal for its game design: perma-death and procedural generation.
"Brutal wants you to break everything. Literally, everything."
Just about everything in Brutal generates procedurally. Every new dungeon is procedurally generated. Every weapon drop and crafting requirement is procedurally generated. Every piece of equipment you find is procedurally generated. Every potion you craft or drink is procedurally generated. Hell, even the spawn locations and enemy types in the dungeons are procedurally generated. (Yo dawg, I heard you like procedural generation…) In many cases, procedural generation is a game design gimmick, a ruse to add “depth” and “variety” to a game to increase its longevity. However, here, in Brutal, procedural generation works: it feels natural with the aesthetic of the game, with the style of gameplay. Sadly, procedural generation does have its limits: after a while, everything that was “new” and “exciting” becomes pedestrian as the ability to predict the game’s next move—whether it be an enemy or a hallway or a room—becomes more prevalent with each playthrough.
And these playthroughs can be as long or as short as you want them to be: they are completely dependent on you, your skill, your patience, your impetus. Brutal is not for the faint of heart; we’re not talking Dark Souls levels of difficulty here, but Stormcloud Games have definitely introduced a welcomed challenge. When you start each game, you (and a friend, if you so choose to venture with a companion) select your character. You are then thrust into the throes of the dungeon. From there, it is up to you to “figure out the game” and its mechanics: jumping, attacking, blocking, parrying, crafting, dodging. Brutal wants you to break everything: doing so like some crazed drunk wildly swinging his arms in a bar fight grants you experience, which you then use to level up your character. As you journey through these darkened dungeons, you collect ASCII letters; these letters allow you to craft and enchant whatever weapon(s) you find to kick some ASCII ass—and there are a plethora of weapons at your disposal. Don’t get too attached to one weapon for long, though, because its only temporary; yes, when you die you lose everything and start over. From the very beginning. (I evidently forgot to mention that Brutal is a procedural generating roguelike.)
Graphically, the game is simple but stylized. Because Brutal is going for that ASCII code aesthetic, the game is rendered in black and white. Other colors make an appearance, but their appearance is trite and direct: blue for ice, orange for fire, green for poison, red for blood, etc. Virtually everything else in the game is black and white. No variation. No off-white, no grey, nothing. The problem with this color palette is that everything blends into one, creating some sort of centipede of your character—whatever enemy grabbed onto you, whatever enemy you’re fighting, the environment. This is a problem when the difference between living and dying is a matter of discerning what the hell you’re even swinging your weapon at. Sound design is minimal, save for the occasional grunt your character makes when barreling through the dungeon, attacking the first thing to say hello; while music is effectively absent, aside from a few audio cues that either give away what enemy you’re fighting or the fact that a fight is even occurring at all. Brutal‘s simplistic design, however, does lend itself to a certain uniqueness and character.
Despite all of these quibbles, Brutal is incredibly fun. It’s always fascinating to see what the next dungeon layout will be, what the next weapon will be, what the next potion will be, what the next enemy will be. Thanks to the simple mechanics and otherwise assuming narrative, Brutal is that game you can just pick up and play. It offers enough challenge to demand you to #GITGUD, but is never difficult enough to elicit a broken controller, a broken PlayStation 4, or a broken TV. (We’ll leave that kind of rage quit to Dark Souls.) I even somehow managed to convince my fiancé, who does not play games at all, to play Brutal with me. We didn’t make it that far—we never did. Even still, we found ourselves saying “one more time” in ardent confidence that we’ll progress to the next dungeon. With hearty laughs filling the room, we still never made it that far, but we keep playing.