By Jaime Skelton (MissyS), Senior Editor
Nothing works like a jolt of caffeine to my gaming brain quite like the word “rogue-like.” Heck, even “rogue-lite” will snap my head around like the dramatic prairie dog. So when a review key for Brut@l, an ASCII-stylized dungeon crawler developed by Stormcloud and published by Rising Star, landed on our desks, I quietly slipped it into my ‘to-do’ pile. What? Don’t judge me. No one on this team has as much experience in this genre as I do.
Brut@l is, quite simply, a 3D love letter to NetHack. For those of you not versed in the history of rogue-likes, NetHack is one of the original descendants of Rogue, the genre’s great-granddaddy. Born in the era of MUDS, NetHack has a cult-like following, despite its dizzying graphical interface rivaled only by Dwarf Fortress. Thankfully, Brut@l is not so difficult to decipher, choosing to play visual homage to the ASCII design while remaining in that accessible 3D realm that modern gamers are used to.
There are four character classes in Brut@l: Warrior, Ranger, Amazon, and Mage. Each of these characters starts with three different skills and basic health levels, and make a distinct impact on how your initial dungeon crawl will play out.
Your wheel of fate.
Warrior: The ‘tank’ of the cast, the Warrior starts out with 150 health, higher than any of his allies. His starting abilities include a more powerful unarmed attack, initial access to Axes and Hammers, two additional special move charges, and a hammer-based special move, Groundshaker.
Ranger: One of the two middleweight champions, the Ranger has 125 health, the ability to one-shot KO an enemy when undetected, and initial access to bows. He also begins with the ability to enchant weapons.
Amazon: The Amazon is equal to the Ranger in health. Like the Ranger, she also can one-shot KO an enemy when undetected and can enchant weapons. However, rather than access to bows, the Amazon gains the warrior’s strength with more powerful unarmed attacks and access to Axes and Hammers.
Mage: The weakest of the lot, the Mage has only 100 HP. He makes up for this with a higher mana pool, faster mana recharge, and the ability to wield wands – a weapon that comes in a variety of elements but utilizes mana to deal damage.
The mage is our favorite, for good reason.
All four classes in Brut@l begin unarmed, outside of a shield which can be thrown at enemies before eventually boomerang’ing its way back — except for the mage. The mage’s shield is magical by nature, and instead of throwing it, he casts from his staff using his mana reserves – giving him three ranged attacks initially over other character’s single attacks. These ranged attacks also do more than the shield lobs of the other characters. All characters also share the same skill tree, so starting skills are not exclusive. However, they do determine some of the initial skills a character will have access to based on the skill trees already progressed. This means that the mage can put his first skill point in potion identification, an amazingly powerful skill to have in early game (you’ll see why, later).
Quite simply put, three of the four classes feel amazing similar to each other in early game, a similarity that only becomes more muddled as you progress. Meanwhile, the mage gets a completely different and far superior shield/ranged attack mechanic and access early on to one of the most powerful skills a rogue-like dungeoneer can have. Why play anything but a mage, outside of pursuing achievements?
What is an adventurer without a dungeon to explore? Brut@l offers a theoretically simple dungeon challenge: pass through 26 floors of a procedurally-generated dungeon (that is, completely random). The deeper into the dungeon a character goes, the greater the challenge: more powerful enemies, dangerous traps, challenging puzzles, and devious tricks await.
NetHack fans may feel a little at home.
While the visual style of dungeons harkens strongly back to NetHack – especially evidence on the map screen – Brut@l’s dungeons are far easier to comprehend in 3D. Dungeon floors exist in open 3D spaces without walls (don’t count on using line of sight around corners), and rooms are revealed as characters venture into them. Traps include water pits filled with eels, spinning blades, poison gas, lava, and elemental floor tiles to name a few hazards. Players may also be faced with doors that require keys or other special conditions to unlock, or mazes that can prove challenging despite having a map to refer to. Altars can also be found, and loot can be donated for a chance at a blessing from the gods – including an extra life.
A bonus to the Brut@l system is that you can also create your own floors, using a somewhat easy to learn toolset. Floors can be fully created from scratch or started from an auto-generated map. Each floor tile placed grants the creator ‘currency’ which can be spent on things like monsters, loot, and traps. Like Super Mario Maker, floors must finally be validated by playing through and beating them before they can be shared with the public, meaning that the community should face no ‘impossible’ floors. Disappointingly, however, this system only allows you to create dungeon floors, and not an entire dungeon experience.
Combat & Controls
The combat system in Brut@l has an almost arcade-like feel to it. Outside of shield attacks and blocking (mentioned earlier), each weapon type has a three-attack chain that is achieved by spamming the attack button. Special attacks can also be executed with the proper skill, and these typically do extra damage and strike multiple enemies. Blocking, dodging, and moving are all essential in combat, so much so that fighting can feel incredibly hectic while staying engaging and fun. Some enemies may particularly require thoughtful combat to get past shields or confuse the opponent. Meanwhile ranged combat, while limited by either mana or ammunition, can be a godsend as it can allow you to ‘trap’ an enemy and whittle their health down from afar.
As for Brut@l’s control system, most of it can be summed up in the following image, which splashes on the screen during loading:
While they take a little getting used to, a controller does, indeed, save your sanity in playing the game. The default keybinds for Brut@l on mouse and keyboard are far more challenging, and restrictive. Movement also feels more momentum-based when playing on a mouse-keyboard combo, meaning that it feels like your character continues traveling for a short time after you release a movement key. Fumbling to find the ‘right keys’ is more punishing than the dungeon itself. The above plea from the developers is for your sake. Don’t play Brut@l on a mouse/keyboard combo unless you absolutely must.
Items and Crafting
One of the essential but unique features in Brut@l is the item crafting system. There are two types of items that can be crafted: potions and weapons. Other items – such as keys, armor, and food – must be found while exploring.
Potions can be crafted by having an empty bottle and two reagents. Potions come in eight different fun mystery flavors. Without potion identification, downing a potion is like playing BeanBoozled – you don’t know what horrible or delicious flavor you’ve plucked until you try it. There are four ‘positive’ effect potions and four ‘negative’ effect potions, and which effect belongs to which color is completely randomized for each dungeon run. You can identify potions by drinking them yourself, or by throwing them. The risk here, of course, is that you might throw a potion of vitality (healing) at an enemy, or set yourself on fire with a potion of inferno. Alternatively, you can take the fourth skill in the “Mage” tree – which Mages get access to on their first level up – and instantly have knowledge of each potion’s effect. Other classes will have to spend those valuable skill points in the mage’s tree for three levels before getting access to the same skill.
Weapons can be crafted with the use of recipe books. Each weapon requires a specific set of letters (for instance I,M,P). These letters can be found as random loot drops throughout the dungeon floors, and fill up a special inventory system that’s based more along the idea of rune-knowledge than crafting materials. Once the letters are gathered, characters can forge them into a new weapon. As touched on earlier, weapons can be wielded by anyone, given they have the necessary skill to do so. Unfortunately, weapons feel one-note – generally similar outside of their special abilities.
Weaponcrafting & enchanting
Each weapon also has a specific letter which serves as a point of enchantment. If the player owns one of these letters in an elemental form, and has a crafting skill, they can enchant the weapon with that element. There are different elements that possess different effects: fire, ice, poison, shock, and arcane. Eventually it proves crucial to have one of each of these elements handy, as doors may be locked behind a specific elemental attack. There are also powerful talismans on later floors which can be crafted that bestow even more powerful abilities to a character – and if you’ve made it that far, you deserve them.
The Co-Op Experience
While Brut@l can be enjoyed as a single player game, it also supports local two-player co-op. I recruited the assistance of Outfoxed, and we attempted to delve deep into the dungeon, with a few hilarious gaffs as we learned the game together.
Co-op is designed with relatively fair balance. Letter inventory is shared, as is potion knowledge; however potions, gear, food, and loot are individual. While this makes crafting weapons or enchanting them easy, it makes crafting potions obnoxious and loot management a little absurd. While you can, thankfully, drop items for your co-op partner to pick up, you can’t drop the game’s “loot” currency. It ends up proving obnoxious to work together to alternate food and loot pick-ups, or to make sure all potion ingredients are on a single character to make it easier to craft potions as a team.
Here we learned those healing trees ALSO heal enemies.
The mode is also not split-screen, which is mostly a blessing. However, players are somewhat leashed together, forcing a restraint on how much ‘dungeon’ can be on screen at any one time. This means that, if not careful, you can get your partner stuck in a dangerous situation only because you wandered too far from each other. While this kind of mechanic works in some games due to their more competitive nature, it is far more punishing in a rogue-like such as Brut@l. The saving grace is, however, that you can return to your partner’s corpse and bring them back from the grave – at a cost of half of your health. I guess kindness has its limits.
All said, however, co-op is a really rewarding experience for Brut@l – almost better than single player. Being able to work with a teammate to use your weapons and skills for tactical advantages is great, as is the less punishing factor of team resurrections.
Conclusion: Nu Metal (4/5)
Brut@l isn’t the heaviest rogue-like game out there: to be fair, it doesn’t live up to its name. Perhaps the @ sign is meant to soften the experience, but let’s call Brut@l what it is: more of a dungeon crawler with light rogue-style elements crafted as an homage to NetHack and similar rogue-likes. Brut@l is too predictable, too safe, and too vanilla. It’s gentler than Binding of Isaac, but it won’t hold your hand and sing you a ballad under a full moon. Though Brut@l is a little soft for the real hardcore, it is also ridiculously fun. An increased difficulty, more interesting class selection and diverse game mechanics, and a full dungeon editor would amp this game’s enjoyment up to 11.
One of our forum community members at OnRPG took out the time to do a gameplay impressions video on Brut@l as well! Check it out below.