Roguelike hack-’n-slash efforts are a dime a dozen these days (unless the exchange rate is especially crappy in your country), so it takes a developer to do something a little different in order to get noticed. In the case of the nattily named Brut@l, Scottish developer Stormcloud Games has applied a visual veneer that calls upon the creaky ASCII format to create a series of procedurally generated levels that look quite unlike anything you’ve seen previous in other similar games.
You’re ASCII for Trouble
Beneath its visual selling point, Brut@l is largely a fairly standard, if well-executed hack-’n-slash roguelike. Prompting the player to choose from a quartet of different classes in the beginning that includes Warrior, Ranger, Wizard, and Amazon, each of them boast the sort of skills and abilities you might well expect from such archetypes; the warrior has the most health and is the most effective up close, while the wizard can destroy foes from afar with destructive spells. So far, so Diablo 101, then.
Of the whole lot though, and at least on the evidence of repeated playthroughs, the Ranger seems to be a great first choice; his combination of high speed movement and attacks balanced with ranged striking and decent health lends the fella well to longer runs in the hands of even lesser skilled players. Though it is worth bearing in mind that when you begin each game, you start off sans any sort of weapons or equipment; instead, you must use your bare fists for a good while before you can obtain something that does a better job of laying waste to your foes.
In further sticking with its classical template, Brut@l has players rocking about the joint smashing up barrels, crates, and just about everything else they can find with precious experience points spilling forth for every bit of dungeon IKEA that ends up wrecked. When said experience points reach a certain amount, they can then be invested in unlocking a new ability from four very different skill trees, though don’t expect Diablo-levels of depth here because you simply won’t get it.
Nevertheless, there remains a certain amount of planning involved in how to best spend your ability points, since some skills (such as being able to use a bow or wand), prove hugely useful when facing flying enemies in the later levels, with the fiendish Gargoyles and their hugely damaging divebomb attacks proving to be just one example.
Luckily there are a number of ways that you can even up the score and foremost among these is Brut@l’s crafting and enchantment system. In the case of both and in keeping with the game’s ASCII visual stylings, your monochromatic avatar can collect various alphabetical letters on their journey, which when combined with the appropriate crafting manual, can be used to fashion into all manner of bows, axes, clubs and just about anything else you can think of.
In terms of enchantments, these too can found as scattered ASCII characters that when a certain sequence of them have been collected, can then be used to imbue your weapons with a variety of different magical effects such as fire, electricity, poison, and transfiguration. Aside from giving your enemies a bit of an extra kick in the teeth when you start swinging in their general direction, these enchantments also serve a dual purpose; their colour-coded auras also mean that they can open specially sealed magical gates of the same hue, allowing your hero or heroine to nab all the loot usually stored beyond.
Speaking of loot, Brut@l takes a step back from the typical definition of the term. Here, rather than being a catch-all descriptor to encompass everything from gear and equipment, through to various types of riches, loot instead can only be used for a single thing—sacrificing it at shrines for the chance to gain an extra life, which robs the game of a fair amount of depth when compared to its peers where quality of loot is their raison d’etre. A small concession is that various pieces of armour can be collected which increase your resistance to damage and a limited selection of potions can be brewed based off of discovered reagents, but other than that, and whatever else you craft yourself, there really isn’t much shiny stuff to get excited about in Brut@l.
Another issue is that like many roguelikes, Brut@l embraces randomly generated content that manifests itself in terms of room layouts, enemies and loot; varying potential playtime to anything from fifteen minutes to ten hours or so. The problem however, is that while it seems like you’re getting a fresh world to hack through each time, it’s still quite possible to run into the same room types as you’ve already encountered before; thus bringing an unwanted sense of overfamiliarity into the proceedings. One of the more surprising things design-wise about Brut@l’s levels though, is that there are no walls separating the levels, just invisible boundaries instead. The upshot of this is that ranged attackers can still harass you even if you’re not in the same room as they are and it’s a lesson that should be well-learned by all players early on.
On a happier note, the combat is grand. Much more than just a mindless button masher, later levels will demand that you know how to block incoming attacks while also learning how to evade and dodge, sliding under the legs of your foe for example so that you might strike from an undefended vantage. Sure enough in the earlier stages you can get by fairly easily by pounding your foes into a fine red mist over and over again, but Brut@l doesn’t take too long to live up its namesake and demands that your fighting skill evolves alongside that of your enemies. Additionally, should you find yourself injured in combat, and you will, health can be replenished by eating various morsels of food or exotic plants, while a hunger meter must also be managed; lest your character fall into a state of starvation and become unable to fight the monstrous hordes effectively.
Further afield, co-operative play in Brut@l manifests itself as a proper treat. Once you look past the fact that it only supports two players locally, there’s a lot more to be considered when playing the game with a mate than without. All equipment and loot for example, has to be manually shared and so must be tactically considered while a neat revive system turns out to be a surprisingly compelling reason to take on the horde with a buddy.
Simply, when a player dies, the one who remains standing has the option to resurrect them right there, or, move onto the next level and revive them there instead. The kicker though, is that bringing your fallen friend back to life transfers half of your life to them, which depending on your situation either makes you both very prepared to go on, or, very likely to die as soon as you come across a pack of strong foes. It’s a simple feature certainly, but it stands as a thoughtful one that adds a much welcome risk/reward dynamic to the proceedings.
A decent hack and slash affair, Brut@l gives a good account of itself with an array of robust, if not spectacular combat and crafting systems that lay beneath its intriguing visual veneer. Though the game certainly doesn’t occupy the same critical circles as the hallowed likes of Diablo III, it nonetheless carves out a nice enough niche for itself with some frequently fun co-operative action and an easy to use level editor that extends Brut@l’s appeal far beyond its initial remit.