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Decades Old and Still Kicking: Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup
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Decades Old and Still Kicking: Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup

Fans of roguelike adventure willing to endure primitive graphics and punishing gameplay will find this Crawl worth their time.

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Roguelikes (and their more questionably-named cousins “roguelites”) are a dime-a-dozen these days, thanks largely to the popularity of the Souls titles and the me-too tendencies of the indie gaming scene. While there’s plenty of good options available with more coming out every day, it’s nice sometimes to look back to the classics. Nethack is fine, sure, so is Angband, but for my money it’s hard to find a better roguelike than Linley’s Dungeon Crawl. Originally released in 1995, the version that most players go with these days is the 2004 revision Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. It’s an oldie but a goodie, a free title with unparalleled depth that still merits a look today.

In “Crawl,” you play as an adventurer tasked with reaching the bottom of an immense dungeon, retrieving the mythical Orb of Zot and making your way back out with it, preferably in one piece. This isn’t even remotely the cut-and-dry quest that it might sound like, since the Orb is well-guarded and you’re going to need to dig up a few runic keys to even get into the chamber where it’s held.  The dungeon’s crawling with all manner of nastiness; you’re going to have to rely on your weapons, wits and maybe a little divine assistance if you want to make it out alive.

You can design your character from a wide array of races and classes. Races run the fantasy gamut, allowing you to be a standard human if you wish while leaving more bizarre options like Tengu and Minotaurs available to shake things up. As for classes, all manner of adventurers are available for your use, ranging from the typical heavily-armored Fighter to the magic-wielding Conjurer to more esoteric options like the Warper, a lightly-armored fighter/mage hybrid that focuses on teleportation magic.

The thing that keeps me coming back to Crawl has to be the way it boils off so many unnecessary aspects of other roguelikes. There’s no tricky nonsense like you’d see in Nethack. You don’t need to memorize item prices or read spoilers to learn how to deal with particular monsters, and items, spells and skills are all well-documented ingame. You also don’t need to waste hours grinding for necessary gear – the option is there, sure, but it’s largely considered a waste of time and an example of a questionable playstyle. Instead, most of the game comes down to your ability to make the most out of what you’re given.

For instance, it’s possible to run across monsters with the power to banish your character, sending them to a randomly-generated hellscape known as the Abyss. The first of these jerks show up fairly early in the game and you never know when one of them might decide to pull out the ol’ banishing beam. Once you’ve been “Abyssed,” you’re stuck there with no obvious way out and beset upon by eldritch horrors. As dire as this might be, though, it doesn’t necessarily mean a death sentence for your character; smart players can use the items they’ve collected in the dungeon and found during their exploration in the Abyss to seek a way out, and there are few things as gratifying as murdering whoever sent you there in the first place. Some players might even find a way to do the banishing themselves…

That doesn’t mean the game is perfect, of course. The early levels are probably the most difficult part of Crawl, meaning new players are liable to get turned off if they’re playing a frail race or class. Characters who focus on spellcasting can get squashed by many early foes, so a newbie would be better served with a tanky melee character. Since you’re able to to provide additional divine combat support to your character with your choice of religion, melee characters aren’t necessary the boring hit-things-until-they-die sort you might expect from other games. The early game feels like the most “luck-based” part of Dungeon Crawl, since a bad enemy spawn could take out your promising new hero in a matter of seconds and send you back to the character creation screen.

Later, once the player’s gotten some more experience, there are bizarre challenge races available to test one’s skill and patience; Felids, for instance, are literally housecats, incapable of wielding weapons or wearing armor and relying on their magical abilities, stealth and nine lives to survive, while Octopodes are extremely fragile cephalopods that can wear eight magic rings but probably won’t live long enough to find two. Even the impressive-sounding Demigod, with their many statistical bonuses, are hamstrung by their inability to choose a religion and their poor skill levels. If you’d prefer another way of challenging yourself, collecting more runes than are necessary to complete the game is an option; while only three are necessary for a win, you can find up to 15, earning a considerable increase in score for your feat.

Either way, once you’ve gotten most any character off the ground, Crawl is a highly satisfying experience. There’s a unique skill-based system available where your character can branch into different disciplines of magic or combat at your leisure. In practice, this means that even the biggest, dumbest tank might be able to learn some magical support abilities if you’re willing to divert experience away from his melee prowess. Here, again, we see the value of a player’s ability to adapt on the fly to the opportunities the game gives them; a buff warrior who finds a book offering necromantic magic would be well-served to consider learning to raise the dead for those situations where he’s outnumbered, while a wizard who finds an especially powerful sword ought to think about learning to swing it around.

While you’re alone in the dungeon aside from any allies you summon, create or are offered by your god, if you play Crawl online you don’t necessarily have to be “alone.” Servers are available that allow other players to watch your game and offer you advice; this can certainly make all the difference, especially if you know some experienced players. Even another newbie could offer a second perspective on a seemingly impossible situation. Playing Crawl online is definitely the way to go and doesn’t even require any setup, running without a hitch on most web browsers; check crawl.akrasiac.org for my preferred server if you’re interested in giving it a shot. There’s no installation or anything, you just make an account and get to Crawling!

I’ve won several times, with each victorious game taking around ten hours total. There’s something immensely enjoyable about finally stepping out of the dungeon after trekking all the way to the bottom, fighting your way through the armies that stand against you, grabbing the Orb and hauling ass back up. A lot of modern games can’t really provide that sort of feeling, and there’s plenty more to the game that I haven’t talked about – while I’ve mentioned religion a couple of times, for instance, each god your character can worship is basically a character in and of themselves. If you’re willing to endure some primitive graphics and punishing gameplay, it’s well worth your time to give Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup a try.

About the Author: Cory Galliher