Long before there was the “Free to Play” model of Dota 2 and Team Fortress 2, there were free games available on the frontiers of the Internet. “Roguelikes,” they were called, named for the formidable Rogue. Initially released in the early 1980s for UNIX systems, Rogue was a procedurally-generated dungeon full of monsters and traps that wanted to brutally end the life of the ASCII character that represented you.
The appeal of roguelikes has persisted perhaps longer than any other video game format. Sure, it’s not the kind of thing you’ll find in a banner title like the recently-released Tomb Raider reboot, but it’s been around for a long time and has quite the pedigree. In the ‘90s, games like Nethack and Angband rekindled the roguelike flame. My own first experience with them was on an obscure game I found on a 5.25” floppy disk called Evets: The Adventure, probably around 1987.
So it’s heartwarming to see a little game like Sword of the Stars: The Pit (Kerberos Productions, distributed on Steam) come along and challenge players to the same unforgiving random dungeon environment again.
Sword of the Stars, I’m given to understand, is the name of a universe in which a couple existing 4X-type games have already been set. There is a story, too, about some plague that has beset a planet. None of this really matters, because Sword of the Stars: The Pit uses the exact same formula that made games like Angband (and its many, many variants) so popular. To wit: You pick a character class and descend through increasingly difficult levels of a dungeon, finding equipment and horrible monsters along the way. The action is turn-based; your “speed” stat determines how often you may move and what actions you may take before enemies take their turns. Different weapons have different effects, and different enemies have different abilities (like “grabbing”) that can hinder your progress or, quite likely, kill you. And – in true roguelike fashion – once you’re killed, there’s no checkpoint to return to or savegame to load. You’re dead and have to start over on a whole new dungeon.
All of this is delivered rather delightfully via a retro-esque graphics presentation. Replacing Rogue and Angband’s ASCII characters is a very engaging, colorful tileset reminiscent of games like Albion and the older Phantasy Star titles. The tileset changes as you progress down through the dungeon, searching for better weapons and armor more than you are for the cure to the ghoul-inducing plague (if we’re being honest). The sprite-based character art is cartoony, but it clearly lets you know what kind of monster you’re facing, and even what kind of armor or weapon you’re using (the fact that Dungeons of Dredmor did not do this was a constant annoyance for me).
Stats play an important role in the game, as they’ll determine your likelihood of success in tasks like picking locks or activating old computer terminals. In a departure from most other roguelikes – and more in line with the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series – actually performing tasks can help you get better at doing them. Patching yourself up with a mobile surgery unit, for instance, will improve your medical skill. It’s also possible to boost skills, Fallout-style, when you level up – you’re given points to put into your three main attributes of “Might,” “Finesse,” and “Brains,” and more to add to abilities like lockpicking and deciphering – a skill that makes its importance known when you begin downloading alien data from locked or broken computer terminals scattered throughout the dungeon.
Without conserving ammunition and food, you will quickly find yourself unarmed and starving in a dark corner of a low floor, worried to make even a single move in any direction lest you wake the robot guardians and blob creatures that inhabit The Pit. It’s that “Game over, man” moment from Pvt. Hudson in Aliens, and while you can technically still use your fists to assail your enemies, you know you doomed yourself for ditching that combat knife to free up inventory space several floors above.
There could be a few minor pitfalls to mention. The sound design is fairly forgettable, but certainly appropriate for the game (although the similarly-roguelike FTL shipped with a pretty stunning soundtrack).
And if roguelikes definitely aren’t your thing, Sword of the Stars: The Pit is probably not going to change your mind. However, if you’ve so far managed to miss this wonderful and strange genre, it certainly could be the one to make you love it.