PREVIEW: Unexplored

Action roguelikes, or “roguelites”, however you want to put it, have become quite the popular thing lately.  Many of them go with all sorts of different gameplay concepts, but the focus is usually purely on the action… a far cry from classic turn-based roguelikes, where strategy, planning, and decision-making were the core of the experience, instead of simply blasting away at a zillion enemies with lasers or something.  Finally though, someone is trying an action-roguelike that is much closer to the roots of the genre that inspired these types of games.  You’ll see plenty of familiar elements here… yet it’s what the game does with those elements that makes it stand out, as well as the sheer quality and polish of it, even in early access.

Steam: Early Access

Developer: Ludomotion

Publisher: Ludomotion

Genre: Roguelite Dungeon Crawler

Release Date: TBA

Type: Single-player

Unexplored is a real-time action roguelike that feels both familiar and very new at the same time.   At its absolute core, the goal of the game is simple:  Enter the Dungeon of Doom, find the Amulet of Yendor (of course) and escape.  The dungeon itself is full of all sorts of things… monsters, traps, turrets, lava pools, precarious bridges, a variety of exploding things… all things that any truly good dungeon must have.  But perhaps the most striking quality of it all is in fact the dungeon structure itself.  Using something called “cyclic generation”, the game’s incredible level generator creates floor layouts that far surpass that of any roguelite I’ve played, levels which feel and look handcrafted rather than random.  These are levels with incredible, smart complexity which make the dungeon a joy (and a horrible danger) to explore.  Every area of the game feels dynamic and, most importantly, interesting.  It does this while stuffing these areas with a bewildering array of things for the player to interact with (and of course “interact with” can sometimes mean “being set on fire”), all of which complement each other well and add great depth and complexity to the game.

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However, it goes a bit further than that in the unique ways in which it uses all of the dungeon elements.  Everyone is familiar with the idea of a lock and key in games like this.  You find a locked door on a floor and that leads you to wander around until you inevitably find a key that works on the door.  A simple concept that has been forever used in games.  Unexplored takes that idea and goes in new directions with it, abstracting the concept to create unique situations that aren’t so simple yet have that same base function.  For example, one section of a floor may contain an array of gas-sprayer traps… devices which constantly release flammable gas into the air, clogging up the passage ahead with a funky pink mist.  A passage that just happens to be filled with torches, causing the entire passage to frequently blast everything in it with a huge wave of flame.  It’s clear that there’s something down this passage, but obviously you can’t simply walk through the fire.  Or can you?  Elsewhere, you just might stumble upon a Potion of Fire Immunity… giving you a timed effect that protects you from fire long enough to explore the hideous maze of fire blasts in order to reach the area you need to get to.  Or another example may be a level made of interconnected islands floating over an abyss.  Explore this, and suddenly you realize… you cant find the exit!  Where is it?  Is it walled off completely in a separate room?  Did the game glitch out?  Chances are, the exit IS walled off… yet it’s no glitch.  Looking in your inventory, you realize that the game has been handing you a couple of ropes, items that allow you to safely climb down into the abyss to reach the floor below without going splat.  After an “Aha!” moment you climb down, and on the floor below you find stairs that go back UP, allowing you to check out that closed off room… which rewards you with a powerful item for taking the time to find your way to it.   The game frequently uses this “locks and keys that aren’t actually locks and keys” system to create unique and interesting situations that make you think, and that are very satisfying to deal with.  I could go on and on about the dungeon generation and such but… what is the actual gameplay like?

When you begin your journey through that amazing labyrinth you create your one-eyed blob of a character, choosing their appearance, selecting a class and even buying supplies to take on the journey.  Once you’re actually inside you’ll find that the controls are simple yet intuitive.  WASD to move and the mouse to aim, as you’d expect, and an easy to navigate interface to help you manage your inventory of important equipment and gizmos.  This isn’t a game that’s going to bewilder you with a UI that you need tutorials to even begin to understand, nor is it a game that’s going to maul you right off the bat with a giant swarm of flying laser bees.  It starts off much more accessibly than many other such games, easing you into it with weaker foes and such.  Not that these foes aren’t still a threat… this IS a roguelike at heart, and there are a million ways to die here.  Fortunately, you have plenty of options for defending yourself.  Basic combat is fairly simple to understand; you have an active item/weapon in each hand (which also appear on your character’s sprite), and a simple click will use them.  Swing a sword, stab with a spear or fling an exploding potion. All of it is easy to do, with the controls never getting in your way.  For weapons, your character will tend to hold the weapon in front of him with the point facing towards the mouse cursor.  Any sharp weapon is capable of a very basic stabbing attack, which is done by simply walking that sharpened point into your target.  Usually though, this does less damage than an actual swing or thrust, yet performing an actual full attack puts your character at risk for a moment in which the enemy could hit you if you’re not careful.  And “careful” describes the flow of combat well.  This is not a super twitch-heavy game where you’re going to flatten 50 robot trolls in 10 seconds.  Combat here is slower, careful, more calculated.  You have to time your attacks carefully, watching the enemy’s movements, and choosing the right times to swing or use any special items like staves or potions.  It’s a long way from the sheer mindlessness of a lot of other roguelites, and much closer to the tactical feel of traditional turn-based games.

Like those old games though, there are so very many things in the dungeon that want you dead (and yes, there is perma-death here, as you might have guessed).  An incredible array of monsters await you in the dungeon, wanting nothing more than to tear apart the intruder that so rudely interrupted… whatever it is that monsters do when they’re not killing you.  Everything from basic rats or flaming hellhounds, to massive club-wielding trolls and powerful bosses, the game has a large number of things to throw at you… it really is quite the selection of enemies, and each one needs to be dealt with differently.   Taking down a giant rat is one thing but defeating an armored Orc, with a shield and spear, who is actually capable of blocking your attacks (and quite good at doing so) is a whole other ball game.  Simply waving your weapons around is often not enough. The game is handing you all of those powerful items and things for a reason, and you’re expected to USE them, not simply sit on them, in order to get past all of the challenges it throws at you.   Knowing when to fight and when to avoid fighting is also important – not all encounters are designed to be something you can beat.  It’s often better to simply run from that group of 4 huge Flesh Golems… well, unless you have, say, a Staff of Fireballs – a powerful weapon capable of producing massive (and dangerous) explosions.  Even when dealing with seemingly impossible battles, the game often still gives you tools that can help you defeat or at least bypass them, and choosing what to do with those tools is very important.  You may realize later that perhaps nuking those golems wasn’t the best idea. There was a way around them, it turns out, but instead you drained the staff of its power, which you could have used to defeat the horrible, teleporting, hyperactive wizard boss that just appeared before you.  Yet you’ve probably still got options.

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And it really does give you LOTS of options.  The game is stuffed with content even at this stage, and that includes the huge number of items and equipment that you can find to get you through the dungeon.  All sorts of equipment, consumables, special gizmos, enchanted whatsits and even crafting materials (yes, there is crafting in the game if you choose to do it) to find.  As in those roguelikes of old though, many things (potions, scrolls, staves and enchanted equipment) start out unidentified.  However, that aspect is much more manageable in this game than it was in those, and you can come up with your own strategy for dealing with it.  Sometimes your character will automatically identify an item when you pick it up.  Or maybe they’ll half identify it; you wont know exactly what type of potion you just grabbed, but you might at least know whether it’s a good one or a bad one.  And there are a variety of ways to go about finding the identity of mystery items like these.  It’s much more intuitive and approachable than this mechanic usually is in other games, and that’s a great thing.  Many games just use this mechanic in a very frustrating and arbitrary way but this one doesn’t, and the game is like that as a whole.  Every mechanic, every item or environmental object, every little thing is just stuffed with polish, and the developer’s desire to make this as great a game as it can possibly be really shows in every bit of it.  This game may be in early access but this is a heck of a lot more polished and finely tuned than so very, very many other games out there.  And, honestly, just a lot more fun, in my eyes at least.  And it just gets better with every update.  The developer is also quite active on the Steam forums for the game, and happy to help out if you run into any issues (and happy to listen to suggestions, too), and that’s always a huge plus for any game in an early access state.

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Overall, I think this is an absolutely fantastic game even in its unfinished state. it’s quite possibly my favorite of all the games I’ve grabbed over this last year.  Excellent gameplay and mechanics, absolutely incredible dungeon generation, tons of content, and loads of polish and replay value make this a game to keep an eye on.  Frequent updates just make it ever better.  There’s a great deal of potential here, and I cant wait to see where they go with it next.

Previewed by Misery

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December 2016

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