PREVIEW: Caves of Qud

Caves of Qud is an epic CRPG Roguelike full of all your blunders worth remembering in the next life to survive.

Steam: Early Access
Genre: Adventure, RPG, Strategy
Developer: Freehold Games
Publisher: Freehold Games
Release Date: Jul 15, 2015

Epic is a word that has almost lost all its original meaning from modern life. These tales were verbalized poems to remember grand characters from their heroic feats either for themselves or to preserve the values of their respective cultures. Whether these characters lived old enough to hear their stories among children or they died knowing their moment of glory was preserved by all fellow men, their actions and their lessons were carried onward to learn from their tribulations. One only need recall traditional phrases of these famous heroes to recount their legacies such as Achilles’ Heel, the Odyssey of Odysseus, and the Oedipus Complex—okay, so maybe not all Roman and Greek heroes were remembered for great achievements. What we take away from these characters and their stories are the qualities that makes us all human.

Caves of Qud (pronounced cud) is similarly an epic tapestry of its own about how all mutants and pureblood humans in some post-apocalypse magical sci-fi world will meet some unfortunate end. Instead of preserving the grandest moments of every hero you create, these stories are often learning from your own mistakes and, hopefully, avoiding the same tragic circumstances. More often, however, you may be so eager to go back into danger too soon and you’ll wind up as the last poor sod who enjoyed one too many fables of glory. In many ways, Caves of Qud is the gamification of epic storytelling through the combination of robust CRPG elements and traditional roguelike design, and if you can accept its many quirks and its sudden moments of unfairness you might enjoy the richness of its world.

So, you’re saying the farmer’s daughter is ripe for the picking, eh?

Life is Like a Bunch of Mutants; You Never Know What to Dissect!

Now given that Caves of Qud is a more roleplaying take on roguelikes, I choose instead of creating a single character to reach the end but rather playing as several characters to see how far I could get without switching off the permadeath feature. This choice was to get as close to the intended experience with my time rather than seeing all the content, which the mainline quests are not all available in this given build. To describe my first run in short, it took me a good twenty or thirty minutes without paying close attention before becoming mauled by a bear.

Does this mean I barely made it?

Death in Caves of Qud is an ever-spontaneous fire waiting to ignite at the first chance, and the whole world seems full to the brim with kerosene. Knowing how to avoid these encounters or learning the little things is vital to survive, like never hug the walls of dungeons unless you want to get crushed by vines. There are also options you can use to stay alive such as character abilities from the mutations/cybernetics such as precognition to literally turn back time before you die or the ability to rupture the space-time continuum to get enemies stuck. (Have I mentioned how bonkers is this world?) Or you can apply the tried-and-true tactic of bravely running away to live and to fight another day. Given how insanely ludicrous every build can become, especially as mutants, your end may come suddenly at lower levels just like a game of D&D from poor choice of stat allocation or from negligence because you forgot to buy some Band-Aids because your reptilian features upset the locales.

The “Disable Permadeath is somewhat hidden in the Debug Menu

Build variety and roleplaying choices are the bread-and-butter of any RPG, and Caves of Qud is no slacker in these departments. In addition to the initial option between True Kin (essentially Vault Dwellers for the sake of simplicity) and Mutants that establishes your attribute points and initial reputations, every other trait afterwards influences your own stats and/or your reputations across the world. Some of these choices are obviously advantageous for those who prefer to min-max their builds, but many options will throw players for an interesting challenge if they use their mutation points to roll the dices with another mutation or if players choose to play characters with random mutations from the start. There are literally hundreds of player traits, positive and negative, of which range from simple changes like quicker fire-rates, faster heal rates and tougher bodies to more peculiar benefits like creating spiderwebs, having multiple appendages or having thick fur to impress the other simians. Even compared to the titans of CRPGs like Fallout, Wasteland or any Infinity Engine game, no other title comes close to the absurdity of Caves of Qud.

Men can keep their thick skin; I got my thick fur!

Given this game is still within Early Access, its greatest strengths lies in how diverse and how enriching it can be to create many failures of characters to eventually thrive in its wasteland. As a means of telling the story you create each run, Caves of Qud excels more than any other Rogue title out there in making an adventure from your follies. Unfortunately, after enough restarts, the one perspective I come back to is how overly ambitious to a fault is this game given the limitations on its quest-designs, its lore and its overarching narrative, and its simplistic gameplay that is more than it pretends to be.

Imagine if History was as Permanent as a Permanent Marker

Let’s start with the gameplay, which largely borrows the same combat system as Tales of Maj’Eyel, except it stretches it out too far. Or at least the early game is structured to make the combat very stale. You essentially have a ranged attack, a throw attack, a melee attack, and your abilities, which are all on cooldown timers. Unlike Tales of Maj’Eyel where each class plays wildly differently from the start given their skills, Caves of Qud’s combat doesn’t feel as distinct. If you have a gun, bow or ranged weapon, you simply target and fire; if you have a melee weapon, you simply grind against enemies until they’re defeated, or you are. It’s not until you invest in hundreds of skill-points into a weapon class, which you usually get seventy to ninety skill points per level, can you begin to see more potential with the combat. By that point, however, you are already well-trained to utilize exploits to not really need those extra abilities, and given how the whole game is structured on combat from its quests to its XP rewards you are going to see a lot more of its duller edges.

A whole lot of text to make this enemy bigger than he is.

In another puzzling move for what the developers chose to randomize versus what they chose to stay the same, we have the quest-designs and the randomly generated history. This game heavily boasts its randomized history as a notable feature if it made the world more immersive rather than detract from its beauty. Towns on the overworld map, people, quest-givers, parameters for quests, and places are all permanent while the game’s lore, dungeons, and the names from history are randomized. The randomized dungeons are not a bad quality on its own; it’s simply odd once you realize the world map and locales have few deviations whereas the dungeons can be completely different. The bigger issues are from how the system compromises its lore; it removes any interest you could have had learning the backstory of these characters as you simply remember the non-randomized titles as that Sultan or that Reptile statue. Perhaps in a future update this randomized system will extend to quest-givers, so they are not the same people, but given how familiar the quest-designs are for every run it wouldn’t alleviate the bigger problem.

In a game that seems to push the boundaries of its roguelike roots with a bigger emphasis as an RPG, Caves of Qud can feel like a regression from modern RPGs. Mindlessly slaughtering enemies in an RPG never bothers me and in certain cases it can be cathartic, so long as there are meaningful choices to make with each character. With my experience, the quest-designs all boil down into kill and/or fetch quests where the only differences between runs is what manner of creature gives you the task. Every now and then you can get a choice to boost one reputation as well as tick off other factions, or you can respond differently to a quest-given, though often minimally. Perhaps this problem is further compounded by the fact that the only non-combat stats are survival related like healing, eating, fasting, and camping or they are based on reputations or prices between factions. Social stats would have to be implemented in order to bring any negotiation or speech-related routes to success, which depending on how they are implemented could make the game too easy. It may be only me who desires something more from roguelikes, yet with a game that so wonderfully incorporates epic poetry storytelling it doesn’t employ any mechanical means of expressing that story with your words.

The third reincarnation didn’t learn so well from the last one.

Despite my own qualms with its limitations, Caves of Qud is an exceptionally made game. With those limitations in mind, it creates a grand adventure that expands on what made the original spelunking journey so captivating with a whole world just as captivating to explore. Even if you do not tolerate the idea of permadeath, which you can turn off at any time, there’s something innately satisfying to gander across the names of your dead characters from the high score screen like paying respects at a cemetery to remember the fonder memories. It’s enough of an impetus to start another adventure to live in their glory or to die trying.


Early Access Rating of Completion/Competence:

This rating does not reflect a numerical score of the game’s quality; however, it is useful to express the state of completion throughout Early Access. Eventually, the game should reach a finished state and the scale should reach one-hundred percent completion to reflect it.

Here is a breakdown of the simple and detailed scale (1-5) into four broad categories (Content, Quality, Optimization and Productivity):

  1. A bug-filled mess with no content updated infrequently with no sign of change.
  2. A game with the beginnings of ideas, yet too soon to invest your time. Check for updates to see if things improve. (Also, without all the basic features, such as promised multiplayer modes.)
  3. A game that is in a playable state, yet may not have all its technical issues resolved. Features are all available while they may not be finalized. Games are cautious recommendations to buy, so you should check the updates.
  4. A game that is in a playable state, technically competent, and has enough content to be worthy of purchase. Features are accounted and the updates are frequent enough to not discourage cautious buyers. Updates should be with respect to the size of the development team.
  5. A game that could be considered finished. It is in the final stages of development with balancing and other last minute changes to be resolved to be fit for release.

Simple Rating: 4/5

Detailed Rating: 18/20 (90%)

Given how feature rich and reworked this game has been across three years, the only missing piece from this game is the finality to the adventure. There are so many systems, abilities, builds, and valuable content to this game that it’s hard not to be satisfied for what you get. Whether or not you like this game, this game is essentially in its final stages before completion.

Content: 4/5

If all the information previously given wasn’t enough to convince you there is enough to sate your desire, there are dozens of HUBs on the world and many varied dungeons to explore that are all randomly generated. Systems often get reworked or they are given more depth such as the recent update which provided alternative options for starting out, which include different beneficial perks and reputations with other factions. Again, it’s really the ending that keeps this game from feeling complete.

Quality: 5/5

As far as the overall presentation and quality of it, it emulates a nice throwback to retro monitors without fully embracing the alphanumeric style of the past. One important thing to note is that while the game heavily uses and encourages the keyboard commands, you can play the game mostly with a mouse, especially if you enable the Overlay UI which has other convinces such as enabling the look command with the RMB. You can also tweak various settings such as turning off permadeath.

Old UI for options and most menus

Updated UI for in-game text boxes and main menu.

Optimization: 5/5

The only other game other than Skyrim I would believe could be run on a toaster.

Productivity: 4/5

Given how timely their updates have been, averaging two or three updates per month, across three years on Early Access, Caves of Qud is certainly a project that will be complete. When that projected finish line will be is not certain given what is shared on their Early Access box, but you can imagine it will not be too long from its current state.

Editors Note: A few missing images were updated on Aug 6th, 2018.

Written by
The Schmaltzy Cynic
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July 2018

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