Normally, when I see the word “roguelike” in the description of a game, I tend to run the other way as fast as my little legs will carry me. It’s usually a term that means a punishing experience, with every little mistake seeing the player sent back to the beginning of the game. They provide limited appeal to me, being a filthy casual. Yet with Curse of the Dead Gods from Passtech games, I could see a glimmer of Diablo in the gameplay, turning it from something that would make all my nightmares come true, to a very interesting proposition. Although I’m not sure my ageing reflexes would see it that way, what with going up against a massive temple full of tricks, traps and deadly enemies.
First off we’ll address the way Curse of the Dead Gods looks. The action is viewed from a top-down, three quarter view, very much like Blizzard Entertainment at their finest. The creatures and the explorer we control are beautifully designed and animated. Yet it is the Temple itself which is very much the star of the game. It has a real Aztec vibe going on, with suitably creepy-looking statues dotted about, alongside the obligatory traps and pitfalls to contend with. Just a hint of a warning here, not all of the statues stay still…
The sounds are also very much up to snuff, with screeching monsters, swishing swords, and some subtle music playing under the action, helping to raise the tension as you go. The whole presentation of the game is very good indeed, and has made being stomped into the floor of the Temple time and time again almost enjoyable.
In terms of story and, well, it must be said that it won’t take long to cover this aspect – there is a Temple with some treasure, and we want it. That appears to be the long and short of it, and as motivations go it’s at least an honest one. Of course, it’s not going to be as easy as strolling in with a sack and picking up some long forgotten gold, and we find the Temple itself seeming to change every time we attempt to go into it. This makes life a lot more interesting, as when we choose to begin a run the first thing required – at least at the beginning of the game – is to choose a path to take. There are three basic routes, each of which culminates in a boss fight. Defeat these bosses, and new paths open up through the Temple, allowing you to challenge more difficult bosses as you get stronger.
Nicely, each path you choose also has a random element, with rooms that contain extra weapons, gold, relics or attribute raising items. Curse of the Dead Gods also throws in some rooms dedicated to healing, where you can raise your health at the cost of some corruption. I’ll discuss corruption in a moment, as this is the big difference between this game and others in its genre.
Weapons are the main thing you’ll need in all circumstances though and the basic weapons you have access to won’t cut the mustard for long. Luckily, as you explore, you find items that you can retain after your inevitable death(s); items like jade rings and crystal skulls which can be used to purchase better starting weapons, alongside blessings from the Dead Gods themselves, extra sets of weapons at the beginning of each run and more. In this way, the Dead Gods allows you to be stronger when you start, and that in turn should mean you can stay alive longer and gain extra rings and skulls – the gameplay loop is very rewarding.
The weapons themselves come in three varieties – main hand, off hand and two handed weapons. Main hand weapons are your melee attacks, such as hammers, swords, throwing knives and so on, and these are your main attacks. Off hand weapons are either projectile-based, like guns or bows, or up-close melee types, such as whips and shields, while the two handed weapons hit hard and usually have some elemental damage, like my personal favourite – the Sky Hammer – which deals electric damage in a wide area. However, swinging a two handed weapon uses one of the available stamina points, so they are best saved for bosses or moments of extreme danger. And moments of extreme danger are something that you’ll come across a fair old bit.
Other things that consume stamina include dodging and parrying attacks, and these are vital skills to learn. Dodging is self-explanatory, as you try to get out of the way of an attack or a trap. Perfectly dodging an attack will refill your stamina, so it’s worth trying to dodge at the last possible moment. Parrying attacks from enemies is a skill you will want to learn too; manage this and the enemy is weakened, taking more damage as you fight back. This really can be the difference between life and death. If you avoid attacking or performing any actions for a brief moment, your stamina will also refill, so sometimes just running around is a good idea.
The actual combat elements of Curse of the Dead Gods is extremely satisfying, with a real sense of heft and impact to the weapons. The monsters don’t always just attack head-on either, and you’ll need eyes in the back of your virtual head to make it through. Luckily, parries work if a Harpy, say, flies into your back, so bear that in mind.
Now to the two mechanics that make the whole thing just a little bit more challenging, the first of which is light. As you explore, you have a torch, which can be used to light other torches in the arenas. When you stand in the dark, you take extra damage from enemy attacks, and so lighting your path can help you stay alive. Obviously, being able to see what you’re hitting helps as well, so if you see a torch, you’ll want to light it. Hitting enemies with a torch can also set them alight, providing a new source of light.
The second mechanic is that of corruption, which is given to you based on actions you take. There are monsters that can hit you with attacks, causing corruption to build up, healing yourself in the Temple causes corruption to build up, and choosing to pay for weapons or artifacts with blood will raise your corruption level. In all, this just loves to rise and once your corruption reaches 100, you are given a curse the next time you exit a room (oh, and yes, just passing through a door also raises your corruption). These curses are the very definition of double-edged swords: they usually have a good side and a bad side. For instance, one curse makes gold that is lying on the floor disappear after a short time, but on the flip side there will be more gold to pick up. I’m not going to give you more details about the actual curses, as it’s good fun finding out what they do, but there is a maximum of five that can be picked up on a single run. The fifth curse is a different kettle of fish however, and will make the run much more difficult. And as the bosses at the end of each path are terribly difficult already, having these curses can make the difference between success and failure.
In all, Curse of the Dead Gods on Xbox is a game that is easy to recommend to anyone looking for a challenge. It is always hard, always difficult, and has not a shred of mercy built into it. In fact, you need to be on top of your game in order to make it to the bosses, never mind to take them down. But should you fail, you can always put your finger on why you did so. The gameplay is complemented well by the overall design; the enemies are great, the Temple looks amazing and the mechanics of the corruption and the light is very well-realised. While it won’t be to everyone’s taste, if a challenge is something you seek, Curse of the Dead Gods will provide it.