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Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos Review

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We will be honest: we hadn’t heard of ADOM before we started playing Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos. An acronym for Ancient Domains of Mystery, it was a pioneering roguelike, released in 1994 by Thomas Biskup on AmigaOS, MS-DOS, Linux and Windows. We didn’t even know that true roguelikes could be carbon-dated back to 1994, so it’s been an eye-opening experience. Using ASCII art for its dungeon, it pushed you to explore dungeons repeatedly, in an effort to delve further than you did before. 

If you have a previous relationship with the original ADOM, then we offer some opening apologies: we’re arriving fresh, devoid of any nostalgia. You might want to make allowances for that when you consider the score.

Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos is again developed by Thomas Biskup, who’s revisiting the game that made his name. It’s received a graphical glow up (you can switch to an ASCII version, but the main version of the game looks like it was at least released in the past ten years), some added depth and a simplification for console. Plus, 10% of all proceeds are going to cancer charity International Agency for Research on Cancer, so there’s that too.

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At heart, Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos is a traditional dungeon-crawler, plugged into a roguelike. You step into a dungeon with barely any of the map revealed. So it’s baby-steps, turning corners, revealing rooms, and hoping that you don’t get immediately ganked by goblins and skeletons. The aim is to manage the power of your character, through loot and XP, while also finding the stairs that will take you further in – and the harder enemies that come with it. At some point death will come, but hopefully you will have made enough progress to dink up your faction score with a given god, accessing improvements.

The first steps in Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos are focused on creating your character. This is a roguelike of course, so they’re going to die, so don’t get too attached. You can pick from a pre-fab warrior, with stats and gear that are balanced in a way that might lead to success (the dwarf warrior did us proud more than anything we could create); a manually constructed character; or something completely random. When we died straight away, it was because we picked someone at random.

Then the dungeon run starts, and by golly is it overwhelming at first. Play the tutorial and you might get a few more clues, but you will be some way from understanding it all. Original ADOM players might find it to be like riding a bike, but we felt like we were falling off one repeatedly. It’s death by interfaces.

What is happening is that Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos is a min-maxer’s heaven. On any given square of the dungeon, you have umpteen options for what you can do. You can bring up a radial menu and choose to perform potentially dozens of actions. Chop at the cobweb next to you? Sure! Push the coffin? If that’s your jam. Coat the coffin in potion? Try it if you want, you mad lad.

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This is just one layer of bewilderment on Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos. But there are others. Understanding whether one gear piece is better than another is a conundrum, as a complicated equation makes a comparison near-impossible without an Excel spreadsheet. One might hit higher, but has a lower crit chance and accuracy. The other hits more frequently but mostly just cuddles the enemy, doing minimal damage. Which is better? Often we just equipped and hoped. 

Levelling up is the same. Spells are the same. Potions are the same. You can chop up and keep elements of your enemy’s body, if you have a sudden Bundy impulse. Everything is both present yet unclear why it’s present, which is a tincture that becomes poison for potential players. 

All we could do was bulldoze through, and some light started to stream in. The benefits of a ranged warrior become clear, as you can tear chunks out of enemies before they arrive. Runes become lifesavers, as they apply significant boosts to your best gear. The rhythm of the game begins to set in. This isn’t a game to Leroy: you need to take things tentatively, building up levels and stealthily avoiding fights you can’t win. If you want to reach the lowest levels, you will need to earn them. 

It doesn’t stop Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos occasionally gutting you when you least expect it. Just as you think you’re doing well, the dice will roll, you will step into a room and a flood of enemies will bite your face off. A status effect will dissolve your innards, and a sudden lack of provisions will turn you into a sitting duck.

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You can see why Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos has an audience. Its skill ceiling is astronomical: whatever you think about doing, you can do, and it’s absolutely possible to surf in front of the difficulty curve having found a fantastic drop before you were really meant to have that fantastic drop. 

There’s an age-old joy in pushing back the fog of war, too. Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos has an absolutely huge deck of events, enemies and obstacles that mean a quick turn around a corner will either surprise or disappoint. And exhausting a floor, knowing that you have drained it of every possible XP drop or loot, is a special kind of satisfaction.

But while the flint occasionally sparked, our interest in Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos never truly took flame. It’s certainly a hard game to love, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that we didn’t. The art is basic and lacking in anything resembling immersion (we felt like we were a sticker in a Dungeons & Dragons album), and the interfaces are so dry and joyless that we fell asleep navigating them.

The controls are alien to an Xbox controller. Cycling around the game’s menus is long-winded and made us wish we’d stumped up cash for an Xbox-compatible mouse. Within menus, particularly the game’s impenetrable equipment menu, where you will spend far too much time, the controls are even worse. Dragging the focus over to a particular sword to stuff a rune into is a chore, and we found ourselves not bothering on occasion. Which might be why we died.

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As the dungeon runs piled up, we became increasingly aware that we were playing an algorithm. There’s so little here that feels authored; everything feels like a product of chatGPT. There’s so little story, legendary equipment, significant moments or landmarks to admire. For players who like to beat a system, who like to understand its workings and then master it, that will be a dream. In our case, we feel that RPGs need a flash of story and delight. Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos is lacking in those areas. It felt like we were tuning a machine rather than playing a dungeon.

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys RPGs based on the sheer number of dials and levers that you can pull, min-maxing the systems until they break, then Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos is lovingly constructed for you. Of course, if you’re here because of a love for the original ADOM, there’s plenty here for you too.

But if you want to be transported by an RPG, or demand a dungeon-crawler with some colour, sass or story, then Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos won’t do anything for you. We fell into this latter category, hoping that Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos would try to wow us with something more than numbers going up. But numbers is all it has.

You can buy Ultimate ADOM – Caverns of Chaos from the Xbox Store

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