Monday, 23 December 2013

Review - Eldritch (+ Mountains of Madness DLC) (PC)

Don't mess with the librarian!

As anyone who has played Spelunky or any other excellent roguelike (or, more accurately, games with roguelike elements) knows, death can come swiftly and without much warning. You can tread carefully though the world the game presents to you, surveying the area for danger, navigating your way around traps and hazards, scooping up every little piece of helpful loot along the way and, generally, just trying to survive, when, bam! A misstep can land you on an unseen set of spikes, or face to face with one of the most feared adversaries. Death can be sudden and unexpected, undoing all your hard work up until that point. But it is this perception of 'real' danger - the fact that death is final - that keeps you coming back to try again. When a game is a solid and enjoyable experience, randomly generated stages can be the difference between something you will play for a week, to one you will still be enjoying many months later.

Eldritch is one such title, and another new indie game that rides on the roguelike ticket - currently the genre du jour in the indie gaming circuit. Essentially, a first person stealth game set in a randomly generated, voxel world, Eldritch is more than just Spelunky from the protagonist's eye view, or another tedious Minecraft clone. Awaking in a mysterious library, you are free to explore its many corridors and floors, perusing the many books that explain the history and storyline behind Eldritch's world. But one book in particular, set on a pedestal next to two others and glowing in a magical fashion, grabs your attention. Intrigued, you pick up the tome, only to be transported into the first of three worlds. Your objective is to obtain three magic orbs, located deep in the bowels of each of these strange environments. To successfully reach these treasured items, you must work your way down through three multi-storied levels, avoiding the hideous monstrosities that lurk within as well as navigating hazards such as spikes, trip wires and murderous statues.

Borrowing heavily from H.P Lovecraft's mythology, the game has a dark and slightly disturbing vibe running throughout, which lends the game the air of a survival horror title. The sounds too, are minimalistic and slightly unhinged, adding immeasurably to the tense and foreboding atmosphere the game expertly crafts. Each world has a different setting, from the grimey dungeons of the first, the strange temple style architecture of the second, or, well, I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise. The bestiary of foul, yet oddly cute, creatures standing between you and the precious orbs include lizard men, floating eyeballs, crazed cultists and angry insects, all intent on murdering you as soon as they become aware of your presence. You will genuinely come to fear running into one of eerie, and invincible, Slenderman-like creatures, or arousing the interest of one of the possessed lizard statues that can appear next to you in an instant, often causing you to physically jump or shout out in surprise (or maybe that's just me). 

The twin brother team who produced Eldritch have had previous input into games such as Bioshock and Borderlands, and this is reflected in the quality of Eldritch's gameplay, with smooth and tight player movement that immediately brings to mind the excellent stealth FPS, Dishonored. Indeed, stealth is your friend in Eldritch, and you will soon learn that creeping carefully around in a crouched position (making you harder to spot) is the way to go. The slower movement of this crouched position also makes spotting crumbling floors and trip wires far easier, and gives you the chance to avoid them or in the case of the wires, disarm them. You begin with only your fists for defence, but will soon find stones and bottles that can be hurled at enemies. Much more effective are the knife and the pistol, though ammo for this is very scarce, often leading to you hurling your spent weapon at the foe you were firing at.

While you only start with three hit points - with some hazards or attacks taking more than one heart away - there are fruits and hunks of meat dotted around that give you a health boost, though the game throws a spanner in the works by having some visibly rotten food items that can either restore or deplete your health, making their use a risky business. There are also magic shrines which grant you a special magic power such as teleportation, super high jumping, or the ability to unlock doors which would otherwise require one of the keys that you may stumble across. You may also be fortunate enough to locate the shop - guarded by an easily angered shopkeep with a hatred of shoplifting - which will sell you such useful items as a compass, which gives you a handy marker for where the exit is located, stealth and jumping boots (self explanatory), keys, weapons, health, and even an amulet that allows you to shoot holes in the destructible environment. This leads me to one of the best items, as well as my favourite gameplay mechanic. Dynamite. Yep, these explosive sticks of fun can blow holes in any surface. Haven't got a key for that door? Then blow up the damn thing. Can't find a pathway to the exit, or just lost? Then blow up the floor and step on down. There is no guarantee that it will lead you to safety, but it sure is satisfying and really feels as though you are free to explore the world on your own terms.

Eldritch is incredibly immersive, with an intensely absorbing atmosphere created by a combination of the strange and wonderful worlds, bizarre creatures, spooky sounds, and sense of wonder and exploration. The randomly generated levels are always exciting to explore, with a sense of danger and tension that put many so-called 'horror' games to shame. Despite the fact that, to beat the game, you need to complete all three worlds (plus a surprise) in one life - no mean feat I can assure you - Eldritch never feels frustrating. When you die, it always feels down to your own carelessness, whether you tried to rush past a dangerous area, or didn't look before you lept down one of the paths downwards. It is this sense of fairness, alongside the incredibly addictive nature of the gameplay itself, that keeps you returning again and again. For the hardcore out there, there is even a Game+ mode which is opened upon completion of the main game. This expert mode features far less useful items laying around the stages, making progress a much harder affair, and adds a far greater emphasis on stealth and survival. Indeed, the compass no longer appears at the beginning of the first world, meaning you have to truly explore each stage to find the trapdoor down to the next floor.

As if the main Eldritch game weren't enough, the developers have also released some brand new (19th December) and completely free DLC. Mountains of Madness adds a huge snow world filled with killer penguins, hideous plant like monstrosities, and some familiar faces such as the cultists and flying eyeball thingies. Emperor penguins are an odd choice of foe, and I always feel guilty about attacking them, preferring to avoid them instead - I even go as far as to run to their aid should another demonic monster start attacking them. This creepy, inhospitable ice world also includes a sneaky new trap to watch out for, as well as some fantastic new items. The pick axe allows you to chip your way through walls and floors - until it breaks from overuse - the axe allows you to go all Jack Nicholson in The Shining, by hacking through doors, and the grappling gun enables you to fire climbable ropes in order to clamber up to higher places. It's a fantastic new addition to the other worlds, and is far more difficult, with a whopping ten floors to navigate. It adds even greater longevity to an already substantial game, and is perfect for those of you who have beaten the main game and are desperate for more content. Here's hoping the developers continue to produce further DLC for this addictive and highly enjoyable game.

It is no exaggeration when I put Eldritch forward as one of the best games of 2013. It is a game that has immersed and hooked me like no other and, thanks to its randomly generated levels, will be one I will be returning to again and again well into 2014. I cannot recommend it highly enough, so do yourself a huge favour and purchase it today!

*  Eldritch is currently part of a sale on Steam, so click here and buy it immediately! * 

Title : Eldritch
Developer : Minor Key Games
Year : 2013
System : PC
Price : £9.99