Well, at least it looks pretty.
Developer: Stormcloud Games
Publisher: Rising Star Games
Format: PC (Reviewed), PS4
Released: February 9, 2017 (PC Release)
From the get-go, it’s clear that Brut@l focuses on style over substance. Originally released last year on PS4 by Stormcloud Games, Brut@l has come to PC, bringing a modern reimaging of classic ASCII dungeon crawlers that started the Rougelike genre by constructing every object in the procedurally generated dungeon with 3D ASCII objects, from simple objects like keys to its more complex character models. By doing this, Brut@l attempts to create a unique and charming art style that pays homage to the genre’s roots, but also mixing in enough modern gameplay elements to make it feel like its own adventure.
Unfortunately, while it definitely succeeds in delivering an art style that I can best describe as “retro-tastic”, its more interesting mechanics are ultimately let down by its core gameplay.
The story of Brut@l is incredibly simple, primarily because there isn’t one. But, just like classic ASCII adventures, your goal isn’t that hard to figure out: reach the twenty-sixth floor of a death-trap filled dungeon, beat the big bad, and try not to die. You play as one of the game’s four character classes, each with their own starting skills and weapon knowledge: The Warrior for those who like to hit stuff; The Ranger for those who like to shoot stuff; The Amazon for those who like to hit stuff, but with girl power; and The Mage, for those who really fucking hate themselves.
Being a long-time fan of rougelikes and dungeon crawlers, I came into Brut@l knowing what to expect out of the general gameplay. Each floor of the dungeon will have you carefully navigating your way through its enemies and traps in order to reach that floor’s exit. When you’re not fighting, you’re encouraged to look for any useful loot to add to your arsenal, as well as necessary health items to keep your HP nice and full. And, of course, screwing up too much leads to a painful, yet inevitable death that wipes any progress you made from your save file.
That being said, there was one aspect of Brut@l’s gameplay that I definitely wasn’t expecting to see: novel and surprisingly fun crafting mechanics.
Every time you venture into a new dungeon, your character starts off with only their fists and an unlit torch to use as weapons. Rather than picking up weapons from enemy drops or treasure chests, Brut@l requires you to craft them instead by using ASCII letters that can be found throughout each level. But in order to use those letters to make a weapon, you’ll first need to find a weapon blueprint somewhere in the dungeon, which will tell you what ASCII letters are needed to craft that specific weapon. Once you have the right letters, all you need to do is sit back and watch those letters morph into a brand new weapon, like a spiked club made out of pointy Ts. You can even imbue them with various types elemental damage using coloured “enchanted” ASCII letters, but since doing this only inflicts an incredibly small amount of extra damage, I personally never found myself doing it more than a few times.
You’re also able to craft various kinds of potions using ingredients found from enemy drops and random loot. As long as you have an empty bottle on hand, you can use these ingredients to create different coloured potions, each with their own status effects which can either be used on yourself or thrown at an enemy. In a surprising twist, however, each time you restart the dungeon, the potion effects will randomise, meaning that you’ll need to experiment with each colour of potion all over again to see what they do. This was probably my favourite part of restarting a dungeon, as it can potentially lead to some interesting gambles. You could try a potion out on yourself and get a protective shield, or you could throw a potion at an enemy and accidentally make them turn invisible. It definitely adds a much needed hint of fun to the rather mundane core gameplay.
Besides exploration and crafting, the only other thing that Brut@l has to offer is its combat, and that wears old incredibly quickly. With one button to attack, one to block, and one to dodge, there doesn’t seem to be very much to it beyond “mash attack until you win”. You do have the ability to throw your shield ala Captain America, but without any way to lock on to objects and enemies, you’ll almost always find yourself missing your intended target completely. In fact, it’s due to this lack of an ability to lock onto enemies that I just gave up on trying to use any long-range weapons, instead sticking to my ultimate strategy of “get behind every enemy and slap them on the ass until they die”.
Even levelling up your character doesn’t feel as satisfying as it should. As expected in any action RPG, killing enemies and destroying objects will reward you with experience points, granting a level up when you reach a required amount. Levelling up doesn’t affect your character’s stats like health or strength directly. Instead, you’ll be granted a skill point to use on the skill tree. Unfortunately, the skill tree has very little to offer in terms of improving your character. You’ll most likely end up sinking the skill points you earn into random slots simply because you feel like you should, rather than because you want to. At best, the skill tree boasts a few health/mana increases, unlocking access to weapons you couldn’t use before, and the ability to use the same kind of area of effect special move, just on a different weapon type.
Really, the best way that I can describe Brut@l’s skill tree is “one size fits all”. While each character starts off with a specific set of skills unlocked, they all have access to the same skill tree. Which means that, after only a few skill points, you’ll barely notice any gameplay differences between the Warrior and the Mage, making the whole point of picking a starting character completely redundant after barely thirty minutes of gameplay.
In the end, my time with Brut@l was rather short, probably only taking up six to seven hours. But this wasn’t because I managed to finish the game. Despite having some really cool crafting mechanics and charming graphics, I just didn’t have the patience to stick with the mundane and at times redundant core gameplay. I really wanted to love Brut@l, but without a better combat system or deeper character building, I can’t bring myself to recommend it to anyone but diehard rougelike fans.
A “meh” experience wrapped in a eye-catching art style.