Version tested: PC
Brutal, sneaky, and faintly inhuman, it's surprising how comforting a really good roguelike can be. Losing yourself in a procedural maze of loot and monsters and incessant violence increasingly seems like spending the evening with an old friend - albeit an old friend that often backs you into corners and kills you without a moment's notice. We've all got a few friends like that, right?
Dungeons of Dredmor even looks like an old friend. This is NetHack with an early-nineties LucasArts presentation slapped on top: gangly, squelchily-animated characters, a lead who appears to be Guybrush Threepwood by way of Stan Sitwell, silly names for the potions and armour that includes traffic cones and starched shirts alongside gleaming chest plates and greaves (a standard fantasy shin-guard word that I really must look up one of these days). One of the skills you can pick at the start of the game even pushes you into battle with a Fedora equipped, bringing back all the right memories of the Fate of Atlantis. It's wonderfully inviting stuff.
If you know your way around this bitterly lovable genre, you'll be instantly at home. Gaslamp's game is all about whacking monsters, picking up treasure and inching your way from floor to floor as you seek to take down Lord Dredmor, who's done something terrible that I keep clicking past too quickly each time I start the game over.
That said, even seasoned travellers might find it wise to poke their way through the pithy little tutorial; although Dredmor feels pretty compact to play, it's been fearlessly inclusive in its approach to mechanics. Side-quests, skill trees, ranged combat, traps and even a comprehensive crafting system: everything gets a look-in, while your character sheet is filled - perhaps too full - with dozens of tiny numbers to watch steadily ticking upwards as you ramble deeper into the game.
There are some lovely systems in place here. Instead of character classes, you pick a starting load-out of seven skills from a collection of 34 (I counted). While you can read through all the little descriptions, for your first few play-throughs it's probably worth just pressing the random button and seeing what you end up with.
Alongside standards like boosts for each particular weapon class, you can use vampirism to change the way you regain health, opt in and out of various magic abilities - a typical example is Viking Wizardry - and improve your chances with burglary, critical hits, and handling fungus. It makes for a system with great tactical depth and replayability: heading back into the dungeon with a different build can lead to an adventure that feels nothing like the last one - and that's before you start augmenting your character as you level up.
Exploration and combat are both kept simple. Movement through the game's procedurally-generated mazes is turn-based, so you make your choices and then the dungeon follows suit, while dealing out damage sees you switching between a standard attack with equipped weapons and whatever you've got mapped to your right mouse click. This could be a skill attack, a thrown weapon like a knife or bolo, a bolt from your crossbow, or even a potion or mushroom or piece of cheese (Dredmor's dungeons are overflowing with cheese).
It's very easy to swap items in and out of your second slot, while there's a pleasant tactical element to combat as enemies crowd around you, attacking en masse. If you're smart, in other words, you'll spend a lot of time fighting in narrow corridors with a weather eye on your back.
Enemies, meanwhile, are both brutal and ridiculous, ranging from floating genies to scissor-handed robots and rotting vegetables. If you're after that one special game that allows you to murder the Loch Ness Monster with a baseball, good news: you've found it, and while Dredmor will kill you easily and kill you often - odds are unfairly tilted in the dungeon's favour, as they should be in any good roguelike - much of the motivation to head back into the slaughter comes not from the loot you'll pick up but from the new weirdoes you might get to smack over the head with it. Now and then, in fact, you'll open a door and find yourself facing off against something the game calls a Monster Zoo: a room stacked full of giggling, high-colour death dealers. In such cases, I suggest you shut the door again.
Loot, meanwhile, is varied and imaginative, but since you can't see it on your character once you've equipped it, its charms are almost exclusively restricted to the numbers that come attached to it. There's nothing wrong with Gaslamp's handling of these numbers, incidentally - although they're split across an array of amusingly distinct attributes, which can make them slightly hard to get to grips with at first - but, while I'm complaining, it would be nice to see an update that made comparing what you've currently got equipped to what you're thinking of equipping a little easier. (Also a font size increase would be nice, as I'm old.)
These are tiny issues, however, when balanced against the complexity of what Gaslamp has created and the compact space it's fitted it all into. From the procedural gobbledegook of your character epitaphs and goon chatter to achievements that come littered with references to Indiana Jones and Kubrick, this is feelgood RPG gaming at its most authentic. It's mean-spirited, dizzyingly deep, and snarkily nostalgic all at once - and those are just the skills and attributes I look for in a roguelike.
8 / 10