H.P. Lovecraft-inspired horrors haven’t begun to feel as clichéd as zombies yet, but it’s getting close. That’s why I appreciate Eldritch taking an approach that most other Lovecraft imitators do not: it shuts up for like five seconds to let the world speak.
Eldritch is haunting and filled with dread, a first person stealth game in a randomly generated world where death is permanent. Yet Eldritch’s world is made up of blocky Minecraft-esque polygons that are not easy to make scary. Screenshots of the game almost make it look cute, but there is something certainly feels off about the worlds that are grey, misty and painted in dull sickly colors. Yes, Eldritch is scary—not just due to of the ever-present stress of permadeath, though that fear is unignorable—but because of the game’s sound design. There is haunting ambient background music played on an electric guitar that, even though it sounds nothing like Akira Yamaoka, reminds me of Silent Hill, the last time I felt this pleasantly unsettled by a horror game. The monsters growl in a cacophony that lets you know that they’re near but obscures exactly where they are. The sound of running water signals that a health power-up is close by, cuing your desperate hope that no creature will cruelly surprise you before you can reach it.
This is the second roguelike I’m reviewing in as many months (the first being The Guided Fate Paradox), and I could not be happier about that. Roguelikes are quite popular in the indie scene at the moment, to the point where I expect people to start saying, “gosh, this fad is getting old, I am rolling my eyes.” People will say “fad” because they are trying to be snooty and make you think that roguelikes are on the same level as pogs. Let me tell you: roguelikes are the opposite of pogs.
In a roguelike, you die when you die, and there is no saving or otherwise retaining progress. The levels are randomly generated anew each time. Those aren’t the only salient features of a roguelike, but they are the most important ones, and while this seems dangerous and scary—one wrong move means you lose everything—it’s actually quite freeing to look at your character like one of those sand mandalas made by Tibetan monks that will be destroyed the next morning. Rather than steadily build a character over the course of a 20+ hour adventure, you can experience the same thing in less than two, which means that you can to try a whole lot more ways to play the game than “one” for games like Dishonored that, no matter how good they are, I simply don’t have the energy to replay.
Eldritch in particular has fulfilled my wish for a roguelike version of Dishonored that I can play through in two hours whenever I feel like it and have it be totally different each time (a concept I once described on my blog as the most perfect game I could possibly envision). Eldritch is not perfect, and at the time of launch it still fairly bare-bones, but it is tense, spooky, and has infinitely different and fun ways to stab little cultists in the back.
Eldritch provides a shorter, simpler, faster game of sneaking around, stabbing and using magic powers, where you can try out a build in less than an hour. As stated, the builds are randomized, impromptu, and based on what you find lying on the ground. The game basically forces you to try builds you might not have picked yourself, which encourages you to discover new ways of playing. Combined with the randomized environments and variety of enemies, there are countless, organically arising situations through which to test your skills at the game and your choice of weapons and abilities.
The enemy design in worlds two and three is excellent, though the first world is a bit basic, aside from the fantastic final level in which invincible, hideous, huge blobs unrelentingly pursue the protagonist with a grotesque, slimy, squicky sound. The second world has tougher, smarter enemies and statues that attack when you turn your back on them, most likely inspired by the monsters in that one episode of Doctor Who my friends made me watch. World three has small(er) Cthulhu-like creatures that are ridiculously strong, as well as bizarre floating blobs of eyes and mouths that fire off relentless, obnoxious screams along with dozens of equally relentless and obnoxious fireballs.
These enemies are grand, and there are great tools for dealing with them, though this is also an area in which Eldritch could stand to be less lean. Sneaking and punching enemies (or stabbing, if you pick up a knife) is possible, as is using the gun and the surprisingly powerful rock, but this is mostly it in terms of weapons, aside from the one-use bottle, the dynamite (which is less of a weapon and more of aggressive key), and the incredibly rare tripwire gun. You can only hold two weapons at a time, which limits your build, and like Spelunky, having a free hand is sometimes more valuable than a weapon. The weapon options do start to feel limited, though as I said, the enemy design helps to make up for it.
Eldritch’s implementation of magic, though, is pretty much perfect as it is with every power (and you can only have one at a time); magic has all sorts of imaginative uses, like being able to place blocks anywhere, becoming invisible or being able to unlock doors and make distracting noises. Passive powers granted by equipment that allow for the destruction of blocks with the gun or which prevent your footsteps from making noise also offer dramatically different possibilities for building characters and maneuvering through the dungeon. Perhaps its the game’s overabundance of knives and guns and the difficulty of finding anything else that makes the core tools feel much less exciting than the magic or equipment. It’s important for the main tools to feel fun and versatile as well, I think.
Of course, this game is still in development and for the reasons listed above—as an inherent property of its roguelike design—it’s possible to find countless ways to enjoy Eldritch. Even with a fairly small selection of player actions and enemies, the ways in which environment, player and enemy collide feel wonderful, thrilling, tense, scary and fun.
Aevee Bee is freelance writer who maintains a surreal video game terror blog at MammonMachine and a twitter account, @mammonmachine, which is both a popular resource for anime puns and flirtation advice.
Eldritch was developed and published by Minor Key Games. It is available for the PC.