The fastest way to turn me off a game this past year has been to say It’s like Minecraft but-. Don’t care what it is, don’t care how much you like it, just as a rule, games that advertise themselves by their resemblance to another game I like are barking up the wrong tree. In the same way, telling me that a game draws on a mythos I care about is usually asking that game to be judged more harshly – like, say, The Prince of Persia 2008, where its proximity to the previous games made me judge it more harshly. Also, some genres are just red flags, blatant signs that the people involved don’t quite understand how to handle a genre well, like roguelike or survival horror.
We’re going to talk about a game that looks a bit like Minecraft and that draws upon the mythos of HP Lovecraft, and it’s a survival horror roguelike.
It’s also pretty dang good.
Ia, Ia, Public Domain Ftaghn!
Lovecraft’s work has been core flavour to… well, let’s charitably say lots of modern media. I’d like to say that this is because the work is widely popular, but really, I think it’s much more about how the man’s creative work is in public domain and nobody fought to prevent that from happening. It’s one of the few, rare instances of a large, influential canon, that led to the creative efforts of later writers, that isn’t currently being held in the fist of a corporate dictator. This means there’s a huge quantity of Lovecraft-inspired work that’s out in the world, and that’s inspiring other people to create and so on.
Problem is, this means that there’s an enormous amount of Lovecraftian work – or work that is called Lovecraftian – that has basically nothing but an aesthetic in common. There’s a lot of badly spelled words and creepy monsters, but not much understanding of what underpins the Lovecraft mythos. People like these things, but they don’t read them.
I was surprised, then, to find that Eldritch defied these expectations. It’s a game which shows an understanding of Lovecraft’s work, but also uses Lovecraftian elements as part of the gameplay.
Disempowered, Not Powerless
Something people get wrong when they’re dealing with Lovecraft in games – especially other games like Betrayal at the House on The Hill and Arkham Horror, – is that while the games are built around feelings of helplessness, it’s not the same as the disempowerment that permeates Eldritch.
It’s easy for a game to just straight up wreck you. That’s easy. Games determine all the rules, after all, they can just make bad stuff happen. What Eldritch does that I found remarkable is make me feel weak while still making me feel like I was progressing.
Don’t get me wrong, you can, as with many videogames, get better at it. What’s strange though is how much of that improvement is snatched away; how easily you can lose progress, how utterly the game can crush you, with a procedurally generated room that lacks any mercy. But then you’ll struggle through a sequence and feel very happy with yourself at having avoided the pitfalls you died to learn about, only to arrive with a crash back in the main library, dead as peat thanks to a statue you didn’t notice.
The game plays by rules, but the only way to learn those rules is to die; and death is far less gentle than it could be. You will have to, in one life, quest to the bottom of three dungeons, one of which is incredibly hard because of things like teleporting statues. The difficulty curve leaps up and down at times; some dungeons you’ll find three sticks of dynamite in related rooms and whoosh, you’re down to the bottom of the dungeon in no time. In some, you’ll have to work out a literal maze, where ascent and descent are important parts of the search.
I’m reluctant to explain too much about the game mechanics – suffice to say, they’re deeper than they seem at first, and full of nice tricks that let you feel clever even while you’re struggling to survive. The reason for this secrecy is because, well, the game is deliberately poorly documented. It wants you to explore it, and discover its secrets and tricks.
The Replaying of Tamun Shud
I think one of the best hallmarks of games like these – with Luftrausers being the last similar experience – is that I put off writing the review for a long time because I kept playing the game. Eldritch has plenty of replay value, and failing at it as much as I did was an interesting experience. Unlike Rogue Legacy, where the feeling was of a game with uneven difficulty curves, the flavour of Eldritch made me feel helpless, disoriented, it made me feel like this was expected, considering.
I think the best thing about Eldritch is all these little touches in the play experience. The way the game explains little and gives you room to experiment on your own. I didn’t imagine I’d play a game that had options to throw beer bottles at bad guys, or stealth mechanics that mesh well with the creeping feeling of powerlessness. I certainly wasn’t expecting the way the voxel graphics, with their deliberately off-kilter bad-math edges create this twisted feeling that you can’t even look in a straight line.
I like Eldritch, and I keep playing Eldritch, but it’s very hard for me to put my finger on any single, comprehensive reason I do. I certainly don’t feel like I’m improving much; I feel I’m much more likely to just find a new, interesting way to mess up, to learn something I did not previously know, and as a result, die.
I think that’s very Lovecraftian.
Buy it if:
- You want a cheap roguelike first-person game with a lot of replay.
- You like procedurally generated content and its occasional unfairness.
- You want to play a game where you’re a woman or person of colour.
Avoid it if:
- You want a fair Roguelike, with degrees of mastery.
- You find odd angles and textures disorienting.
- You hate having to swap from stealth to sprinting quickly.