I had wandered Qud’s salty deserts and radioactive meadows for days when I saw him: Oyoaku the Colorful, legendary albino ape. Splendidly dressed in his patchwork jacket and leafy helm, he was surrounded by a gang of surly primates – I knew I wouldn’t survive the fight.
But stepping forward to accept my simian beatdown, I was saved by a miracle of the random number generator. Somehow, these were friendly apes. But that didn’t save me from Oyoaku’s forked tongue:
“Ooo! Eeee! My friend, you could learn a thing about dressing yourself.”
I couldn’t believe it. Rather than ripping me up like a tissue, the gentle giant just wanted to critique my outfit. And this experience, more than any other, sums up my time in the strange world of Caves of Qud, by Freehold Games.
The game is a roguelike RPG set in a far-future desert of metallic sand and rusted skyscrapers, perched atop the ruins of countless advanced civilisations. But despite being set in the ashes of the past, Qud is vibrantly alive.
poetic and psychedelic, it’s a delight for fans of weird sci-fi
The game is most certainly a traditional roguelike in the vein of ADOM, with an open world to explore and a ton of dungeon-crawling. But it’s also a rich and humane world, where exploration and discovery are just as important as bashing mutated daisies.
The game’s writing is beautiful throughout; poetic and psychedelic, it’s a delight for fans of weird sci-fi. Even the most basic enemies have evocative, hand-crafted biographies, and many of the friendly NPCs – whatever their species – have something interesting to say.
There are sentient plants, dandified apes and human-ish characters of every description to meet, all drawn from a dizzying range of backgrounds, cultures and religions.
Beyond the handcrafted detail, there’s a wealth of procedurally generated lore and history, unique to each game run. From the quirky to the downright bizarre, strange vignettes and myths bring Qud’s ancient history to life.
The tileset doesn’t stray too far from the game’s ASCII origins, but artful splashes of colour and animation bring things to life. But for me, the artistic highlight is the soundtrack: a haunting chorus of spacey tones, tenderly plucked notes and ocean-deep bass. It really does sound like something from Qud’s own culture: metallic, mystical and strange. I could listen to it all day.
But on top of its incredible atmosphere, when it comes to gameplay, Caves of Qud is also a traditional roguelike. That means a steep learning curve, intricate turn-based combat and as many keybindings as there are keys on your keyboard.
You’ll spend a lot of time crawling through the titular caves, levelling up and collecting gear – and even experienced RPG players may take a while to get used to the turn-based roguelike style. But like the best games of the genre, Qud is packed with detailed, interlocking systems and mechanics that make it well worth the effort.
Items, scenery and characters (or parts of them) can be destroyed or transformed in all sorts of surprising ways, intentionally or not. Psychic powers and high-tech artefacts can rip holes through the world, start vast fires or cause alarming mutations.
There are skills, mutations and abilities to support even the weirdest character builds. Want to be a tortoise-shelled mutant, physically weak but shooting lasers from your eyes? Qud says “why not?” – and gives you a scorpion tail for good measure.
But instead, you might focus on tinkering, dismantling Qud’s strange technologies to build something even stranger. Or you might be a psychic, dominating the minds of your enemies and rewinding time. As a melee specialist, you could focus on strength or agility, in one of the many branching skill trees. There’s an intricate reputation system for all the game’s factions and species. There’s even cooking!
The result is an ever-surprising mixture of odd situations and emergent gameplay. When it all comes together in a skin-of-your-teeth encounter – with a fearsome ape who hates your jacket, for example – it’s nothing short of astounding.
Personally, I’ve fallen in love with Caves of Qud. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the greatest modern roguelike, and for fans of the genre it’s a must-have.
But really, it deserves a wider audience. What I’d love to see, as it continues its journey through Early Access, is a few more tweaks to the UI. With a bit more polish, and it could even reach true mainstream(ish!) accessibility.
I really hope it does: this one’s just too good to be kept to the roguelike hardcore.