In case you’re wondering about the title, Stone Soup is the open-source version of Dungeon Crawl that has been in development ever since the original creator, Linley Henzell, stopped working on it over a decade ago. Some purists may balk at the idea of messing around with it, but on the whole the massive improvement in variety, challenge, and implementation of ideas of veteran roguelike players has created not only a fantastically excellent game, but a true testament to open-source game programming and community-building. Furthermore, it is far and away the best free game I’ve ever played. It makes Diablo look pretty unimaginitive and limited by comparison, and I like the Diablo games greatly. 3 was disappointing, but that’s for another time.
What is Dungeon Crawl? The name gives you a pretty good idea. You pick a race and a class and face down 25 randomly-generated dungeon levels of increasing danger and reward, with the ultimate goal to retrieve the Orb of Zot from its domain, the Realm of Zot, an additional 5 level dungeon of extreme difficulty, and return to the surface with it alive. That is to say, with you alive. This is further complicated by the necessity of three runes to enter the Realm of Zot, which are scattered throughout other sub-dungeons (called Branches in the game) of difficulty ranging from moderate to extreme.
I’ve never beaten this game, even after putting an embarrassing amount of time into it, though I’ve gotten fairly close, partly due to impulsiveness (a death sentence in a game of this difficulty) and partly because I like playing as obscure race/class combinations that are rewarding to play for me personally but have a tough time developing an end-game strategy without some significant luck. On the flip side, there are people who can beat this game many times in a row with a staggering variety of race/class combos, showing the scope of mastery ranges from infantilism to virtuosity. I’m not too worried though, one day my Halfling Enchanter or Merfolk Transmuter will stumble into the light of day with the Orb clutched desperately in hand. Until then, a beating I will continue to take.
So what makes this, in my opinion, far superior to the several other well-known and oddly more popular roguelike games of this ilk, like Nethack? The reasons are legion. First of all, the variety is nonsensically huge. You could probably play this game for a year and never repeat a single class/race combination, although that’s most likely a recipe for not getting very far. Practice and familiarity trump everything else in this game. If you don’t know that an Ogre Mage is capable of banishing you to the Abyss, for example, you will most likely have to learn the hard way the first time he successfully does so. Oops. Such an encyclopedic knowledge of the bestiary can be hard-won through experience or some time spent on the community wiki, which, while theoretically loaded with spoilers, does little more than provide you with the information you need to make intelligent choices in the game, many of which will literally be the difference between life and death. The variety of monsters is just one aspect of the plethora of procedurally generated content, which includes ridiculous amounts of treasure and equipment, magical items, spellbooks, and much more. In my mind, this game defines the word “procedurally generated.”
Furthermore the skill system is much more detailed, customizable, and fun than any other similar game I’ve played. It has undergone a number of variations and revisions but currently it is elegantly set up so that you can manually funnel experience into skills of your choosing to level them, as opposed to the old system where you had to actually sit around practicing spells to improve spellcasting skills, perhaps more realistic but a huge impediment to non-spellcasters, who risk spell-hunger-caused starvation and catastrophic miscasts when learning spells. There’s an automatic experience-funneling option for more casual or straightforward players as well. In any case, I appreciate the ability to fine-tune my characters’ abilities, like focusing on stealth for a few levels and then taking some time to work on fighting ability or necromancy. Because of this, even how you level can be in direct response to in-game pressures. It also is astoundingly flexible, perhaps more so than any other sort of multi-class system of its kind.
To add another layer of niftiness, most character races can align themselves with a god, who provides specific abilities and rewards for acts of piety as defined by that god. Layering a god over an existing race/class combo adds another staggering number of possible character variations, since gods can be used to shore up weaknesses, enhance existing abilities, or add variety depending on your need and which altars are available to you. For example, a fighter who wants to throw bolts of magic but not mess around with spellbooks or the penalty of casting in armor could worship Makhleb the Destroyer, who allows you to fling randomly typed, powerful magic blasts using Invocations skill and completely bypassing the usual spellcasting mechanics, as well as summon Demons who probably will be friendly to you. My current favorite, a relatively new god called Ashenzari, is an imprisoned god of divinations and helps you identify items and scry through walls, an invaluable aid in a game where knowledge of what’s down the hall might determine your next move in a big way. However, in order to earn piety with Ashenzari you must deliberately curse your items in tribute to his own shackled existence, which hampers your tactical flexibility considerably, since you cannot take off or change items that are cursed. In my mind, a small price to pay, though it has gotten me killed once or twice.
You cannot reload your game if you die, so some frustration is the price of entry especially for new players. You are given a score and a character breakdown on death, so in essence any improvement over a previous score can be thought of as a victory of sorts. It is NOT meant to be easy to beat, and because of the permadeath feature it ranks as one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played. Some race/class combos are meant to be kinder to beginners, and others are almost a joke without significant skill and some luck, designed more for veterans who want a REAL challenge (pause for laughter). Mere mortals like us can look forward to a dungeon crawling experience brimming with menacing monsters, fantastic treasure, intense battles, and difficult tactical decisions. If you have some patience and a love of “what’s around the next corner” type games, Dungeon Crawl will make your day. Hell, it’ll make your decade.
Graphics: 5/5 Daggers
Originally, Dungeon Crawl was and still is an ASCII game, meaning you can play it on virtually any machine because the graphics are textual. Your character is an “@”, a bat is a “b” and so on. Rating the graphics of an ASCII game is pointless, as it is self-limiting. I’m not going to be drawn into discussing the aesthetic decision of making a spellbook a “+” instead of a “|” or what have you. If you play the ASCII version, you know exactly what you’re going to get. However, I play the tile-graphics version which looks very nice with plenty of great monster art and a fully customizable avatar with thousands of possible configurations. There aren’t any animations, and all game information is still essentially textual except for a few bars for HP and MP, but again considering the low bar this game sets for computer performance and the fact that this was all developed for free by excited and talented individuals means I have little right to complain, not that I would want to. Yeah, it looks old-school. The game itself is like twenty years old in concept, so its also historically appropriate. I mean, it looks better than Hero Quest, and that’s a board game in actual physical space. You do the math.
Sound and Music: N/A
Sorry, fellows. No sound and no music in this game. Did I mention it was free? On the plus side, that means you can create your own music playlist. I’ve done everything from Renaissance music to death metal based on my mood and perceived likelihood of success. With the amount of time you’re likely to invest in this game, a varied soundtrack probably works in your favor. This is a heritage of ascii games in general, but adding sound and music would also greatly complicate things by adding to download size and possible compatibility issues. I’m not going to knock it any points since there really wouldn’t be any expectation of having sound or music for such a game.
Gameplay: 5/5 Daggers
I have to think on my feet more often playing Dungeon Crawl then virtually any other game that I’ve played. No matter how much knowledge of game mechanics, monster statistics and best practices you have stored in your brain case, a befuddling new situation will confront you just down the stairs. It defines the hack-and-slash experience and raises it up to a whole new level with a superior skill system, levels of extraordinary variety from the depths of hell to elven halls to pits of corrosive and mutagenic slime, and a punishing level of difficulty that either repels casual h8ers or turns them into lifelong fans. Dungeon Crawl has been a lesson in gameplay for me personally, and has profoundly affected the way I think about and design games in general. If I can make any game even measure up to 1/10th of the brilliance and fun of the gameplay in Dungeon Crawl, I know I’ve succeeded wildly.
RogueScore: 5/5 Daggers
Every major facet of roguelike games is in full effect; in many ways this can be taken as the standard by which all other roguelikes can be measured. Permadeath, procedural generation, character scoreboards; this is basically the game that got me thinking about all of these concepts to begin with, and illuminated just what is possible when they are artfully applied. Dungeon Crawl is half responsible for the creation of RogueWare in concept if not execution, and it would be nothing short of heresy to give it anything other than a perfect score in this regard.
Final Score: 5/5 Daggers
You’ve heard me talk up this game ad nauseam since you started reading this review, although I don’t believe anything here even approaches hype. If you can get past the high learning curve and difficulty you will find a game that has, perhaps, the greatest replayability of any game you’ve ever played. If you don’t like hack-n-slash games, try this one. Be patient with yourself and realize many missteps are inevitable. But each time you make it to a new dungeon branch or set your hands on a Rune after slaying a particularly nasty denizen, you will feel a sense of wonder and achievement that only a game this hard can give you. And if you ever make it out of that terrible place with the Orb in hand, well, my respect is yours. That’s no mere XBox achievement. That’s downright legendary.
“Xom chortles wildly! You are cast into the Abyss!”