Anybody remember those dungeon crawlers from the eighties, the ones based on Dungeons & Dragons and made entirely in ASCII characters? Well, for those not versed in the storied history of tabletop and its transition onto the home computer, these titles were the earliest example of the roguelike. Classics like Moria, Angband, and NetHack saw an intrepid little @ symbol traverse dungeons constructed from American standard code. They were tough and they were seminal, and Scottish developer Stormcloud Games has added a dimension and crafted a love letter to this highly influential genre.
Proudly displaying the charming subtitle of 'kick some ASCII', [email protected] is a class-based dungeon crawler with procedurally generated, multi-tiered arenas in which you hack and slash your way through enemies and avoid deadly traps in the ongoing quest for loot and glory.
What's immediately evident is how much of a direct homage the game is to the original roguelike adventures. Dungeons are made up of white dots on black blocks, with elements like fire, water, and poison marked with faint characters, like the @ symbol that emblazons your shield. Corridors are lined with hash symbols, plus signs signify doors, and zooming out to the dungeon map reveals a faithful top down version of a traditional roguelike arena. It's a distinctive art style, a Tron-like aesthetic that brings to mind the retro futuristic simulation feel of the VR missions in Metal Gear Solid or the neon glow of Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.
The fan service goes further than the visuals, however. The game carries over some of the mechanics of the classic dungeon crawler as well as adding some newer elements from more modern titles. There isn't any sort of tutorial to speak of, replaced by useful snippets of information logging to the top corner of the screen. As faithful as it is to the source, this can be an early-game stumbling block, as it's never quite clear when you have enough crafting materials or potion ingredients to make some potentially life-saving creations.
The crafting itself is a fun addition that drives the need to explore the game's randomised labyrinths. ASCII scattered around the rooms and corridors act as craft materials and can be combined to create weapons using recipe books that you've picked up along the way. Some letters glow different colours to signify that they can be used to enchant existing weaponry, meaning if you want a lightning sword (and let's face it, who doesn't?) you'll need to hunt down that special character. Elemental weapons are used to counter corresponding enemy types and open special doors and chests. Later areas tend to throw specific enemies at you in groups and it becomes more important to swap between weapon types on the fly.
Outside of weapon crafting there's blind potion brewing, in which you play Russian roulette with your concoctions, the effects of which range from anything to partial blindness, invisibility, and straight up poison. There is a definite impetus to clear a dungeon when you weigh up the benefit of being properly equipped for the next layer, making and identifying the right potions as well as having the full selection of elements on your weapons – all of this can be invaluable when things get difficult.
Combat isn't complex, but there's a satisfying variation to attacks and a decent balance to the weapon set. Starting the game with bare fists, you'll unlock recipes for a bow, sword, pike, hammer, club, and axe over the course of a full dungeon run. Enchanting and weapon specific special moves – like the pike's corkscrew attack – further encourage the use of strategic combos. Potion effects can help in a pinch and drinks that have previously been identified as harmful can be used as projectiles. The classes and skill trees don't add too much variety, with only the mage starting from a more distinct position with his arcane projectile and quicker access to the games special wand weapons. The Ranger is the most balanced class for early attempts at getting through as many levels as you can without dying, because, as hinted, things do eventually get pretty tough.
Enemy selection is robust, featuring the usual collection of dungeon vermin, alongside some inspired variants. Skeleton warriors and parasitic critters plague early areas, with later levels introducing exploding berzerkers, armour-clad orcs, giant lizards, and minotaurs. Some enemies will need to be dispatched quickly, especially when you're deep into a dungeon with no health items, low armour, and you're getting pelted with arrows during an encounter with a Buxus Accutus Dentum (taken from the game's helpful field guide) – a formidable foe that will be familiar to any Dark Souls player. Permadeath and a loss of all skill tree progress is always a kick in the teeth, but It's important to note that regardless of the game's difficulty spikes in later dungeon layers, it never feels cheap. You're always given enough resources to persevere, as well as altars that reward extra lives for an indeterminate amount of loot.
[email protected] is a pick up and play title, much like the games it sets out to homage. Dungeon runs can last anything from ten minutes to a few hours and each failure teaches you something new about a particular mechanic or enemy type, so you don't make the same mistake twice. Unfortunately this hampers the game's longevity; there's only so many versions of the same configuration that you're going to encounter, and familiarity can breed contempt. This becomes particularly evident after multiple traversals of the same (invisible) walled maze, or another early appearance of an elemental door that you don't yet have the enchantment to open. Additionally, the attribute difference in player classes feels slight and the skill trees, while generous, don't feel substantial enough across the board.
There's a dungeon creator to extend the game's lifespan, however, which feels as fun and user friendly as the old Tony Hawk level creators back in the day. It's easy to sink hours into tweaking a deathtrap paradise to upload for some poor sap to run through – just don't add a walled maze. Walled mazes are stupid.
[email protected] is a fun dungeon crawler regardless of whether the historical significance of collecting letters and throwing the @ sign at goblins is lost on you. A distinctive visual style complements simple and enjoyable combat, a satisfying collection of craftable weapons, and a rewarding learning curve. Dungeon runs can get a bit samey, but a co-op mode and robust dungeon creator reward further visits.