I wanted to take things easy for this week’s review. I kinda wanted to play another RPG to solidify myself as that one person that plays indie RPGs, but well, I’ll be playing a bunch of short ones soon in the near future.
So I figured I should do something else and checked out DemonCrawl, by Therefore Games. A friend of mine played a bunch of it and the Steam sale was going on at the time, so hey, why not?
DemonCrawl is basically Minesweeper with a whole bunch of roguelike elements shoved in. If you somehow don’t know what Minesweeper is, it was a free puzzle game that came out with most computer. Well, I guess not anymore, since typing that into the Windows search bar now has the goddamn nerve to give me a web search as if I asked for one.
Minesweeper presents you with a grid of tiles. Click on a tile and it opens it up, with the possibility of opening a bunch of adjacent empty spaces. Spaces with a number on them indicate how many mines are near that particular space and clicking on a mine is an automatic loss. Your goal is to click through every non-mine space on the board.
Then, DemonCrawl comes along to add a bunch of RPG and roguelike elements onto it. Mines are now enemies and you have a health and defense stat, meaning that – especially early on – accidentally clicking on enemies isn’t an immediate loss. You can collect and buy equipment to bolster your defenses, and you can find passive items to influence your play or use active ones to turn the tide in your favor.
Sometimes you’ll find strangers within a board. The bubble boy blows bubbles all around, and anything that gets bubbled up can get carried across stages. This is insanely practical if you have a mercenary running around, which is an NPC you can pay to go around solving cells and killing the monsters in them.
Going into the game, you can choose a mastery to influence things. The starting one gives you a revive if you score enough points before death, while there’s stuff like barbarian that lets you murder strangers on sight if you can’t afford their services. To unlock more masteries and improve existing ones, you have to accomplish goals in the game. And to be honest, accomplishing a lot of them feels pretty luck based. For instance, the spy mastery is handy in that it shows off the number in some unopened tiles, but to get it you’re gonna have to luck into getting an item that lets you do that.
So, let’s talk about randomization. All roguelikes rely on a bit of randomization, but I truly think DemonCrawl’s RNG is too fucking random, with very little consideration for your current place in the game. I’ve frequently had healing doctors spawn in the first stage, when you wouldn’t need one or have the money to pay one, while they very rarely showed up in the late game when I actually needed them. I’ve had a few runs where barely any money spawned at all, making shops useless. Sometimes equipment was completely non-existent, with no drops, armor shops or blacksmitch strangers running around to help supply that.
And oh god, the items. There’s a bunch of useful items, but good luck getting synergies with the more situational ones because that shit’s never going to spawn. Cool, the Neoplasm adds mutations to my cankers. How do I get cankers? What does any of that mean? Beats me, dude. Hell, you’ll probably have no idea what cankers even are because this game just throws everything at you with no progression beyond bigger grids and stronger enemies. You will get overwhelmed by all these mechanics, especially with the enormous item pool.
It really does feel that victory could come from luck of the draw. You could get a good combination of items. You could get unlucky with chests and get a bunch of omen items, these negative passive items that screw you over in many ways. I once got omens from two chests in a row. It’s obscene.
Now, you can actually tilt the luck in your favor. You can buy “favored slots” with the in-game currency (more on that later) that lets you choose which items you want a higher probability of showing up – or lower the probability if you think it sucks. It’s a neat design decision! There is also still hundreds of items in the game, so your chances of getting shit is still pretty low.
To put some things into perspective, one of my wins was from an insane stroke of luck. I got a Friendly Mimic, which essentially turned chests into mercenaries. Then, I got Occultic Pendant, which turned any monster revealed into a stranger – which applied to monsters the mimics revealed. With this, I frequently got mercenaries to work alongside the chests and my last boards snowballed into an easy victory.
It was fun at that moment! But, it really made me feel that luck is the main deciding factor.
But then I remembered: this is Minesweeper.
Minesweeper is already somewhat of a luck based game. Everything gets randomized the moment you make your first move, and no matter how good you are, it may inevitably come down to having to make a lucky guess. Human error is a problem, yes, but unless you’re playing on easy mode that makes boards less likely to force you to guess, luck remains a factor.
DemonCrawl’s Classic mode highlights this because the mode really is just normal Minesweeper. In checking out the Classic mode… I realized that even with all the random additions, the normal experience is actually more merciful to you.
Yes, the game throws some bullshit omens at you, but also, you’re given an edge that normal Minesweeper can never give you. Minesweeper would never give you a stock of mercenaries to run around to automatically clear tiles and monsters for you, even if it takes a bit of luck to make that a more reliable thing. And yeah, enemies in the late game hit hard enough to act as a one-hit kill like a normal Minesweeper game, but you could actually increase your defenses to withstand that – with a heavy emphasis on “could.”
Like, think of it this way. If you approach the game as a roguelike, it’s kinda bullshit. But if you approach the game as a version of Minesweeper, it’s still kinda ridiculous, but in that mess of items and mechanics, you could rise above in interesting ways. As such, I still wound up having fun with the game.
Now, while the core experience is enjoyable, DemonCrawl is wrapped up in stuff that I don’t personally like. It’s got a progression system that reminds me of all the shit I hate in games nowadays. It gives me the same energy as Windows search giving me web searches.
Every session gives you experience points! Leveling up gets you tokens! You can use those tokens to buy new masteries and cool new items for the already bloated item pool! Here’s some daily missions to do that could net you more rewards! Hell yeah baby, no longer are you playing Minesweeper to pass the time or to accomplish meaningful goals, you gotta have a checklist of things to aim for, chasing small objectives over an empty feeling horizon forever!
It doesn’t make the game less enjoyable per se, but it kinda shows a lack of confidence, to me. This constant dangling of small things to achieve, these systems that encourage you to keep playing after just one game, it feels like DemonCrawl doesn’t think its core game can stand on its own.
Plus, I just hate this. I play things for the good vibes and this method of gamification just gives the worst vibrations. Made in a lab type shit.
Well, one last thing to mention is that the game somehow has a multiplayer mode… which actually works within the mechanics of DemonCrawl. Players are made to solve a board from a random player, and in-between rounds, players can buy upgrades that can make their board more dangerous.
You can manually solve boards, or you can play a version of the game where the computer automatically picks through the board for you so you can just focus on using items and managing your resources. It sounds cheap, but, much like you, the computer will eventually be forced to make guesses, so the computer is actually pretty fair. That said, the AI does not account for burning tiles and will gladly click on them instead of talking an alternative path; if you could create fires on your land, congratulations, you’re going to win.
I genuinely think DemonCrawl’s multiplayer is fun despite that. Though, what’s less fun is that there’s DLC for it. While most of it is cosmetic, you can also buy the ability to have additional choices for masteries and lands at the start of the game. While not exactly game breaking, buying the pack makes you more privileged than free players since you have a greater chance at getting a build you prefer. It’s not clear if this could only be used against other people that bought the DLC, but if not, it sucks.
So, what is my verdict? The thing is, I think DemonCrawl is perfectly playable and the situations it could throw you in could be fun. It’s just that there’s so many things that annoy me that I probably wouldn’t have started playing this if I actually looked into the game more. If you could deal with the gamification and cruel RNG, this is a perfectly alright game. If not, well, you should probably play some regular Minesweeper, if you want the pure experience.