Among fans of orthodox roguelike design, the platonic ideal of the genre is not just a world that is randomly generated, but one where each iteration and death teaches the player a little more about the rules governing it. Each experience should teach you how to leverage that knowledge into surviving just a little bit longer.
Depending what circles you move in, you could be forgiven for thinking the term 'roguelike' has lost almost all meaning. It’s become a catch-all term to describe anything procedurally generated, from platformers to turn-based tactics games.
You only have to look at some of the most popular 'roguelite' games out there, such as Rogue Legacy, to see a move towards tangible rewards for repeat play and player power-creep. While I’ve no particular preference either way, there's something to be said for conquering impossible odds armed with only raw intuition.
Today, we’re looking at three games sure to please even the most stalwart of roguelike traditionalists despite radically divergent designs: Unexplored, Caves of Qud, and Cogmind.
Genre diehards might be forgiven for watching the gameplay trailer for Unexplored and overlooking it. An unusual art-style, real-time gameplay, and a physics-driven combat engine do not add up to a traditional roguelike. It’s best then that we don’t judge a dungeon crawl by its cover, as Unexplored is only two steps removed from the genre progenitor itself: Rogue.
Unexplored is effectively a real-time adaptation of Brogue, which was in turn a modernized reimagining of the original Rogue. Brogue and Unexplored posit a theory that statistical bloat is holding the genre back. By paring things down to just two core stats—strength and life, increased solely through potions found in the dungeon—and doing away with experience and levels altogether, you get a far more intuitive and free-flowing dungeon crawl.
It’s hard to argue, given the beautifully complex and entertaining dungeons that Unexplored generates. Environments repeat far less than you'd expect, with enemy placement subtle enough it feels like there’s an unseen Dungeon Master nudging things along. Procedural puzzle-based quests can span multiple floors, and whole dungeons are defined by game-altering themes. One dungeon might be a trap-laden wizard's lair with little in the way of combat, while another might be a full-blooded crawl through an orc warlord's barracks.
Unexplored's overall feel is similar to immersive sims like Deus Ex or System Shock, providing problems that can often be solved through creative means. A room full of locked treasure chests but no lockpick? Drag the chests into a pile, brew up a Potion of Explosion, lob it at them and marvel as the World's Loudest Lockpick actually works. Probably not the intended solution, but it’s my solution, and feels damn good.
Enemy AI is also nuanced, with most living foes having basic self-preservation instincts. Animals in particular won't attack unless pressured, or shown an opportunity to pounce.
Unexplored’s final trick is a trio of free DLC packs (the third in public beta at the time of writing) that leave the core mechanics unchanged, but alter the fundamentals of your quest and the environments generated. The Ripley Run DLC imitates Aliens, sending you on an extermination mission in an abandoned dwarven mining colony overrun by acid-blooded monsters, armed with an automatic repeater-crossbow and a Ring of Detect Life standing in for a motion tracker. The Mithril Run DLC is Lord of the Rings-inspired, with dark tunnels, goblins aplenty, and the Balrog waiting for you at the end.
The third and most interesting of the DLCs, Dark Ritual, is an eldritch murder mystery, where you race against the clock to gather clues, learn which cultist is living host to an elder god and the very specific method by which you can slay them without causing the apocalypse. It’s a little like Cluedo in reverse, and a fantastic showcase of how flexible Unexplored is.
Caves of Qud
Procedurally generated poetry, machine-written histories of post-human Pharaohs, and spray-on brains that turn regular doors into existentially dreadful animated creatures are the secret sauce that make Caves of Qud one of the most interesting roguelikes in development right now.
Of the three featured here Qud is the least complete, but recent updates have brought massive changes to its UI, accessibility, and systems—enough to make it worth a look for any genre fan.
Despite the familiar ASCII-with-tiles aesthetic, Qud is closer to a traditional RPG in structure, with a setting that resembles the weirdness of Torment: Tides of Numenera more than anything. Set in a future Earth so distant and strange as to be almost entirely alien, you play a stranger (and you can be very strange thanks to an absurdly powerful character generation system) who has wandered into the watervine-farming village of Joppa in search of food, work, and fresh water, which is the currency of Qud.
Greeted by a taciturn four-legged town guard, a glowing cat, and a village elder with eyeball-hands growing out of his back, you're nudged gently into a series of critter-slaying errands and fetch-quests for the village that grow into a long-form story with no shortage of memorable characters and strange prose, both hand-written or machine-generated. It would be impressive enough as a purely scripted RPG experience, but the world of Qud leverages procedural generation in the style of Dwarf Fortress to fill in the blanks in each adventure, both narratively and mechanically.
If Qud has one true failing at the moment, it’s that the character generator gives you too much rope with which to hang yourself. Is chitin plating overpowered? Will a slow metabolism punish you in the long run? How do you play a photosynthetic character, or one who is constantly harassed by your own evil self from a parallel dimension?
Yes, that’s a real option. I’ve never had a character with it survive more than a few minutes, but it’s hilarious. Finding the right combination of gear to keep you alive is almost as difficult until you’ve put a few characters through the wringer. The initial learning curve in Qud is fierce, but don’t be dissuaded.
It’s easy to burn out in the opening areas, and as such I do recommend disabling permadeath in the debug options menu until you’ve figured out how to manage the lethal opening hours, because the world beyond is strange, magical, and random in the best possible way. In what other RPG can you stumble across a devoutly religious gun turret, more likely to bore you to death with quoted scripture on the virtues of flexible programming than shoot you? Or where one of the best characters is a supergenius albino bear called Q Girl? Qud is a trip worth taking.
(Qud’s lead developer chipped in to recommend this beginner’s guide, and say that as far as starting characters go, a True Kin Praetorian with high strength and toughness is hard to go wrong with—not a subtle or complex character build, but survivable and easy to learn.)
Cogmind—years in development and just recently entering beta—might just be the closest thing we’ll ever see to a Nier: Automata roguelike. Set in a bleak post-human world, machine factions of varying sentience strive for resources and power in a massive underground megastructure. More than anything, it reminds me of this official Yoko Taro short story, right down to its depiction of multi-limbed mechanized combat, robotic evolution run rampant, and the end-goal of ascending to the surface, and to freedom.
Cogmind is a game of turn-based, tactical, and fundamentally inhuman combat. Starting out as little more than a floating brain, you bolt on limbs and components as you explore. Rather than traditional levels or experience, progression upwards through the cyber-dungeon increases the number of reactor, limb, weapon and internal component slots you have.
In Cogmind you are your loot, a freakish improvised mechanical gestalt cobbled together from whatever you can salvage after each fight in order to replace whatever body parts the last fight cost you.
The majority of your enemies are inhuman in their behavior too, mechanical and exploitable. Utility robots—marked green—are non-hostile, ferrying resources around the various facilities and rushing to repair any damage caused by combat. Explosive weapons can reduce entire rooms to smoldering craters, and if you hang around long enough after a fight you’ll see them fully reconstructed. It feels almost like playing Dungeon Keeper from the interloping hero's perspective.
Combat is always a choice, too. Any engagement has a chance to escalate and summon more enemies, which in turn means more loot in the aftermath, but overheating or running out of ammo at a critical moment can bring even the best run to a halt. Patrolling enemies can often be detected before they're capable of starting a fight, so stealth becomes a viable play style, especially if you dedicate an internal component or two to scanners.
Combat itself is deeply satisfying, though. Primarily ranged (at least at first), you have an XCom-esque surplus of information detailing your exact chances to hit with each weapon and the exact state of your target. You are a robot after all: crunching numbers is your thing.
It makes for a mathematically satisfying experience, backed up by surprisingly great audio. Guns crack, energy weapons sizzle, and enemies spark and fizz as they collapse. Considering the nearly pure-ASCII graphics, there’s more atmosphere here than you'd expect.
Everything about Cogmind plays into the idea that you are a machine in a world of machines. Things are measured and predictable, to a point. Odds are provided and it's up to you to decide which risks to take, whether you want to push your reactor hard for one more turn and risk a thermal shutdown, or whether to try to get one more lore entry out of a terminal in the hopes that a security team won't be called to your location.
Rare for a roguelike, Cogmind puts overwhelming reams of usable information in your hands, and lets you decide what to do with it. You’ve just got to learn to think like a robot.
Three dungeon crawls, full of loot and risk and reward and intensely complex systems of procedural generation. More than anything, these are three games that haven’t lost sight of that core that makes the best in the genre work: randomness that empowers the player with meaningful choices, and worlds with learnable systems, making personal knowledge more valuable than any experience grind. For me at least that’s the essence of a good roguelike, and these three have it.