Review: [email protected]

Maybe sometimes you can have too much retro?

[email protected] is a fiendishly good looking roguelike that manages to pull off some cool ideas but lacks any sort of mechanical depth to keep players going back. The phrase “all fur coat and no knickers” has never been more relevant.

 

It’s difficult to show in static images just how good [email protected] looks, because of a lot of it is based on its animation. At first glance it seems like using the same shades of black and white for everything might result in an incoherent mess, but once everything is moving and reacting to each other it’s clear to see just how much work went into the visuals.

Based on the original ASCII roguelikes (Rogue, Nethack, that sort of thing), it’s impressive how punctuation has been reworked to make fully fleshed-out dungeons and characters. Letters and symbols become the character, the floors, the walls, the weapons, and the traps in a way the flat-plane original roguelike games always struggled to do.

 

It’s impressive how punctuation has been reworked to make fully fleshed-out dungeons and characters

The visual style is also married to the gameplay in a few interesting ways, primarily the crafting and upgrading system. ASCII letters are scattered around the environment which can be used as the ingredients when bolstering your weapon’s abilities. What’s interesting is the letters aren’t picked willy-nilly but come together to physically make the upgrade: a T might become the hilt, a D might be the curved edge of the blade, an R could be a scabbard. Functionally it doesn’t do much; they could be runes or pictures of cats and it wouldn’t make too much difference. But that commitment to stretching the ASCII style as far as it can really pays off, making [email protected] one of the most visually cohesive and best looking games in a long time.

 

Enemies don’t get more interesting than ‘big skeleton thing that explodes’

Unfortunately, it feels like more effort went into the visuals than into the roguelike itself, as at its core [email protected] is as standard as a roguelike can get. The class selection doesn’t matter too much besides your secondary skill (at first I picked a Mage, only to then ignore the spellcasting due to mana limits and focused entirely on melee damage), the dungeons all ‘feel’ the same no matter how far you go, and the enemies don’t get more interesting than “big skeleton thing that explodes”.

That’s not to say it’s bad, by any means. Whacking the stuffing out of a few rats and skeletons is incredibly satisfying, and the dungeon layouts can be easy to lose yourself in. I haven’t encountered a single bug, glitch, or performance problem, and it even includes two-player local co-op for if a buddy wants to struggle through it too. It’s a well-made game, but it’s so by-the-book. It’s bland.

 

Once the wow-factor of the ASCII-style dies down, there’s not much more to it than your standard, run of the mill dungeon crawler. Each dungeon involves rummaging around for various types of key to continue, with the only sense of progression being how many traps and enemies there are along the way. Every floor plays out the same way: smack a monster down, grab a key, go through the door, repeat a few times and Bob’s your uncle.

[email protected] is all about flair. It looks great and really manages to transpose a style that normally alienates many newcomers to the genre to something everyone can enjoy. It uses that aesthetic in some interesting places that turn some of the genre’s staples, like weapon upgrading, into something pretty special. It’s just a shame that those visuals weren’t used for a more engaging game, as there really isn’t anything to [email protected] once you look past the surface.

A copy of this game was provided by the developer for the purposes of this review.

Platform: PS4

Developer/Publisher: Stormcloud Games

Price: £11.99

Release date: August 9, 2016

  • Fantastic art style
  • Some good sound design (I like the lone trumpet when you get find stuff)
  • Satisfying combat
  • Same-y classes
  • Bland level and enemy design
  • Doesn’t do anything particularly new

Looks gorgeous, and manages to use that art style in some interesting ways. Unfortunately, the core of the game is the same dungeon crawler we’ve been playing for 20+ years.

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Joe is LPVG’s resident hardware nerd. If it’s overpriced and has gaudy RGB lighting, he’s probably drooling over it. He loves platformers, MMOs, RPGs, hack ‘n slashers and FPS, with his favourite games being Mirror’s Edge, Left 4 Dead, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Oblivion and Dead Space. Don’t ask him about his unhealthily large Monsters Inc memorabilia collection. Seriously, just don’t ask…

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