Sword of the Stars: The Pit is not a pretty roguelike. Considering we're talking about a genre where people are still more than happy to play in ASCII mode, that's saying something.
It's not that the individual art assets in the game are "bad," as such, it's that there's several clashing art styles going on, bringing us a game that doesn't quite seem sure if it wants to be a retro pixel-art sort of affair, or something with more stylized, cartoony graphics. The title screen, character portraits and interface all have lovely jagged pixelly edges, for example, yet the cartoony, super-deformed visuals for the map tiles, characters and monsters are all rendered in a much higher resolution. It's jarring.
I bring this up first not because it's something you should pay particular attention to, but rather to get it out of the way. This haphazard, incoherent visual style doesn't set the best first impression of the game, you see, and it's entirely possible it'll put some people off altogether -- particularly those new to roguelikes. But, as I said, we're talking about a genre where people who have been playing this sort of thing for years will happily navigate an "@" symbol around dungeons made of "#" signs, so it's probably not an issue for people who thrive on permadeath, random generation and the other trappings of the genre, and indeed after a few minutes playing The Pit, the visuals (and the atrocious voice acting, for that matter) cease to matter altogether.
The Pit is a very good roguelike, as it happens, yet one which manages to remain approachable and easy to understand. In some senses, it's quite similar to Gaslamp Games' excellent Dungeons of Dredmor -- a title which brought the joys of the roguelike to a much wider audience thanks to its good humor and straightforward gameplay -- but in others, it's a distinct experience all of its own.
The nice thing about The Pit is that it's not, unlike many other modern roguelikes, just about combat. No, in The Pit you'll also find yourself hacking computer terminals, prying open stubborn storage lockers and attempting to repair medical facilities. You'll find yourself stopping in the middle of a dungeon crawl to cook some steaks, or whipping out your purifier to help make that piece of moldy cheese you found in a garbage can more palatable. And you'll find yourself cursing your pistol for picking the moment when all the robots decide to start chasing you, forcing you to hide behind a dumpster and attempt to repair your weapon while under fire.
All of these things award experience points, too, meaning that despite the fact there are a lot of enemies who would like nothing more than to feast on your various extremities, you never feel like combat is the sole means of progression. Indeed, each time you level up, you're forced to consider which of your skills you'd like to improve -- and many of said skills have nothing whatsoever to do with fighting. Do you improve your ability to wield a pistol, or your lockpicking skill? Your knife-wielding skills, or your affinity with computers? There's the potential for a lot of interesting character builds in the game, though the game doesn't tend to do a great job of explaining the exact circumstances you'd want to use each of these skills.
That's both a strength and a weakness both of The Pit and the roguelike genre in general, though: on the one hand, giving the player all the information they need in order to succeed is something that is often expected of modern games; on the other, part of the joy of a good roguelike is specifically not being given a lot of the information, and being forced to experiment, with potentially disastrous consequences.
In traditional fantasy roguelikes, experimentation often comes in the form of unidentified potions and scrolls that have randomized effects. In most cases, you will never know what these things do unless you just try them, after which you will either have died an embarrassing death, or you will know what they do. The Pit's take on this mechanic comes in the form of colored weapon modifications, the exact function of which varies from game to game. They tend not to be so brutal as to kill you outright, but there's no guarantee that they'll have a positive effect. In my last playthrough, for example, I applied a mod to my pistol that made it louder and significantly more likely to attract the attention of security systems without providing any particular benefits. I was then stuck with it. Harsh but ultimately fair; I took the chance, and it didn't pay off.
The recent MindGames expansion to the The Pit adds a bunch of new levels, two new character classics and a major new game mechanic: psionic powers. These are essentially magic-like powers, but again, in keeping with the rest of the game, they're not necessarily direct damage, combat-centric powers. One branch of them allows you to affect the minds of enemies, for example, while another grants you the power of telekinesis. Another still allows you the ability to manifest physical phenomena, allowing you to create food items out of thin air or even disintegrate troublesome objects. They're the kind of powers that have interesting applications besides simply killing enemies outright, and that's true for most of the game mechanics. Significantly, it's possible for any character of high enough level to develop psionic powers; the psionics specialist starts in a much more advantageous position to use them, however.
In fact, the whole experience is somewhat reminiscent of a tabletop role-playing session in that you can make use of the various game mechanics both in the obvious manner, and in more creative ways. Jam a locked door with too many failed lockpick attempts, for example, and you could potentially find yourself stuck in a room with no exit... until you realize that it's possible to attack doors with your weapons and make your way out through brute force. Settle down in front of one of the game's crafting items, and you're usually required to figure out the recipes for yourself -- and they usually make logical sense. If you try and cook some diseased meat and a lump of moldy bread, of course you're not going to get something fit for human consumption; cook a lump of raw meat by itself, meanwhile, and you'll end up with something much more nutritious. It's constantly pleasing to discover these things for yourself.
Sword of the Stars: The Pit is the sort of game that you start to like and appreciate more and more the longer you play it for. Initially it seems like a very straightforward roguelike with questionable presentation; over time, however, it becomes clear that it's taken inspiration from a wide variety of survival horror, action and adventure games to create an experience that is satisfying, challenging and very addictive -- just like a good roguelike should be. At the same time it's accessible and easy to understand, yet welcoming to those who like to explore and push the boundaries of the game's mechanics. There's a lot of game to explore here, and if you have the patience, it's a very rewarding experience to do so.
Have you ever had that feeling while playing a game that you want to like it a lot more than you actually like it? That's been happening to me with Sword of the Stars. From the very outset, it started checking boxes that worked for me. It's a bit old school and reminds me of several older games I like. It's a Roguelike, which usually tickle my fancy if they're well executed. And I like much of the fundamental mechanics of the game.
But then I look at it, and it's a bit of a mess, frankly. If the designers had picked one particular art style and really gone to town with it, the game could have had a more consistent and appealing atmosphere. But instead it feels like it's been passed through a few hands, each one taking the game in a slightly different stylistic direction. The mish-mash of styles and perspectives is visually jarring, and I found myself noticing the imperfections more than I was enjoying the gameplay. Almost like reading a good book that's full of grammatical errors and typos.
It's a shame, really, because there's a surprising amount of depth to the game, and once you're up to speed on the rather dense menus, it's not that difficult to use. It's fun in the classic sense, and has you dealing with surprisingly entertaining minutiae - just like a good roguelike should. But the graphics feel like placeholder art, and suck any kind of intrigue or atmosphere out of the game, so it ends up feeling a little more like an exercise than an experience. And that's a shame, because the game has a lot to love. The visuals just make it hard to love.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Inconsistent at best, ugly at worst -- though at least the graphics don't actively get in the way of the action and, in fact, their clear, cartoonish style means it's always easy to see what's happening.
- Sound and Music: The electronic, chiptune-inspired soundtrack is atmospheric and distinctive. The voice acting -- which is mercifully infrequent -- is some of the worst I've ever heard.
- Interface: Intuitive and quick to navigate with any combination of mouse and keyboard. Once you learn a few shortcuts, this turn-based game starts to feel surprisingly action-packed.
- Lasting Appeal: This is a particularly difficult example of an already challenging genre, and consequently its lasting appeal will be determined almost entirely by your own patience and persistence.