Something Horrible This Way Comes: Eldritch Review

Another day, another roguelike-like. What does Minor Key Games' Lovecraftian effort have to set it apart from its rivals?

Review by Pete Davison, .

It'd be easy to dismiss Eldritch as "Spelunky in first-person." I've done it myself when explaining the game to a friend.

Indeed, the two games initially appear to have a lot in common: a vertical level structure, in which you're continually working your way from the top down to the bottom; no persistent progression beyond unlocking shortcuts to later levels; a limited set of items which it's up to you to determine the optimum use of; the ability to throw rocks at enemies when nothing else is to hand; and, of course, jittery shopkeepers who will immediately try to kill you if you so much as breathe on the merchandise when you don't have the means to pay for it.

But it takes just a short while of playing Eldritch to discover that it's a very distinct affair from Mossmouth's classic; while Spelunky demands keen observation and some old-school platforming skills, Eldritch combines elements of first-person stealth games such as the old Thief games -- you can even lean in either direction to peek around corners -- and the simple but challenging combat of other procedurally-generated action games.

Subtle effects like deformed walls give the game an otherworldly, twisted feel.

Eldritch is ostensibly a Lovecraftian game, but no knowledge of Lovecraft's work is really required to appreciate it. In fact, the developers specifically chose to adopt the Lovecraftian theme more for its atmosphere than the specifics of the Cthulhu mythos -- in our preview from a while back, designer David Pittman noted that he was keen to distance the game from Lovecraft's own outdated racist and misogynist views -- not to mention some of his creations' twisted reflections of those views -- instead choosing to "embrace the charmingly bizarre worlds of Lovecraft in a literal way."

It works, too; Eldritch doesn't try to be clever by tricking the player with sanity mechanics or other systems that we typically see in Lovecraft-inspired games -- instead, it settles for a simple yet almost tangible air of menace, ably supported by some good sound design and minimal but effective use of music.

The chunky, primitive aesthetic works in its favor, too; while some players and Internet commenters have been quick to dismiss the game for its superficial resemblance to Minecraft, the simple look allows you to "fill in the blanks" yourself with your imagination. Looking more closely at the blocks that make up the levels reveals a surprising amount of easy-to-miss detail, too; for example, rather than being simple cubes, rocky walls are bumpy, uneven surfaces that have a much more "natural" appearance than the environments of many other low-poly or voxel-based games. The block-based structure also allows for some entertaining flexibility in level design along with the pleasing ability to destroy the scenery -- and thus cut your own path to the lower floors -- with either dynamite or a magically-infused revolver.

Eldritch doesn't try to be clever by tricking the player with sanity mechanics... instead it settles for a simple yet almost tangible air of menace.

A big knife: all the better for gutting fish monsters.

Monster design is more varied than Mojang's sandbox, too; while Minecraft's beasties were all made of cube or cuboid blocks and mostly chased after you in a rather straightforward fashion, Eldritch's otherworldly horrors exhibit a much wider range of behaviors. Some chase you; others dart around and dodge your attacks; others still can't be permanently killed and will instead get up after a few moments, meaning you'll need to be constantly on the move. The game also makes use of an interesting mechanic whereby looting a fallen foe causes them to respawn elsewhere in the level after a moment, meaning you'll need to carefully weigh up whether getting a few extra bullets is worth potentially running into a dangerous foe again at an unexpected moment. Alongside that, the second of Eldritch's worlds plays host to one of the most genuinely unnerving enemies from any game I've played in recent memory, too -- but I'll spare you the details if you don't know them already; it's more fun to find out for yourself.

As solid as the core game is, though, my main concern with Eldritch is its potential longevity. The game only features four "worlds," the first of which is very easy -- deceptively so, in fact. The difficulty ramps up considerably in the second world and in order to beat the game you'll need to complete all four dungeons in a single run without dying -- no mean feat, but it's plausible that a skilled player could romp their way through the complete game in the space of an hour or so. Of course, the very nature of roguelike-like games is that they're inherently replayable, but Eldritch's relatively slim lineup of antagonists and collectible items means that it's not long before you've seen everything it has to offer. There's a distinct lack of online functionality, too; a big part of Spelunky's addictive nature can be directly attributed to the inherent competitiveness encouraged by its leaderboards, but all Eldritch offers is a rather clunky Web-based "post to Twitter" option when you die. Something like a time attack leaderboard for each world wouldn't go amiss in a future update; hell, just some interesting achievements would probably help, since the game is currently bereft of any kind of in-game awards or long-term goals to acknowledge the player's accomplishments over time.

Eldritch's relatively slim lineup of antagonists and collectible items means that it's not long before you've seen everything it has to offer.

The second world plays host to some really quite unpleasant foes.

All this doesn't stop Eldritch being a fun game to play, of course, but for those more used to games such as The Binding of Isaac (which features hundreds of different collectible items), Delver (which randomizes elements such as what different potions do on each playthrough) or the lengthier quests of more substantial, traditional roguelikes such as Dungeons of Dredmor and Sword of the Stars: The Pit, Eldritch might feel disappointingly lightweight. There's scope for additions and improvements in future updates, of course, but right now Eldritch feels more like a game with a lot of potential than the next big thing in roguelike-inspired games -- a game worth playing, for sure, but one which could perhaps use a bit more time in the otherworldly oven.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Visuals: Superficially similar to Minecraft, yes, but the uneven bumpiness of the walls and the creative monster designs make Eldritch recognizably distinct from Mojang's sandbox.
  • Music and Sound: The use of music is minimal but effective, and some creepy monster noises serve the dual purpose of letting you know where enemies are and freaking you out.
  • Interface: Straightforward controls -- including excellent controller support -- get you into the action quickly.
  • Lasting Appeal: Eldritch is a short but challenging game, and how long you'll spend with it in the long term will be determined by a combination of how skilled you are and how much patience you have for repeating the same (or at least very similar) game content over and over again.

Eldritch is an enjoyable, fun and challenging game that will particularly appeal to those looking for their latest procedurally-generated fix, but it needs more varied content and greater incentive to replay if it wants to have "legs" (or should that be tentacles?) in the long term.

3.5 /5

Something Horrible This Way Comes: Eldritch Review Pete Davison Another day, another roguelike-like. What does Minor Key Games' Lovecraftian effort have to set it apart from its rivals? 2013-10-30T19:00:00-04:00 3.5 5

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Comments 2

  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #1 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    Spelunky has at least one major advantage over this game: it's stellar art design. Minecraft was successful despite it's rudimentary art, not because of it. Aesthetics aren't everything, but I can't help but think that the vibe this game is going for would be better served with better art. The original Doom looked better than this game does.
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  • Avatar for guitarprince #2 guitarprince 7 months ago
    The increasing popularity of the Roguelike genre is a double-edged sword. On the plus side, the genre-defining randomized levels and permanent character death combine to create the possibility for uniquely thrilling experiences. When these get applied to other genres, like platformers (Spelunky) or strategy games (Dwarf Fortress), the results can be the sorts of games that you can play for years and never have the same experience twice. Eldritch seems to fit into this category: it's a cleverly designed, first-person Roguelike that’s steeped in lore of H.P. Lovecraft that keeps the surprises coming, even if some of them aren’t as happy as others. The downside is that I have to use the term “Roguelike” a lot, which is my least-favorite genre name. But it’s a small price to pay.

    What succeeds most is Eldritch's level design, which uses stylized, Minecraft-esque blocks to create a series of small rooms. There are 16 of these rooms on each floor, and three floors on each level, which is impressive for two reasons. First, in a technical sense, most randomly generated games tend to be two-dimensional, either horizontal or vertical, so it’s rare to see it work so well in three dimensions. Second, that technical competence adds up to effective level design. Just as with games like Dishonored, there’s a constant movement up and down, exploring for secrets or hiding from enemies. That use of vertical space is fairly rare in normal first-person games, which still tend to be designed as relatively flat, and it’s almost unheard of in randomly generated Roguelikes.

    The architecture of the rooms fit the setting. Some of them are precipitous cliffs, others are seemingly random bits of rubble or columns, and some are mazes of small doors and rooms. The Cthulu mythos is well conveyed by both the simple-but-effective graphical style and Eldritch's procedural level generation. The rooms all fit together well enough that you won't get lost or stuck moving between them, while the randomness adds to the horror conceit by putting caves next to buildings, or having gaping pits in front of a shop.

    The level design is critical because the focus in Eldritch is on movement through that space. Combat is fast and perfunctory; just shoot or stab until the enemy dies. It’s just good enough to not be frustrating, but it’s definitely not the main reason to play Eldritch. This perfunctoryness is built into the design, as enemies will respawn somewhere in the level once their bodies are searched (although I only saw this when I was especially slow searching a level). Moreover, the further you progress, the less effective combat is overall. Early enemies, like fishmen and lizardmen who attack at close range or floating eyeballs and robed figures who attack from a distance, are easy to kill. But by the second world, there are sand creatures that only get delayed when wounded, and apparently invincible statues. In Eldritch, running or sneaking around, below, or above enemies is much more important than going toe-to-toe with them.
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