I’ve been meaning to check out POWDER for some time, having heard good things from many sources, including comments on this blog. Originally released by Jeff Lait for the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS, POWDER has since been ported to Windows, Linux, Max OSX, Wii, Playstation Portable (although that’s an old version), iPhone and even GP2X. With the most recent version (release 117) arriving in December 2011, it seems that POWDER is still very much alive. Which is good, because in my time with it I’ve been quite impressed. Given its origins on handheld devices, I was expecting something fairly basic, but POWDER is actually a very deep and nuanced game that draws on some of the best elements of other roguelikes to create its own unique feel.
It certainly made me feel silly for being prejudiced against handheld games.
Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly some design aspects that are tailored for handheld platforms. Movement is limited to four directions (except in certain rare cases) and the inventory screen and other menus are easily navigable with a directional pad. Context-sensitive menus replace the numerous keyboard commands of most roguelikes. The graphics are simple and designed to display easily on small screens. But these things end up working to POWDER’s advantage. Any excess clutter has been removed, leaving a game that is very easy to pick up and play, but still requires time and effort to understand its more subtle workings.
New players can start with the excellent tutorial, which not only covers the basics of play but also introduces the randomized nature of both the dungeon floors and the items players will find. Like most roguelikes, the exact identity of different types of items (different color potions, for example) is randomized each game, so the player must learn the identity of each every time. I was impressed that the tutorial actually embraced the random nature of the game, even though it means players may sometimes die while following the tutorial’s instructions, as a result of bad luck. In fact, the tutorial does a great job of teaching the player about the inevitable deaths they will experience while playing. I had to play through the tutorial several times before I made it to the end, and it ends with a cave full of dragons that immediately killed me. The tutorial is telling players that they will die, which is a very important lesson to learn in a roguelike.
The actual game is a standard dungeon crawl, with players guiding a character through ever deeper floors of a dungeon, fighting monsters, finding loot, and leveling up. The only source of food are the corpses of creatures, and POWDER borrows the “you are what you eat” concept from Nethack, so specific corpses can grant (temporary) resistances or other special abilities when eaten. I never ran into problems with hunger, instead finding that I was often too full to eat any more corpses which meant I had to carefully consider which resistances I needed when eating. The items also take inspiration from Nethack; they can come in both cursed and blessed varieties, and identifying them can be tricky. Identify scrolls are very rare (although they do identify every item a player is carrying) so other tricks are needed to ascertain the function of various items. While I found these kinds of tricks needlessly obtuse and annoying in Nethack, POWDER has a smaller assortment of items which makes it easier to work out some experimental techniques for identifying them.
My favorite aspect of POWDER, however, is the religion system, which is a clear homage to Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup but has some of its own cool twists. As I discussed in my roguelike highlight post on Dungeon Crawl, the religion system in that game is far more interesting than in many more traditional roguelikes, with a varied pantheon of Gods that each ask very different things from worshipers in return for divine favors. The God that one chooses to worship will drastically affect one’s play style, regardless of one’s race or character class. In POWDER, character class is determined entirely by which God ones chooses, which means there’s a genuine incentive to actually act appropriately. While in other games a fighter might decide to learn some magic and become more of a wizard, in POWDER that will make Klaskov, the God of Battle, rather angry. Stick to fighting, or face his wrath.
But the true genius of POWDER’s religion system is that players interact with all the Gods, not just the one they’re worshiping. A fighter may rise to glory in the eyes of Klaskov, earning many a boon and some divine aid in times of need, but eventually he’s going to anger Pax, the Cleric God, who preaches pacifism. This happened to one of my early characters, in fact; just as I was battling with a powerful orc warrior with Klaskov cheering me on, Pax decided to teach me some humility and turned me into a mouse. I was forced to flee, and eventually realized to my horror that the transformation appeared to be permanent. I used a wand of polymorph to change myself (randomly) into a kobold fighter instead, which gave me a bit of a fighting chance, but I still eventually fell in battle. Turns out that’s not the end, as I simply reverted to my original human form, but I permanently lost 10% of my hit points through the ordeal. With subsequent characters I learned that these situations can even set the Gods against one another, with one’s chosen God stepping in to defend against the wrath of the other deities. And having multiple Gods interested in you goes both ways, too, as sometimes another God came to my aid even when I wasn’t a worshiper.
Then comes another stroke of genius: every time the player levels up, he or she can pick a new God, provided that the God is not displeased. This essentially lets players change character class as they play, allowing for some quite versatile strategies. So far my best characters have stuck with H’ruth, the barbarian God, who prohibits spell magic but provides a huge health boost when leveling up and also grants skill slots for learning lots of useful passive or active abilities. This leads to a fairly simple game, but is still fun. I did dabble with spellcasting and other play strategies, however, and they definitely add some welcome complexity to the game. I look forward to learning how to use them effectively.
POWDER is also quite funny. Monsters, spells, and most items have lengthy descriptions when examined, often telling detailed histories about eccentric wizards and magical mishaps. I learned that imps are like the cockroaches of Hell, and that golden beetles were originally supposed to save labor costs at gold mines but quickly migrated to dungeons where there is far more gold to be found off of fallen adventurers. Those are just two of the many funny tidbits in POWDER, and I hope to find many more as I manage to survive the deeper floors of the dungeon.
When I first started the Roguelike Highlights series I recommended Dungeons of Dredmor and Brogue as good starting points for players who had never tried a roguelike before. Now I can add POWDER to that list. It’s easy to pick up but still tough and rewarding, and it serves as a warm-up not only for Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup‘s religion system but also for many of the mechanics in Nethack or the Angband variants. As an added bonus, it can be played on an iPhone or other portable device too. If you’re interested, you can download POWDER for free here. May you meet many a humorous end!