Readers who are unfamiliar with roguelikes may wish to read my introduction first. Also, please remember that you can click on all images for larger versions.
I first tried Caves of Qud many years ago, but I didn’t really get into it at the time. I saw it mentioned somewhere on the internet recently and decided to give it another go, and this time I really got sucked in. My posts have been late because I’ve been playing it instead. I can safely say it’s the most I’ve enjoyed a roguelike in a long time.
It’s tempting to describe Caves of Qud as a “post-apocalyptic sci-fi survival roguelike”, but that description doesn’t really do it justice. In most post-apocalyptic settings, the cataclysm is a fairly recent event, with survivors eking out an existance in the aftermath. In Caves of Qud, however, a thousand years or so have passed since mankind wielded its ancient, wondrous technological marvels and enjoyed dominion over the Earth. Various societies have risen since, but the jungles of Qud remain wild, inhabited by all manner of strange, mutated flora and fauna, and sheltering ancient treasures in the massive chrome caverns beneath the surface. Apparently drawing inspiration from the pen-and-paper role-playing game Gamma World (which I’d never heard of until now), Caves of Qud casts you as an adventurer seeking fame and fortune by exploring Qud and recovering these ancient relics.
Unfortunately, Caves of Qud will be tough for newcomers who are not already familiar with roguelikes. While its controls are far simpler than something like Nethack, and it makes excellent use of context-sensitive menus for a much more intuitive interface, it does retain the traditional ASCII graphics which will likely confuse new players. And these are far more complex than usual, akin to Dwarf Fortress‘ crazy spew of strange symbols. It’s actually possible to simplify the graphics through the “disable floor textures” option, like so:
But I found I preferred the game with the floor textures on. It really makes places feel more like overgrown wilderness areas or rubble-filled caves, and once you get used to the graphics you’ll find that things are actually presented quite clearly. Caves of Qud makes excellent use of color, with all enemies color-coded such that one can tell at a glance what they all are (and sometimes their color helps them camouflage themselves and sneak up on you). Symbols follow a logical pattern, with various punctuation making up the ground textures, letters for enemies and other creatures, numbers for robots, and more obscure symbols for other items like scrap and artifacts. Important messages, like “critical hit!” and “stunned!” float across the screen at appropriate times. And the (l)ook command is excellent, providing detailed descriptions of people, enemies, and the environment that not only give useful information but also excellent flavor to the world.
The other problem new players might encounter is a general lack of good documentation. The in-game help systems are quite good at explaining the basics, but certain features aren’t clear (the Repair skill only works on broken artifacts, not on other items, for example) and the answers to most of these more detailed questions are scattered around the internet in various forums, usually out of date. There is a wiki, but it’s woefully incomplete, although the official forums may be a bit better. Caves of Qud is definitely a work in progress, however, so documentation will hopefully improve in the future.
But if you can get past these things, you’ll find Caves of Qud to be extremely rewarding. Despite the title, much of your time will be spent outdoors, trekking through the wilderness. Like the older roguelike Ancient Domains of Mystery (aka ADOM), Caves of Qud features a fixed world map on every play (although local maps are procedurally generated each time). And while one can travel on the map screen to reach a destination quickly, it’s also possible to walk everywhere manually, with persistent wilderness zones generated as you go. Plus, in another nod to Dwarf Fortress, these persistent zones extend to the underground levels, meaning it’s possible to enter a subterranean cave and then dig one’s way back to a town, if one so desired. With such a huge world available, a player could simply choose to wander, finding random ruins and lairs, searching for loot and investing in survival skills like butchery and harvestry. Players looking for more direction may instead follow a (sadly unfinished) pre-set questline, which will lead to all manner of interesting and dangerous places. And the developers apparently have some grand plans for fleshing out the world with several joinable factions with their own questlines.
This focus on an atmospheric, believable world permeates the entire game, beginning with character creation. Players have a choice between playing as a mutated human, native to Qud, or as one of the remaining True Men, hailing from the outer arcologies. Both types then pick from a list of character classes; mutants can be marauders, nomads, arconauts, or other interesting professions with their own sets of starting skills, whereas True Men first pick their arcology of origin, which provides certain resistances as well as four possible castes complete with different stat boosts and starting skills. True Men have higher starting stats, better starting equipment, and gain more skill points per level, but cannot take advantage of the myriad mutations available to mutated humans. Mutated humans are generally considered to be easier, and my first character, who had four arms and rapid health regeneration, did indeed get quite far, chopping up enemies with an axe in each of his four hands. But I was soon drawn to True Men, as I liked the challenge of surviving solely on my wits and the technology I was able to scavenge. Also, I discovered and fell in love with the tinkering system.
Based off of a character’s Intelligence stat, the tinkering skill tree allows a character to disassemble artifacts and scrap into bits, ranging from scrap metal and crystal all the way to nanomaterials and AI microcontrollers. These bits can then be fashioned into brand new artifacts, provided the recipe can be found. I tried playing a few tinkers, who start with scrap and moderate tinkering skill, but later leaned towards playing praetorians (from the Ice-sheathed Arcology of Ibul, naturally) who begin with both a nice sword and a gun for early survivability. I then put points into tinkering when I gained levels. I learned that buying tinkering skills during the game has the advantage of letting me pick one of three random recipes, rather than simply getting a random recipe at the start of the game as the tinker class does. More importantly, I discovered that the first level tinkering skill grants the ability to recharge power cells. This is not mentioned on the skill list, but is arguably far more useful than being able to tinker up low-level artifacts like grenades. Power cells are used for everything from flaming swords to teleporters to laser rifles, and being able to recharge them with scrap is invaluable. My best character so far managed to build a chaingun and complete a truly terrifying quest that led to the bowels of some sort of ancient recycling plant filled with foul slime, acid, and horrifying creatures. He got out of there alive, barely, but he was eventually killed by a robot while searching the salt flats for the means to regrow his tongue. Yes, losing your tongue is something that can happen in Caves of Qud.
Overall, it’s a quite different beast than the traditional dungeon-crawling roguelike, right down to the mechanical details. I really like the system in place for weapons and armor, which is based around the concept of penetration. Every weapon has a penetration value and a damage range, which correspond to the weapon’s ability to penetrate armor, and the damage applied upon a successful penetration. For enemies with a low armor value, a weapon might penetrate several times for extra damage. Blunt weapons have the highest penetration values as they are “rattling” and will still hurt armored enemies, but their damage per penetration is low. Swords have low penetration but high damage. Weapons are also tiered by their material, so you might start with crappy bronze weaponry but later wield a fancy blade of folded carbide. Then, of course, there are guns, which as a rule have high penetration and damage but require ammo (in the form of bullets or power cells) and which receive no penetration bonus from a high strength stat.
The way the weapon and armor is designed means that Caves of Qud feels much more like a true adventure rather than the more artificial progress in many role-playing games. Characters still gain hit points at every level, but other than that they do not become the demi-gods common in other games. Death still comes easy, and staying alive becomes as much a matter of finding better equipment as it does leveling up. This means Caves of Qud is very hard, especially when following the questline, which consistently points to more and more dangerous areas. But, there’s that giant open world to explore and loot between quests, which makes the process of equipping oneself far more enjoyable than the “grind” of other games. After my praetorian died I decided to take another look at mutants, and I’m currently playing an arconaut with a bunch of mental mutations. I’m still trying to use tinkering, which is a lot harder as a mutant due to the high intelligence requirements, but my psychometry mutation is awesome, not only helping me identify the artifacts I find but divining their method of construction and giving me their recipes for free. I just managed to build a laser rifle, but I still don’t feel prepared to head down those horrible trash chutes again, so I’m spending some time exploring and looking for better equipment first, periodically teleporting back to civilization to barter with the merchants.
Ooh, I almost forgot to talk about bartering! I love the bartering system. Fresh water is used as currency in Qud, given how difficult it is to find. But it’s also pretty heavy, so most trades are direct barters with water making up the difference, and I often wanted to trade excess water for “trade items” like copper nuggets and beaded bracelets. While most items will sell for much less than they cost to buy, trade items are bought and sold at equal value, and provide a more lightweight way to store your wealth. But you need to keep some fresh water around to drink too, since Caves of Qud models both thirst and hunger. In most forays into the wild, I would stock up on reasonably valuable equipment I came across, and then head back to a town to trade it all in for ammo or a nice artifact. Shops periodically restock too, so it’s worth checking in again after an expedition. I should mention, though, that the actual bartering interface can be a little tricky to figure out, with special actions like asking for repairs being mapped to hidden commands instead of accessible from menus. Still, returning to town with a haul of stuff and exchanging it for whatever cool equipment the merchant has in stock, rather than for money, is a lot more interesting and fun than the typical trading system in role-playing games.
There’s so much more I could talk about, like the unique locations (even the early caves have cool features like an underground river that can be followed), the strange creatures, the joy of finding chests full of high-quality loot, and that unique item I found that had its own written history, but I think I’ve gone on too long already. Caves of Qud definitely has a bit of a learning curve, and it can be hard to find the advice you need on the web, but I still highly recommend giving it a try. There are even some debug (read: cheat) options available, letting you disable perma-death and activate all sorts of other cool things if you just want to experiment. You can download the latest version for free here. It seems that development is a bit sporadic, with the latest update uploaded back in September 2012, but the team is still working on the game in between their other projects. I hope they are able to keep development going, because their plans for the future sound awesome, but what’s there now is already fantastic and there’s plenty of content to work through. This is definitely one to keep an eye on.
So, why not head into the jungles of Qud yourself? You just might like what you find.