It’s been nearly five years since I last played Caves of Qud. But I’ve been following its development, and always intended to return to see how things were progressing. Developers Freehold Games were kind enough to give me a free copy of the game in Early Access on Steam back then, but when I saw it had also released on GOG I decided to buy it there to support development (it’s now available on itch.io as well). I was still busy playing other things, however, and didn’t actually fire it up. Finally, the periodic patch notes convinced me to dive back in. Notes like:
–Being in the same cell with slippery liquids no longer causes chairs, beds, iron maidens, and psionic sarcophagi to malfunction.
–There should be fewer game-breaking problems when you dominate a creature and a spacetime vortex consumes your dormant body.
–Cooking with the gland paste of various bearded lizards no longer forcibly removes your beak if you have one.
I was overdue for another trip to Qud.
So, what’s new? The most immediately obvious change is the addition of music and sound effects. Caves of Qud used to be entirely silent, but it now sports simple sound effects that are surprisingly useful, acting as audio cues for specific dangers — like gunshots — even when they occur out of your character’s line of sight. More transformative, however, is the original score by Craig Hamilton, currently clocking in at around an hour total with more music promised as development continues. Until I heard it, I was skeptical about how a soundtrack to the game would work. Caves of Qud evokes a particular mood, one so different from other games that I would have been at a loss to identify appropriate music for it. Craig Hamilton’s score is simultaneously not at all what I expected and a perfect accompaniment to the game. Most tracks are ambient soundscapes that combine synthesizers and acoustic instruments with the sounds of the player’s surroundings, be they the growls and chirps of wildlife or the humming and clanking of machinery. It’s fabulously evocative, reinforcing the writing and the stylized tile-based graphics to conjure up this strange, far future world where simple farmers using iron implements exist alongside strange mutants, intelligent plants, and ancient ruins holding the wondrous technology of the great civilizations a millennium past. I particularly liked the music that plays when making camp, which is little more than a simple harmonica flourish alongside the sounds of a crackling fire and a stirring pot.
Speaking of which, there’s a new system for making camp and preparing meals. Earlier versions of Caves of Qud had a hunger system, but it always felt undercooked (heh). Starvation was never really a concern, since players could simply eat the corpses of creatures they killed, which in turn meant that skills like harvestry and butchery which let players forage for nonperishable food weren’t particularly useful except for immersion. Caves of Qud is a game that encourages that kind of immersion, of living off the land, but isn’t particularly interested in punishing survival systems. So in the new version, the hunger clock is basically gone. Players still get hungry, but at any time they can make camp (by placing a campfire) and “whip up a meal” for no cost. When traveling across the zoomed-out world map, it is assumed that players are regularly eating meals like this. Investing in the Cookery skill, however, lets players start adding different ingredients to their meals for special bonuses. Some of these can be quite powerful, and it’s a fun system to play around with. Fresh water is still used as currency in Qud, so thirst is still tracked, but as before there’s little danger of running out of water unless players attempt to cross the great salt desert without enough supplies. Indeed, with the new fungal “weeps” that generate pools of various (often valuable) liquids, players are more often faced with situations where they have more water than they can carry, rather than worrying about running out.
Those weeps are part of the new fungal biomes that can appear throughout Qud. I first ran into one in one of the early caves, finding it covered in mushrooms of all kinds, including some weeps. But it also included brooding mushrooms which will puff spores on anything that gets close, eventually leading to a fungal infection. These are a new class of disease in the game, and, like the existing diseases, they are quite tricky to cure. Unlike those diseases, however, fungal infections are easier to contract and less debilitating. In fact, they’re really symbiotic relationships, with advantages and disadvantages. Usually the main disadvantage is that they occupy an equipment slot, like waxflab on a character’s feet preventing them from wearing shoes. But the fungal infection itself can provide protection, often better than the available shoes at the time. Generally these infections aren’t too hard to live with and can make things interesting.
Fungal biomes play a special role in the main quest, which has now been extended beyond the stopping point when I played years ago. A new quest step takes players to the Rainbow Wood, where fungi reign supreme. It’s a fascinating and surprisingly dangerous place, even after encountering fungal biomes before. In fact, the dangers are such that my high-level character was quickly felled by a threat I’d never seen before setting foot in the Wood. I wish there had been a way to learn about this danger under less lethal circumstances, as it’s still just as devastating to lose a powerful character in Caves of Qud. In this case, not wanting to play all the way through the main story again just to see the end of the Rainbow Wood, I resorted to save scumming to see it through, somewhat relieved to find that I was nearly at the end of the story as it stood. The beta branch, however, already features a work in progress version of the next major story section, which I did not try. And there are many other tweaks to the story as well. Before the Rainbow Wood, I was treated to a completely revamped Grit Gate, a major location that is now much more interesting, as well as a new and improved visit to Omonporch, the fabled Spindle.
The latter makes use of the expanded faction system. This already existed when I played last, but it’s far more important now, and there are now more ways to make various factions like you. For some of the later quests in the main story, like the visit to Omonporch, players can achieve their objective peacefully if they have sufficient favor with the particular faction in question. When meeting with a notable member of a particular faction, players can initiate the water ritual, sharing one dram of their water to access special dialogue in which they can trade secrets and rumors. During the water ritual, reputation with the faction in question is used like currency, letting players buy and sell information, learn particular skills, or even recruit the other character as an ally. Secrets and rumors can be found everywhere just by exploring. Many of the items players will scavenge are painted or engraved with histories of Qud’s ancient sultans, which player characters will record in their journals. These tidbits are perfect for trading during the water ritual, and can even point to new locations like ancient ruins or one of the new historic sites, which often house powerful artifacts to recover as rewards for braving their depths.
These new randomized locations are great. One of the main things I was hoping for in Caves of Qud was simply more stuff. When I played last, I would spent a lot of time between story quests just wandering around, looking for better equipment and a chance to gain some levels. I’m happy to report that this process is now far more natural, as players will uncover all sorts of points of interest as they follow the main story, often with their own side quests attached, so there are plenty of places to explore and get better equipped in between the major quests. There are also a lot of new ways to get experience points in order to level up and improve one’s skills, many of them at the Six Day Stilt. This location was just being added to the game when I last played, and it’s now finished. The Stilt, located in the great salt desert, is the religious center for the Mechanimists, an order who worship the Argent Fathers who ruled the earth in millennia past. Converts flock to the Stilt in pilgrimage, so the cathedral is surrounded by camps and tents, including many specialist merchants who hawk their wares. But the Stiltgrounds aren’t just a great place to get equipped, they also offer lots of experience rewards. A particular pilgrim will grant increasing experience rewards to players who share pieces of the history of Resheph, the last Sultan of Qud and the only one whose history is fully canon and not randomized each time one plays a new character. Another Mechanimist is starting a library, and will grant players experience for each book they donate. Several new books have been added since I played last, including a host of cookbooks that teach new recipes to cook, but more importantly there are now procedurally generated books which seem to collect text from various other parts of the game together into meandering gibberish. Many ruins and historic sites feature bookshelves full of these tomes, which I would gladly hoard and haul back to the Stilt. I could also offer technological artifacts that I didn’t need to the sacred well in order to gain some favor with the Mechanimists, which can prove quite useful.
I decided to try playing as Mutated Humans initially, since I’d mostly played as True Kin before. Caves of Qud now offers daily and weekly challenges, in which players all use the same random seed and therefore use the same character and same world. This has a certain appeal, since an actual denizen of Qud would not be able to pick and choose their mutations so that they worked well together, but the result is often a very tough game, especially when the challenge uses the new option of starting players in a random village instead of the canonical starting village of Joppa. In one of these challenges, I accepted the first quest offered in my random jungle village, traveled to the indicated location, and immediately ran into a pack of goatfolk, who are usually not encountered until much later in the game. My level 1 character didn’t stand a chance. So I switched to designing my own mutants, focusing on espers who only have mental mutations. These can be quite powerful, since their mental mutations rely on their Ego attribute, which also gives them nice bonuses when bartering and unlocks some complementary skills. I played characters who used their minds to focus light into laser beams, and enlisted several allies through both mental domination and simple persuasion skills. I learned that using my mind to dominate one of my allies — giving me direct control over them — has the side benefit of letting me spend the points they’d earned by leveling up on increasing their attributes and skills, and let me equip them with the artifacts I’d found. One of my characters had managed to recruit a legendary albino ape, who had absurdly high strength and agility. By equipping him properly, I made him nearly impossible to hit as he bore down on enemies and mercilessly bludgeoned them to death with two huge carbide hammers. He was also really helpful in fighting off the psychic hunters who now turn up to hound espers as they become more powerful, providing a nice thematic challenge when playing this type of character. It was a lot of fun, and gave me a new appreciation for the Ego-based skills, which can be useful even for True Kin characters who don’t have any mutations.
Speaking of True Kin, I soon gravitated towards playing them again so I could try out the new cybernetics system. As before, True Kin have no mutations but generally have higher attributes and skills, and a heavier reliance on scavenging for equipment. Now, however, they can also take advantage of cybernetic enhancements that are unavailable to Mutated Humans. Players pick one such enhancement during character creation, and can find more as they explore, along with the Becoming Nooks where cybernetics can be installed and uninstalled. Pleasingly, cybernetics are rarely simple retreads of mutation abilities, instead offering advantages that are specific to True Kin characters. In effect, they are a separate set of equipment, gated by the need to accumulate rare cybernetics credit wedges in order to install more modules.
I played a few True Kin who focused on wearing heavy armor, but soon fell back on my old preference for characters who rely on dodging instead. A rework of the skill system means I could no longer use short blades based on agility, nor get free counterattacks with them when dodging; all melee attacks are based off of strength now. Instead, it’s best to equip a sword and use the defensive stance for some extra dodging ability, and then rely on ranged weapons for offense. There are cybernetics that help with this, like translucent skin, which grants an additional dodging bonus. One of my True Kin found a Gun Rack implant, which prevented wearing cloaks but let him equip two rifles simultaneously. Later I realized that the Big Hands implant, which lets characters wield two-handed weapons in one hand, works for rifles as well as melee weapons. Couple this with the gun rack and the Akimbo skill from the Pistols skill tree, and characters can equip four rifles at once and fire all four of them simultaneously. It became a personal goal of mine to acquire this combination of cybernetics and unleash absurd firepower against any who would dare oppose me.
Reader, I achieved this goal. Faustus Diotto, my True Kin Eunuch, was eventually able to equip three carbines and a laser rifle, and blast nearly anything to smithereens. One unanticipated bonus of this strategy was the fact that the carbines are only moderately accurate, so firing at one member of a distant pack of enemies could often kill several foes at once with a spray of bullets. The laser rifle gave me some more accurate damage at long range when I needed it. Faustus felt unstoppable, able to flinch out of the way of incoming bullets and respond with no less than nine lead slugs and a laser blast every turn. Given the way critical hits work in Caves of Qud (which is actually very poorly explained in-game), he would eventually get hit by a melee attack and it could do a lot of damage given his light armor, but he never let anything get close to him. That is, until he descended some stairs in a historic site and immediately ran into a pack of blue jells. Thinking these would be weak like the jells he’d faced on the floor above, I just started firing instead of running away. Big mistake, as Faustus soon found himself enveloped by the jell, removing his ability to dodge and eating away at his health every turn. He still managed to free himself by firing everything he had, but once the blue jell was dead, Faustus was immediately engulfed by the next one. If his cybernetic implant that let him teleport to a new location had actually functioned (it seems to be bugged at the moment) he might have survived. But it was not to be.
All of this was a ton of fun to play around with, and the only thing I really want now is more of the main story. I love the reworked Grit Gate, and the quests at Omonporch and the Rainbow Wood are great, but I want to know what will happen next. Fortunately, Freehold Games are hard at work on the Tomb of the Eaters, the next major location in the game, and have been posting regular updates to the beta branch as they put that together. Once it’s finished I’ll likely drop in for another look. If so, I’ll be sure to write about it here. In the meantime, I highly recommend taking a trip to Qud yourself. You can find Caves of Qud on Steam, GOG and Itch, and it’s well worth the asking price even in its unfinished state. Live and drink, friend.