You may read my earlier posts about Caves of Qud here. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

I last wrote about Caves of Qud almost two years ago. But I’ve been following the weekly updates for this excellent far-future roguelike about scavenging ancient sci-fi technology the whole time. There have been some big ones. A whole new segment of the main storyline was added, centered on the Tomb of the Eaters, where the ancient rulers of Earth and the stars beyond are interred. A large swath of the southeastern jungle has been replaced by a vast lake, hosting a new area known as the Palladium Reef on its eastern edge. This even includes a new friendly settlement known as the Yd Freehold. Then there are some big mechanical changes: the option to ease up the punishing permadeath mechanics by playing in RPG mode, where the game is checkpointed at towns, or even Wander mode, where no experience points are awarded for combat and most factions start out neutral to the player.

All of that was tempting, but not quite enough to lure me back, since I knew that once I started playing it would devour my free time. No, what finally convinced me to dive in again was the announcement that the early game areas of Red Rock and the Rust Wells had finally been redesigned. Many new characters meet their deaths in these relatively uninteresting caves, meaning players may never see the much, much cooler stuff to come farther along the storyline. A redesign hopefully meant the early quests were brought up to par with the rest of the game. I decided to find out.

If you are unfamiliar with Caves of Qud, my earlier posts go into more detail on what it is, but I’ll give a quick summary here. The game is set in a very distant future. Humankind once wielded wondrous technology and enjoyed dominion over the earth and stars, but that was millennia ago. New civilizations have arisen since, but none can match the Eaters’ might, and many adventurers cross the great salt desert to brave the jungles of Qud in search of untold treasures within the Eaters’ buried chrome caverns. Players control one such adventurer, who may be a mutated human with all manner of strange physical and mental abilities (e.g. multiple limbs, tortoise shells, the ability to summon copies of oneself from different moments in time), or a True Kin, who lacks mutations but can install a variety of cybernetic enhancements. The game operates as a traditional roguelike, with top-down turn-based exploration of tile-based screens, but with a persistent world map. Travel via the world map is possible, but every tile of that map corresponds to a 3×3 grid of “standard” screens, each of which is procedurally generated every game. So one could simply wander the world, trekking through desert canyons and jungles. Or, one might follow the main storyline, which points to specific (and quite dangerous) locations throughout Qud. Caves of Qud has writing full of wonderful poetic imagery, a strange and compelling world, and is just generally great. Its storyline is not yet complete, but with steady weekly updates over the years, developers Freehold Games have made something that’s well worth playing already.

Firing up the game now, the first things I noticed were some of the smaller changes. The interface has undergone some nice redesigns, filling the (formerly blank) space at the top and bottom of the screen with helpful info and clickable buttons for a character’s active abilities. The sidebar, which holds the message log, is nicer looking and now has a transparent background so it’s a bit easier to see the terrain underneath (and of course, the sidebar is still toggleable when a clearer view is needed). Pop-up messages are now higher resolution, although they look a bit odd since they’re so tiny relative to the rest of the screen. If a message is so important that it pops up in the center of the screen, why not make it bigger? There’s some rough edges between newer, high resolution interface elements and older ones with chunkier fonts. Some of this may be due to my own interface settings, since I likely turned off the modern UI bits long ago because they were barely functional back then. There might be an option to remove the older elements altogether now, but I wasn’t bothered enough to go looking for it.

I was intrigued to try the new Wander mode. One thing that bothered me about Caves of Qud is that character experience — needed for leveling up, learning new skills, and powering up mutation abilities — is largely tied to combat. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it did mean that sometimes I was incentivized to start fights with neutral critters, like the herds of equimax (who are basically horse bodybuilders), just to get experience. It broke immersion a bit, because my character would not have any reason to hunt these creatures otherwise. Since Wander mode removes all experience rewards from combat, instead granting extra experience for completing quests and performing the water ritual with people, my character should not feel compelled to fight when it wasn’t necessary.

In practice, however, Wander mode just emphasized how central combat is to Caves of Qud. Embarking on an early quest, no one I encountered wanted to fight me. They were happy to fight each other, of course, assessing friends and foes based on the game’s faction system. So I found myself wandering through battlefields as a neutral observer. No one cared when I looted corpses left behind after the fights, or even when I rifled through chests in their fort. But all the stuff I found was for fighting: better armor and weapons, grenades, injectors that could increase my prowess for a limited time. I never needed to use any of it. When I found important characters I could perform the water ritual with them, earning me experience in addition to the usual information or skill training, but when my character leveled up I found myself choosing from a set of skills that were all geared toward combat. Charge attacks, extra defense, clever maneuvers, berating enemies… I never had any use for these, since everyone was indifferent to my presence. Caves of Qud is a game about scavenging and fighting, and without the fighting the scavenging feels a little empty. By the time I finished the first quest, I was getting bored.

I did enjoy the new early game locations, though. Red Rock used to be a bland collection of rectangular rooms, a holdover from the earliest days of development when Caves of Qud still used ASCII graphics. Now, it’s a much more natural cavern, with winding passages, special encounters including old machinery, and often a fort full of nasty snapjaws to tangle with. The new Rust Wells are even better. They’re now actual wells, several levels deep, which players can slide down into, or carefully descend floor by floor via the passages surrounding the central pit. They’re also aptly named, packed full of hostile plants and creatures that will rust players’ equipment if they aren’t careful (and often even if they are). The Rust Wells are not a place I wanted to linger, and in this sense act as a primer for some more dangerous locations that come later in the game. Those later locations are still far more interesting and exciting, but Red Rock and the Rust Wells now give better hints of what’s in store for players who continue to follow the story.

I decided I wanted to see how tough these places were without Wander mode, so I switched back to Classic mode, with its permadeath and standard experience rewards for battle, and tried playing some randomized characters. This was fun, since it forced me to try out things I normally wouldn’t have. The mutation system has been overhauled since I last played, removing drawbacks that made certain mutations less attractive, and occasionally granting a rapid increase in power for a chosen mutation when leveling up, which can even raise a mutation beyond the normal maximum level of 10. My most notable mutant had a suite of mutations that I never would have thought to combine. She had heightened hearing, which let her locate creatures even when she couldn’t see them (including through walls) which was surprisingly helpful. At level 1 it had limited range, but later I chose it for rapid advancement and it suddenly became a very potent method of assessing threats. I spent most of the time powering up her electrical generation mutation, which let her discharge electricity into an adjacent enemy (which could then arc to other nearby creatures) for a lot of damage, although she needed time to recharge afterwards. Lastly she had phasing, which let her phase out of reality for a few turns, unable to be attacked by anything that is not also phased, and letting her pass through walls.

I hadn’t appreciated just how useful phasing is when things get dangerous. Once, having gotten lost while traveling to her destination, she got into a scrape in some desert canyons, using an electrical discharge to dispatch some enemies. But the electricity arced to some nearby equimax, enraging them. They were too tough for my adventurer to handle, so she simply phased and walked through a canyon wall to the other side. There she was able to rest and heal, but there was no way out of the hollow she found herself in. She would have to go back through the wall. Because of her heightened hearing, she could tell that the equimax were still waiting on the other side. So she doused her torch, phased back through the wall, and then snuck past the angry equines using hearing alone. It was a memorable escape.

This character also happened to be a Warden, which meant she started the game with bonus reputation with the Fellowship of Wardens. This organization acts like law enforcement for different settlements across Qud, assigning each a fearsome warrior to protect the citizens and deal with any player characters who might start fights or try stealing things. Since my character started with bonus reputation, she was able to earn enough goodwill through a few water rituals to convince Wardens Esther of the Six Day Stilt to join her. Wardens Esther appear to be one person, but become many during battle, stepping across time to aid each other in combat. That meant I had a host of fearsome swordfighters on my side, and barely needed to fight anything myself. That is, until an ill-fated expedition through the jungle led me past a greater voider nest. And not just any greater voider. A unique, extra-powerful greater voider, with its own coven of regular greater voiders. These horrible transdimensional spiders seek out their prey and then teleport it back to their enclosed nest to eat it. As I wandered I saw the ripples of Wardens Esther being teleported, then heard the sounds of fighting from within the circle of plant matter to the north (there are new sounds, and animations, for melee combat that are really helpful, indicating quickly who is attacking whom, and whether the attacks landed, missed, or clattered off of armor, and how much damage was done). A few turns later, I got the message that she’d died at the hands (forelegs?) of the aforementioned unique greater voider.

I knew I had no chance of taking on the creature myself. But I kind of wanted Wardens Esther’s stuff, since she had some nice weapons and armor. Approaching the nest, my heightened hearing revealed the voiders and Esther’s corpse within. I decided to phase in, nab the stuff, and get out. This worked! But then as I fled through the jungle, no longer phased, one of the regular greater voiders chased me. I couldn’t outrun it, so I turned to fight; big mistake. My electrical discharge did a good amount of damage, but then it teleported me back to the nest and I found myself surrounded. With my phasing ability on cooldown, I couldn’t use that to escape. I still could have gotten out of there, if I’d been smarter and realized I had some yondercane I could eat to teleport myself once again. But I didn’t, so I died.

That’s OK, though, because my next random character was even more fun. I got a True Kin this time, a Child of the Hearth from the Crustal Mortars of Yawningmoon, who started with carbide hand bone implants. This made his bare (or gauntleted) fists do a bunch of extra damage. Looking up unarmed combat on the official wiki, I learned that it uses the Cudgel skill tree, which is good because he started with some of those skills already. I never really bothered with cudgels before, but the skills are actually really nice, granting a chance of extra attacks per turn and chances to daze and stun enemies with repeated blows. The most important thing, however, was learning that unarmed combat has no strength cap. Most melee weapons are capped based on their tier, so even if a character is incredibly strong, there’s only so much damage they can do with a bronze warhammer, making an upgrade to carbide or fulcrete desirable. Not so with my carbide fists. High strength meant my Child of the Hearth could reach absurd penetration levels, smashing through armor do deal damage multiple times each attack.

Also, he had two fists. Which meant, with a little investment in his Agility stat, I could go after skills that let him fight with both hands. That was something of a long-term investment, because he needed to carry a torch early on. But once he found a hands-free light source — in this case, a miner’s helmet with a built-in lamp — he was free to start one-two punching everything. This was so much fun! He pummeled his way through all opposition and got reasonably far in the storyline, until he tried entering the area known as Golgotha, which is something of an infamous difficulty spike. It’s a ruined, partially functional, and completely horrible garbage processing plant full of sludge, sewage, disease, and nasty creatures. He couldn’t punch fast enough, and couldn’t find any moments of peace to rest and heal, eventually succumbing to the onslaught in the bowels of the place.

His death reminded me how harsh the permadeath in Caves of Qud can feel. Getting farther along the main quest line means investing a lot of time in a single character, especially considering all the opportunities for exploration and scavenging better equipment on the side. What I should have done, I realized, is use the new RPG mode, which would have let me reload from the last town and try again. So, I decided to try RPG mode, and I enjoyed my punching adventures so much I decided to craft my own, very similar character. I named him Mr. Fist.

I eventually took Mr. First to the end of the existing storyline, although I did have to reload his game a few times, after some unfortunate deaths. It went better than expected though. Aside from an early death, I had no trouble until very late in the game, well past the part where my original carbide fist fighter died. Mr. Fist grew to be an incredibly formidable fighter, eventually upgrading his carbide hand bones to crysteel hand bones. With fully trained skills and absurdly high strength from leveling and special equipment, he was landing as many as three punches per turn, each of which could do around 30-50 damage. To put that into perspective, even the toughest enemies I encountered didn’t have much more than 100 health. Only the most heavily armored enemies could stand against him for long, and he was smart enough to carry guns for situations where melee fighting is simply not advisable. He was also my most successful character to use heavy armor, rather than focusing on dodging. Heavy armor is a lot of fun, especially since I learned enough Tinkering to mod it into being “willowy”, reducing its weight to one quarter of the original value. Mr. Fist wasn’t too big on Tinkering, never building fancy laser rifles like some of my earlier characters had, but he found the new (ish? It may have been present when I played two years ago) ability to use Tinkering to mod items very useful.

Mr. Fist’s craziest battle happened about halfway through the main story. He was exploring one of the cooler locations in the game, which I don’t want to spoil, but he ran into a unique and powerful psychic enemy. Mental attacks were Mr. Fist’s main weakness, so I tried to run away, heading back up the stairs to the previous floor. But the enemy followed, and then — seemingly out of nowhere — his army of psychic thralls appeared, all around me. They were incredibly tough. He had not one, but two clones of Saad Amus, the Sky-Bear. In previous plays, I’d battled the original Saad Amus, and let me tell you, one of him is plenty dangerous enough. On top of that, my psychic foe had apparently enlisted the help of an entire dromad caravan. These are usually friendly, offering useful wares for barter, but since these were thralls, they were hostile. And they’re very dangerous, with several well-equipped guards, their massive tortoise-like saltbacks (used as pack animals), and of course the extra-tough dromad merchant himself. I was certain Mr. Fist would die.

But, amazingly, he survived, thanks to a force bracelet that extended a forcefield around him. If the psychic leader had had the Sunder Mind ability, Mr. Fist would have been a goner, but he didn’t, so he just waited helplessly outside the forcefield, which blocked incoming fire but let Mr. Fist fire out. It’s a good thing Mr. Fist had stockpiled a ton of chem cells, because he burned through most of them due to the high power drain of the force bracelet. But it let him unload clip after clip into his foes with his masterwork carbine, until the psychic leader, the Saad Amus clones, and dromad guards lay dead. Bullets were useless against the thick armor of the lone saltback, however, so I turned off the forcefield and tried some old-fashioned punching. Even with his high strength, Mr. Fist’s fists did not often penetrate the saltback’s armor, but it turns out they didn’t have to in order to stun. The saltback didn’t seem to have much resistance to stunning, so I just pummeled it over and over, doing damage every once and a while, and preventing it from striking back. It did occasionally get a hit in, doing a frightening amount of damage, but not often enough to be a threat, and eventually Mr. Fist managed to beat it to death. After the epic battle, I was able to take the dromad merchant’s entire stock of high quality loot, which was awesome.

I may have managed to survive that encounter, but there are other moments of extreme danger that can arise in Caves of Qud, which is why RPG mode is so helpful. Once, while exploring a location containing a semi-stable spacetime vortex, strange creatures emerged that managed to kill Mr. Fist. They didn’t even seem that threatening at the time. One had the ability to dismember foes, and it simply bit off Mr. Fist’s head. No chance to recover from that. Another was the same type of foe that felled my character the last time, and I should have known better (and definitely should have engaged my force bracelet again). But I was thankful to be able to reload after these encounters without having to start all over again.

It made it much less painful to reach the end of the existing story, and man, the latest part is really cool. It centers on the Tomb of the Eaters, built around the Spindle that pierces the heavens in the northern jungles. I don’t want to spoil this, so I can only beg that you persevere with the game long enough to reach it. It’s so, so good, and I can’t wait to see where the story goes from there. There aren’t any story segments in the Yd Freehold or the Palladium Reef yet, so maybe that’s next? I did visit those locations just to see them, though, and they’re fascinating, full of frog creatures and teleporting mollusks.

I haven’t had time to cover all the small tweaks and fixes to skills and whatnot that have also accumulated over the years. Let’s just say that Caves of Qud is the best it’s ever been, and is poised to keep getting better. It’s also more welcoming to new players than ever before. In addition to the RPG and Wander game modes, and the redesign of the early locations, there are also a bunch of premade characters for new players to try, before they experiment with the (daunting) character creator themselves. I didn’t even look at these until after Mr. Fist’s adventure was complete, but was amused to discover that Mr. Fist — or rather, a character quite like him, with carbide hand bones for some overpowered punches — is one of the preset options for True Kin (although it’s listed as the hardest of the three). There are six options for mutants, including the Dream Tortoise, Gunwing, and Star-Eye Esper, each focused on a different set of strategies and mechanics. Once players get the hang of these, they can tweak them, or just start making their own characters from scratch.

If any of this sounds fun to you, consider giving Caves of Qud a try. It’s already great, and well worth your time. It’s sold on Steam, GOG and, with all future updates included for free. You may find yourself lost in Qud, only to realize that there’s nowhere you’d rather be. Live and drink, friend.