This is the one hundred twenty-fourth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. This particular post is also an honorary entry in the Keeping Score series about games and their soundtracks. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Another random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality has arrived, a large axe held high above its head. But wait… has it done this before? It’s Tallowmere, by Chris McFarland, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

Raise your shield.

Very well, Chris McFarland, if you insist.

Do not be fooled by the simplistic art. Tallowmere is a surprisingly slick game once you get your hands on the keyboard (or gamepad). Succinctly, it is an action platformer roguelike, although that description is somewhat misleading: our hero can jump in midair as many times as they please, so the platforming isn’t so much about jumping challenges as it is a vehicle for fighting. And there sure is a lot of that. The procedurally generated dungeon levels may be simple affairs constructed from square tiles, our hero and his enemies 2D sprites with minimal animation, but once battle is joined the screen is a veritable explosion of shiny graphical effects. Red pixelated blood sprays from wounds, fireballs streak across the screen in a flurry of particle effects, shiny coins burst from fallen foes to scatter across the floor, only to be strewn all over again (along with the bloody remains of the dead) as explosions go off left and right. This all looks fantastic in motion, in stark contrast to the bland stone blocks that make up the dungeon.

The action feels good too. I played with the keyboard and mouse, although the mouse isn’t actually used for aiming. I could have just as easily played with both hands on the keyboard — or used a gamepad — but I had a spare mouse button set up to take screenshots already and I was too lazy to change that. Also, movement uses typical first-person shooter controls, with WASD (really just A and D in this case) to move and the space bar for jumping, and I prefer to have movement on my right hand when doing keyboard-only control. Anyway, there are just two non-movement buttons needed: the left moust button (or left arrow key) attacks, and the right mouse button (or right arrow key) raises the hero’s shield. Pleasingly, the shield can completely negate nearly all incoming threats, but it slows movement and must be lowered when attacking. This creates a nice flow between defense and offense. The roster of enemies offers various challenges that combine in interesting ways. An archer might be easy to deal with on its own, but paired with a cultist hurling a homing stun bomb, or a knight swinging its flail in ever widening circles, it becomes much more deadly.

It’s a good thing our hero has an equally varied arsenal. Every item in the game — weapons, clothing, hats, shields — is graced with randomized stats, perhaps boosting damage and health regeneration, or some resistances, or increasing movement speed. But there are set weapon archetypes, each with its own quirks. The axe is a standard melee weapon with no real advantages or disadvantages, but the spiked club will send enemies (and our hero!) flying when it connects. The emerald dagger lets the hero turn invisible and backstab enemies, while the katana teleports its wielder to nearby enemies with every strike. Ranged weapons felt weird at first because they automatically lock on to enemies instead of aiming freely with the mouse as I expected. That adds some danger to using the rocket launcher or grenades (yes, there are rocket launchers and grenades in Tallowmere, and flamethrowers too) because if the lock is lost, the hero might fire into a nearby wall and get caught in the blast.

So, different weapons are useful in different situations. Is a nearby pit full of enemies? Toss some grenades in. Distant archers shooting at you across a wide open space? Fire off some rockets. In practice, I found myself sticking to just a few weapons each run, based on the loot I happened to get. If I found a particularly great katana then I’d become a berserker, teleporting through packs of enemies as I chopped them up, whereas an emerald dagger festooned with bonuses would transform me into a silent assassin. But it pays to keep a few alternate weapons around for the right situations. Fortunately there are treasure chests with loot inside that open after key enemies are defeated. There are also caged merchants to be freed in many of the dungeon levels, who will happily buy unwanted equipment and sometimes have some nice things for sale.

Teleporters that take the hero back to the friendly starting area appear frequently too. Tallowmere is named for Lady Tallowmere, who has generously made this endless dungeon just for you, and will happily heal you for free whenever you visit her. There’s also a merchant there, and a demon statue where the hero can level up after collecting enough souls from defeated enemies (these statues appear scattered throughout the dungeon as well). A few other friendly faces offer optional challenges, including special challenge stages or modifiers that increase difficulty, although I never tried these. For those looking for an easier time, there are kittens that can be sacrificed to boost the hero’s health. I was assured that no one would judge me, but I persevered without any kitten killings regardless.

Altogether, Tallowmere is a pleasing package, and I returned for more runs than I thought I would. Repeated plays did reveal some limitations and annoyances, however. I like the enemies, but I’d seen them all after just a few dungeon levels, making for repetitive challenges on longer runs. I also quickly encountered all the random bosses that can appear, and ran into the same pre-set boss encounter many times. Switching weapons is awkward, whether using the mouse wheel or selecting from the on-screen weapon wheel, especially when carrying more than one of the same weapon type. The menu for equipping clothing and shields is a little clunky too. On my screen, text is extra tiny, including UI elements like my hero’s health, making it hard to know when to retreat in the thick of a fight. This meant some of my deaths were unpleasant surprises, as I thought I had plenty of health left but was actually on my last legs.

It’s good news, then, that Tallowmere has a sequel, prominently advertised on its page. Tallowmere 2: Curse of the Kittens is not included in the bundle, but judging from the trailer it looks like a nice improvement on Tallowmere’s core ideas. Some players will want to start there, but if you’ve got the bundle, or you’re curious about the original game, I can recommend the first Tallowmere. It may not satisfy for as many runs as the best roguelikes, but it’s solid fun, and worth the minimum price of $3.99 for those who missed it in the bundle. That includes versions for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Android, as well as the original soundtrack, composed by developer Chris McFarland. Which brings me to…

The Score:

The soundtrack to Tallowmere features 13 tracks clocking in at just about 14 minutes. It’s mostly relaxed lo-fi synthesizer-heavy music, reminding me a bit of the soundtrack to DROD: The City Beneath. All of the tracks are under two minutes in length, designed to be looped during play, but they work remarkably well outside the game too. The programmed beats and layered synth lines might technically make the music electronica, but it feels just as informed by classic chiptune video game soundtracks, with simple melodies to nod one’s head to while playing. There’s even a five-second “Item Get” jingle, although it’s reserved for a specific comedic moment rather than playing any time players nab a piece of loot.

I like the tunes here. They’re certainly short, but this means none of them outstay their welcome, offering nice little grooves that work well as background music for some other task. Computer work, household chores, even writing this post — all of these pair well with the music. I’m unlikely to listen to the soundtrack as a whole very often given its short runtime, but I’ll happily shuffle them in with other music when I need something to listen to in the background without it breaking my focus. A nice bonus to have along with this surprisingly engaging game.

That’s 124 down, and only 1617 to go!