Brut@l pays homage to the days when heroes and villains in video games were defined by little more than text symbols navigating dungeons constructed of dashes and dots. Brut@l’s shining moments in gameplay come from this stunning stylization. But it doesn’t just sit high on its own assurance of nostalgia for graphics of the past to carry the design. It runs with the roots of dungeon crawlers while incorporating modern capabilities to craft a stylized world overflowing with designers running wild with the opportunity to craft three dimensional worlds out of the
computer symbols for which we’ve become so familiar.

Playing Stormcloud Games’ latest release, Brut@l, you take the reins of one of four dungeon-crawling adventurers as you descend deeper through 26 randomly generated dungeon floors, fighting ASCII zombies and Minotaurs and plundering the grandest loot the underground labyrinth has to offer.

Kick ASCII Stylization

During your journey in Brut@l, all the landscapes, foes and items are conjured nearly entirely out of a combination of blank black space and white ASCII computer symbols. Yet the symbols don’t just pertain to the environment you navigate through. They’re also used in creative ways with the game’s core mechanics. As you explore each floor of the dungeon, you’ll find loot to be collected: food items, crafting recipes, potion items, and letters to be used for crafting or enchanting. Yes, you’ll find and collect various letters of the alphabet as you explore the dungeon; they form the ingredients for crafting weapons. Beyond the novelty of the idea, the letters required to build any given item are the letters used to visualize the weapon. Though it might not affect the game mechanics, it only adds to Brut@l’s commitment to its ASCII stylization.

The majority of the world you will encounter lies in the aforementioned monochrome palette. It builds up a very unique atmosphere. Brut@l’s musical score helps to bring you deeper into the dungeon. It’s not quite as memorable as some other OSTs, but it adds to the atmosphere with a dark, drum-pounding soundtrack laden with tension.

Building up the world in black and white, Brut@l makes tasteful usage of color in the dungeon. The most common application of color I saw during my time with Brut@l was the blood from engaging in combat. Though not vital, it adds a certain level of contrast to every combat encounter without being over-the-top gory or gratuitously graphic.

Whereas red blood during close encounters is self-explanatory enough, most of the game’s usage of colors is subtle yet far more practical. The game pairs colors to certain actions or capabilities without directly saying it. After being frozen a few times by light blue enemies and machines, you’ll start to pick up that light blue correlates with ice. Without giving anything more away, Brut@l builds these color patterns to become the key to conquering later puzzles.

The one instance of this color coordination that seems oddly absent is the game’s keys and gates. In Rogue-like tradition, the keys are given verbs to distinguish them. Yet it still remains
troublesome to coordinate which key you need for a given door. Every door is the same style of ornate ASCII architecture and even all show up in the same color on the map, making it obtusely difficulty to find out which door your key is paired with.

One of the neatest elements of having the world of Brut@l be a 3D adaptation of classic 2D text dungeons is when you get to see the world around you flattened and taken back to its inspiration. When journeying through the dungeon, sooner or later you’re going to need to open up the map to navigate. Once you pull it out, you’re in for a treat. The map takes Brut@l’s worlds of 3D text and devolves it back into the text dungeons the game takes inspiration from.

Savagely Satisfying Combat

Brut@l’s combat system is a somewhat simplified mix of games like Diablo and Gauntlet. You’ve got four slots that can be equipped to the diversity of crafted weapons, potions and items. The game has four characters from which to choose at the start of a dungeon run: Mage, Ranger, Amazon, and Warrior. Each of the characters have slightly different spreads across their basic attributes, like health and what skills or tools they have to start with. Each class begins with a slightly different array of unlocked skills, or magical abilities. But, after a few floors of the dungeon – once you’ve upgraded a few skills, gained some armor and crafted a weapon – the differences in the classes start to melt away. The armor negates any really noticeable difference in health and upgrading skills mutes the initial class skew.

Once you start to venture in the dungeon, you’ll soon be collecting an array of items and gear. That is, whenever you’re not worrying about enemies or traps. As you descend deeper, some of the loot you can find includes: crafting recipes, enchanting and weapon ingredients, potions supplies, and shining ASCII armor. Once you’ve crafted a weapon, you can also increase its capabilities even further with enchantments from loot you’ve found on your spelunking. Enchantments imbue any given weapon with additional properties like poison or fire, and are created using an alternative brightly colored alphabet that can be collected along with their monochrome counterpart used in crafting weapons.

I ended up just bashing the attack button with my best weapon for most of my time with Brut@l, using jumps and dashes to avoid enemy attacks. The weapons have a diversity in feel and play style, which gives each run a unique touch, even though there isn’t really any item synergy to speak of. Attacking has a hefty weight to it without putting a strain on agility with long animations. Attack targeting can be frustrating from time to time. While fighting an enemy, the game can misconstrue your aim to be more interested in opening a chest or attacking the local fireplace than dealing with the threat at hand. It wouldn’t surprise me if the game designers tighten up this aspect in later releases. The camera isn’t a major hindrance either, but it can be a little floaty and get too tight on the character, blinding your peripheral vision. All the classes come equipped with a shield, a weak point of the combat since it takes far too long to pull out; I found it more effective to just jump or dash away. While you have the shield up, you can also dodge in any direction; but due to the commitment of whipping out your shield, I took other, simpler methods of evasion.

Each weapon can also be launched into a special attack that has capabilities like wider areas of effect or dealing more damage. The problem is that each of the skills are unlocked in a skill tree. The skill tree is split into four rows, one for each of the classes, each row’s skills are most beneficial to their own class and their intended weapons. In my testing, I never had the fortune to get the weapon intended for my current class and wasn’t able to use my armament’s special attack. Fortunately, you’re not locked into your own class’ row and can spread out your upgrades to progress through any of the rows for any kind of weapon. One of the unfortunate problems with this is that, as you move through the dungeon and craft weapons there’s no guarantee that you’ll have unlocked the skills to use it. Some weapons like the bow are locked behind certain skills that are only available to the Ranger by default. You can still obtain it eventually with other classes, you’re just going to have to divert from your own class’ skills.

Beyond an initial dump of information totaling 10 pages at the beginning of the game covering the core mechanics, virtually no direction or instructions are handed out. Which led to some satisfying moments of self-discovery. At one point, I was beating up some barrels when a rat popped out and attached itself to my character. I panicked. I flinched and started to frantically press buttons to defeat my rodent assailant. After a few seconds of me pounding keys and my character spinning around like an overclocked carousel, my finger landed on the jump button, and my character took to the air leaving the rat behind.

Brut@l’s combat system might not have the strategy or depth of some games, but it still remains savagely enjoyable. Brut@l is the “comfort food” of video gam
es. The sensation of plowing through waves of enemies, rapidly upgrading your characters and their equipment is just plain fun. It’s not too challenging or frustrating, just goblin pummeling pleasure that tickles the visceral side of your brain.

Each floor up until the final 26th floor, which contains the boss, is randomly generated. After a few hours of play you might start to recognize a few rooms you’ve visited in a previous life. But the twisting layouts have remained fresh, floor after floor. This labyrinthian layout means that if you want to collect all the loot, experience and items the floor has to offer, you’re going to be backtracking through completed rooms to complete your investigation. Still, even searching 100% of a floor I was still able to get through it in 8 to 12 minutes.

Struggles of a Roguelike Reimagination

Permanent death is a common mechanic in Rogue-like dungeon crawlers, it’s something that I don’t mind as a concept. It can add to the suspense and desperation you feel as a player if done correctly. In my opinion, a fundamental part to doing permanent death right is making your death feel like it was your mistake or error and not your time being wasted by the game. Brut@l tested my will at some moments as after spending 45 minutes on a single run my progress was washed away in one fell swoop with something that I felt I had little control over. You don’t get to see the contents of a room or corridor until you walk through the entrance-way. Couple that with the character’s galloping pace and the out of no-where gaps in the platforms and you can have a situation where you move into a room with the path falling off just a few feet in. This leaves you with only a second or so to react. After an embarrassing amount of deaths to these gaps, I just had to force my brain to stop moving for a few seconds after I entered each and every doorway to grasp my surroundings.

In tradition of text adventure classics like Rogue, once your character bites the bullet, you’re back to the ground floor with a default character on the first level of the dungeon. However, to give you a little more of stability, it’s possible to gain extra lives by sacrificing your golden plunders to the game’s fiction gods at shrines. Unfortunately for us, Brut@l’s gods aren’t too generous. They’re happy to take your gold but hitting up the shines as much as I could, I only received three extra resurrection across all of my hours with the game. In Brut@l, shrines are the only method to use your loot; having something like a shop to buy items would be something I would love to see added. The shrines to donate your gold are as common as bread and can be found on nearly every dungeon floor. You’ll probably be finding the shrines faster than you’ll be able to scrape up enough gold to pledge.

In taking inspiration from classic text dungeon games like Rogue, Brut@l also carries over some of the older mechanics that can be harder to go back to. One of these classic landmarks of retro Rogue-like games was the potion system. Potions were designated only by color with the effect of the potion unknown until you tested them out on yourself or the enemy. Brut@l adopts this tradition for better or worse with crafted potions only being identified by color until consumed or tested. The game also has a hunger bar for some reason, I can’t quite understand why as it has no effect unless it runs out and I was always so stocked with food I never got remotely close to starving.


From PlayStation 4 to PC; a Brut@l Port Report

Brut@l was originally released on PlayStation 4, and I’m happy to say the PC Steam port of the game is quite good. The graphics options are minimal with only resolution, windowed mode and a single general graphic fidelity field available. But the game is well optimized and never dipped noticeably below 60 FPS on my PC laptop*. Brut@l also has a co-op mode were you can take on the dungeon with a crew of up to four players. The co-op is only local multiplayer with no online support, so sadly I wasn’t able to test it out.

The enemy A.I. inside of Brut@l is for the most part good. During my hours with the game, I encountered zero issues with enemy path finding or movement inside rooms in the dungeon. The A.I. doesn’t have a huge amount of character in the way each enemy will move around, but the diversity in movement speeds and slight differences in aggression depending on the enemy type give each foe a bit of a unique stance and demand consideration on how engage them. My praise of the A.I. halters when the Z (vertical) axis comes into play. Platforms and stairs don’t pose a problem. But hop down into the water slightly below an archer and you’ve got unprotected access to their legs without retaliation. The same problem in a more minor degree is present with jumping. Unless you have your shield out, no matter where you jump or run, the archer’s arrows will always find their mark. I even tried jumping directly over the archer to find that the arrow made a u-turn after being shot to then rocket straight up into my unsuspecting heroine’s feet.

Expanding the $15 game’s content even further; Brut@l has a built it level editor. You can create your own dungeon floors, play through them and publish them online for others to enjoy. Aside from definitely being intended to be used with a controller, the editor is well fleshed out and has all of the tools and objects you’d need to build some pretty creative dungeons. You are limited to building single floors versus a multi-leveled dungeon, but that functionality could be added in at a later date.

In the end, Brut@l is a game that I ended up getting sucked into and investing time to unwind and enjoy all that this stunningly stylized smash-fest had to offer. It does have a few flaws and frustrations, but pushes beyond that with creative style and gameplay that delivers the brutally enjoyable combat comfort food only a good old-fashioned dungeon crawling brawler can truly provide.

Buy Brut@l Here:

MSRP: $15
Platform: Steam
Developer: Stormcloud Games
Publisher: Rising Star Games
Game code provided by Stormcloud Games for review

*Testing hardware:
CPU: i7 6700hq
GPU: GTX 960m
RAM: 8 Gigabytes

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