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Freeware Game Pick: Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup

The new Zot Defence survival playmode in action.

Evolution of the Roguelike: The new Zot Defence survival playmode in action.

Roguelikes get a fair bit of coverage here, but it’s usually the new kids on the block. It’s about time we take a good, hard look at the lumbering juggernaut of the scene – a game considered so good that many (veterans and newbies alike) have sworn off Nethack to devote their hack n’ slashing lives to it – Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup.

First, a little history: Once upon a time, there was a game called Rogue. A top-down view turn-based RPG with ASCII (text-based) graphics, where you played as a generic hero on a generic quest to recover a generic treasure from a generic dungeon. The twist being that the dungeon was randomly generated every time, leading to both infinite replayability and a structure that kept even experienced players on their toes. Over the years, more games similar to Rogue were released, thus the Roguelike genre was born.

Rogue, the dungeon adventure that started it all.

Rogue, the dungeon adventure that started it all.

For the longest time, Nethack was the one must-play game out there. A logical evolution of Rogue. More monsters, more types of dungeon, more objectives, tons of hidden quirks and details and impressive depth all round. Development on it has stagnated for a very long time, though, and the game is largely inaccessible to newcomers without reading through reams of ‘spoilers’, teaching you how to do things that you’d never find out through regular play, like how carving ‘Elbereth’ into the floor with a sharp weapon creates a safe-zone where enemies can’t attack you.

Nethack, all dressed up for the party in simple tiled graphics.

Nethack, all dressed up for the party in simple tiled graphics.

And thus, Linley’s Dungeon Crawl was born. An attempt to take Roguelikes back to basics, where survival was more dictated by tactical choices and forward thinking, rather than your ability to exploit loopholes and manipulate luck in strange ways. Development halted before long as the creator moved on to other projects, and it fell to the wayside. Fortunately, Linley was kind enough to release the source-code for the game, and the DC Stone Soup project took over.

And so we finally get to the game of the day. DCSS is an actively developed, enormously expanded version of the original Dungeon Crawl, featuring remarkably good and useful tile-based graphics (fully optional, along with a mouse-centric interface), countless new enemy types, more varied and interesting dungeon types, tons of playable races and classes and far, far more. What sets it apart from the crowd is that it’s all designed with intuitive play and accessibility in mind. While far from an easy game (there are very few elements that you can cheese/exploit for an easy victory), there’s also much less chance of a sudden and unexpected death. If you die, it’s probably because you made a bad decision somewhere along the way.

It's not all dry stone walls. Huge infested swamplands await you below, too.

It's not all dry stone walls. Huge bug-infested swamplands await you below, too.

To further drive home the accessibility of the game, recent versions have added a full tutorial mode, walking you through the very basics step by step, and a Hints mode to guide you through your first couple of games by providing useful tips and guidance upon seeing certain things, or reaching certain statuses. Beyond that, there are even several new playmodes, including Dungeon Sprint, where you try to complete pre-built dungeon obstacle courses in as few turns as possible, and Zot Defence, where you need to get some tactics worked out to defend the legendary Orb of Zot (the campaign goal, normally) from waves of monsters.

Among the many interesting features of the game is the shockingly well fleshed-out religion system. While some classes/races start out already worshipping a deity, most characters will have the option to choose a god to follow after clearing a few floors of the dungeon. By performing actions that please your god of choice (and avoiding actions that anger them), you’ll gradually earn new themed powers, upgrades and artifacts gifted to you from above as well as the chance to call upon them for divine aid when you’re in trouble. Well, unless you’re worshipping Xom, god of chaos, who will constantly screw with you for laughs, mutating your body and summoning random creatures for you to fight.

Some areas require special equipment. You'll need more than sunglasses in the core of a volcano.

Some areas require special gear. You'll need more than sunglasses in the core of a volcano.

The structure of the dungeon is much more than a straight path, too. While the core ‘tower’ of the dungeon is 27 floors straight down, there’s a good dozen or so side-dungeons that branch off as various points. Several of these need to be completed in order to collect the keys required to enter the final stretch of the game, so progression isn’t entirely linear, and the dungeons which you complete are up to you to decide, meaning that even successful runs can go very different routes. There are countless variants of each dungeon type, too, with ‘vaults’ (hand-crafted special areas) mixed in with the usual randomly generated caverns and tunnels, and more is being added with each new version.

Feeling lazy? Host NPC gladiatorial battles for your amusement in the arena mode.

Feeling lazy? Host NPC gladiatorial battles for your amusement in the Arena mode.

There’s a vast amount of content and depth here, as well as tutorial and hint-assisted modes to ease newer players into the fold. If the sound of unlimited dungeoneering gets your adventure gland tingling, then DCSS is a must-download. For more adventurous players, you can also get work-in-progress builds of the game here, updated every few days, often featuring new dungeon areas, playable races and interface enhancements.