When I first saw the PlayStation Store advertisement for Brut@l, I couldn’t help feeling a warm well of joy bubbling up from the dark abyss that is my love of classic ASCII Roguelikes. The visuals managed to capture the look of Rogue, ADOM, Nethack and other classics, and adapt them into a three-dimensional space in a way that was both aesthetically pleasing and reverent. The combat looked relatively simple, but functional, in the way many of these action-oriented dungeon crawlers are. The key features on the game’s store page checked all of the boxes of a good Rogue-inspired Action RPG. By all accounts, Brut@l should be a love letter to classic Roguelikes, but repeatedly fails to understand what makes those classics so great to begin with. What the players are left with is a shallow, uninspired, monotonous take on a genre that has consistently held itself to a standard of diversity, depth, and complexity.
The first bullet under the Brut@l’s key features reads “Choose from four unique characters”. Four characters or classes is a solid number for an action RPG, giving the player enough variety and diversity without watering down class skills, or repeating too many skills across classes. Many traditional roguelikes have upwards of 15 races and classes to choose from, each of which distributes stats differently, have different proficiencies, and their own strengths and weaknesses. For the sake of not repeating character art assets too many times, or having to create far more than the four present in Brut@l, not having that much variety is understandable. It would be a very expensive undertaking to make all of those combinations feel unique from a visual perspective, let alone class balance and skill variety. So “four unique characters” is completely fine. The problem with these “four unique characters” is that none of them are actually unique. Ranger, Mage, Warrior, and Amazon all share the same skill tree, and only starting skills are different between each class. Each class has a “unique ability”, but that ability boils down to a simple ranged attack in each instance. The warrior and Amazon throw their shield, Rangers shoot their bow, and Mages fire a magic missile. There is some visual variety, sure, but the classes are functionally the same. Everyone can wield the same weapons, learn the same skills, do the same amount of damage, and move at the same speed. Sure, a lot of classic roguelikes let you equip swords as a mage, wear heavy armor as a ranger, or cast spells as a warrior, but there are always penalties for doing so that make those tactics considerably less effective.
The procedurally generated dungeon floors of Brut@l leave a lot to be desired. There are traps, altars, pits, and secret rooms, but most of the non-combat encounters do not function as would be expected and are far less than thrilling. The traps lack variety, the altars only offer an extra life in exchange for an indeterminate amount of gold, the secret rooms aren’t particularly difficult to find and typically contain little of interest, and pits, instead of unexpectedly dropping you down a dungeon floor and doing some damage, are an instant death. Granted, in traditional roguelikes there was no guarantee of an interesting run with a diverse dungeon layout and exciting secret rooms, but there was enough variety in the procedural generation that interesting or exciting runs were much more common. The crafting system falls a bit short thanks to the procedural generation as well. In Brut@l, players will find crafting recipes that require a set of letters to create a weapon. Those letters can be found strewn about the dungeon floors, and once found are treated as knowledge, and can be used to craft weapons. Colored letters can also be found, allowing you to enchant each weapon with a different effect, provided you have the appropriate letter and color combination. The problem I have with this setup is that there are no weapons to be simply “found” in the game, everything must be crafted. This means that you could find a recipe for a weapon, but not find the required letters to craft it for another five floors. In the early game, this leaves you with your fists and a torch for fighting, which is effective enough on its own, but not being able to equip a new weapon every floor or two definitely hinders the “carrot on a stick” approach that many of these games so heavily rely on. The crafting system is a rather shallow complaint, as it is perfectly functional and equipping a weapon doesn’t drastically change gameplay, but the lack of variety in the game amplifies simple flaws and turns what would be a small problem into a painful problem.
The most offensive aspect of Brut@l for myself, however, is the complete lack of tension. In my playtime, I never felt like I needed to try. I didn’t feel like the game was actively fighting against me as I ventured down to the 26th dungeon floor the way I did in Nethack. Worse still, I felt like I was fighting myself. Too many of my deaths were the result of boredom or lack of attention. The game failed so miserably at keeping itself interesting, that I would fall into the same patterns of running down the hallway, clearing a room, taking damage, not caring because of the lack of difficulty, and moving on. Eventually I would stop paying attention to my health bar at all, and die a careless death, all because I was so disengaged from this game that presented itself as a love letter to my childhood, to the first genre I fell in love with. Brut@l consistently displays an almost offensive lack of understanding regarding its source material, and constantly reminds the player of what it is failing to achieve. The loading screens between dungeons present you with an @ symbol navigating its way through an ASCII dungeon, killing upper and lowercase letters. The visuals of the game are lovingly crafted, but betray the game’s mechanics and lack of depth. The simplistic combat comes nowhere near the tension of being surrounded by upper case “D”s and having to carefully plan your attack move by move in a near hopeless attempt to survive. I wanted to love Brut@l, and tried very hard to. But it is, at best, a mediocre dungeon crawler devoid of life in all but it’s visuals, and a poor representation of the influential genre from which it draws its inspiration. If you are someone who enjoys simple hack and slash action, there may be something here for you. But if you love ASCII roguelikes and want to see a modern, ARPG take on it, then this unfortunately is not where you will find it.
Brut@l is available exclusively on PS4 as a downloadable game for $14.99