Initial release: October 21, 2013
Developer: Minor Key Games
Ever thought to yourself, “hey, H.P. Lovecraft’s creations are cool and creepy, but what if they were cute and cuddly instead?” No? Well, Minor Key Games’ Eldritch is a… *checks notes* “roguelike immersive sim” that does that anyway… and still manages to be cool and creepy. Now, you’re probably wondering to yourself what the hell a “roguelike immersive sim” is. Luckily, you have me to tell you!
First the roguelike: this is a genre that goes back to 1980 with the game Rogue, which was a top-down, ASCII-art dungeon crawling game.
Though primitive by today’s standards, it spawned many clones, called “roguelikes,” many of which, like Nethack, are legendary in their own right. (See my reviews for Castle of the Winds and Diablo for a further exploration of the genre.) The two key features of roguelikes is randomness and permadeath, and when people say “roguelike” nowadays that’s what they mean. In other words, graphics (or lack thereof) don’t make the game, though some roguelike fans will disagree. In any case, Eldritch adheres to those two core principles: the game’s disparate worlds are all semi-randomly generated, and when you die you lose (almost) everything.
As far as “immersive sim,” I’m going to upset a few people when I say it’s a bullshit marketing buzzword that means nothing, but it’s generally understood to refer to a few specific design principles centered around allowing for creative solutions beyond what the developers intended. For reference, the three most commonly cited titles when discussing immersive sims are Thief (especially the first two,) System Shock (especially the second,) and Deus Ex (especially the original.) More modern titles include Dishonored and, arguably, Metal Gear Solid (fight me!)
At any rate, Eldritch is pretty explicitly intended to be in the tradition of these old classics, and their successors, and indeed, one can see the germ of the concept throughout the game. There’s quite a few ways you can get about doing your thing, using the various weapons and items. For example, say there’s a room you want to get to, but you’re in a damn maze and it’s too much of a hassle to work your way around. Throw some dynamite at a wall and make your own dungeon bypass. It’s just one of the many ways you can make progress.
You’re probably wondering, “what’s with the Minecraft aesthetic?” and to be quite honest with you, I find it not only charming, but essential to the game’s roguelike vibe. There are other roguelikes with more realistic graphics, like Phantasmal, but this has a unique identity.
don’t be fooled, this is not a Minecraft clone. There is no mining or crafting in this game — not when you could be Lovecrafting instead, hurr hurr. In spite of its cutesy aesthetic, this is a game that can frighten you out of nowhere, particularly since you can’t see behind you.
While the game is procedurally generated, it’s not a random mishmash of corridors. Each level is divided up into a 4x4x3 maze of prefabricated “rooms” (sometimes little more than a few tunnels) that do their best to smoothly line up. Your goal is basically to get to the bottom of each level, which is easier said than done early on. As with Ghosts ’n Goblins, your first goal should always be to get a knife. Pistols are also nice, but knives are essential in the early stages of the game.
The game is split into several disparate “worlds,” each one dramatically different from the other. Aside from a cozy library as a hub, you’ll be visiting worlds based on a figure from Lovecraft’s invented mythology: Dagon, Nyarlathotep and Cthulhu. Dagon’s is first and is by far the easiest: a network of dark, wet caves, ancient temples and little wooden fishing villages, it’s populated by hooded cultists and the most adorable fishmen you’ll ever meet. It’s quite easy once you master the basics and learn to read the map. Next is Nyarlathotep, and this is where things get concerning. Aside from unkillable, almost alien mummies who can only be put down temporarily, you also have more cultists, lizard men, and some statues straight out of Dr. Who, chasing you down amidst desert tombs and villages. And finally there’s Cthulhu, whose realm is a strange mix of a ruined wooden ship and ancient overgrown ruins, always with tentacles strewn about here and there like really thick cables — and sleeping baby cthulhus. Look at them. They’re cuddly.
Sort these levels out and find the elder souls at the bottom and you get to go through a final “eternal library level,” which is a sort of final exam that brings together all the enemies from throughout the game, all in the antiquated comfort of a library.
When you die, you can visit an asylum level as a sort of minigame where you gather “lost souls” for points. There’s also a dark Halloween level populated by pumpkinhead cultists and shoggoths, and a whole expansion based on Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (I’ll cover that later.)
There’s also some limited character creation, where you can change your character’s outfit and head, choosing from a rather small selection. This is purely cosmetic, as you can’t even see your character in normal gameplay. But it’s nice to have.
This isn’t the deepest game ever. I wish there were more rooms. I wish there were more areas. I wish there were mod tools. But it’s entertaining, and it doesn’t take long to do a complete run of the base game once you’ve learned how it thinks. And after almost six years since the original release, Minor Key pushed out a major update that upgraded the executable as well as the engine, adding multiple new features as well as expanding the repertoire of rooms. The fact that the developer pushed out a massive update for free after all that time is just… well, it’s very nice indeed, and it’s only made a great game even better. The asking price of $15 is pretty low for the opportunity to punch a shoggoth.