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An exciting new take on dungeoncrawling., May 17, 2013
I had a problem during the 2011 Interactive Fiction Competition. I was supposed to be getting a move on and reviewing all of the other entrants' games, but I kept procrastinating by sneaking away to play Kerkerkruip. By the time the competition was over, I had played it at least 50 times in my quest to complete the game on Normal difficulty. This is testimony to Kerkerkruip's addictiveness, which grows out of the stiff but strategically overcomeable challenge it presents and the relatively infinite pool of circumstantial variations it offers to dungeongoers. The latter quality is what makes the game really memorable and anecdote-worthy once a player has got a handle on its mechanics.
A moment's divergence for the consumer guide part of this review: Kerkerkruip is certainly not a traditional IF game or text adventure in which the player solves unchanging puzzles en route to particular goals while possibly becoming involved in a narrative the author has laid out. This is a high-stakes game of Dungeons & Dragons adventuring in randomly generated dungeons. At the same time, it is delivered by text and controlled by a parser, and uses explorative elements in some typical adventure game-like ways. In all of these capacities, it is obviously from the school of text adventures, and not completely unlike a combat MUD or a modern incarnation of Eamon, though a plotless one. Also note that it is essential to at least read the Beginner's Guide before playing (I found this three page guide to be the easiest way into the game, as opposed to traveling through multiple inline HELP menus) or Kerkerkruip will promptly kick you to the pavement.
Your goal is to find and kill the evil wizard Malygris of the dungeon Kerkerkruip. You begin armed with a rapier; more significant weaponry and equipment must be found in the dungeon. Usually there will be about five other groups of monsters lurking around, and it is only by defeating these monsters and absorbing their powers and health in a wisely chosen order (new powers only accumulate if they are weaker than powers you already possess) that you will have a hope of becoming powerful enough to defeat the wizard. The dungeon contents and layout and the roster of monsters change every time you die or restart. You can't save the game except to take a break, and there is no UNDO. These danger-increasing elements are common to another genre of game Kerkerkruip announces that it belongs to: the roguelike, named, unsurprisingly, after a particular game called Rogue.
Movement is handled with the traditional compass commands, augmented by a "go to" command and a handy "remember" command, but the combat makes use of the ATTACK system originated by the author and is divided into Action and Reaction phases. By working with just a handful of well balanced temporal elements, Kerkerkruip ensures each decision you make about what to do next in battle carries significant weight. Should you Attack now, or build up the strength of your next attack by pausing to Concentrate? You can try to build up to three levels of concentration, but if you're struck in the meantime, your concentration will be broken. On the other hand, if you never concentrate, your attacks won't grow strong enough to finish off the bad guys before they finish you.
This core system is simple enough for anyone to understand, but its application in any moment is modified by a huge number of variables, amongst them: the geography of the room you're in (e.g. it doesn't pay to Dodge while fighting on a narrow bridge over lava), the nature and habits of the enemy you're facing (e.g. animated daggers attack ceaselessly and break your concentration as often – the jumping bomb will never break your concentration, but if it gathers enough concentration itself, it will explode and kill you instantly), the Tension in the air (how long has it been since anyone last struck a blow?), your current status and arsenal of powers, and the interference of a further array of supernatural stuff like fickle dungeon gods or weird summoned entities.
The sum effect of the play amongst all these interrelated elements is that Kerkerkruip is capable of generating the exciting sense that with almost every move you make, the whole game is at stake. The circumstances of danger can rearrange themselves into so many different patterns that a lot of your battles will strike you as uniquely memorable, even when you're dealing with the same small roster of monsters over and over again. You can marvel at a seemingly (or actually) brilliant series of moves you make that succeed in resuscitating your prospects when you're down to 1 hp. Similarly you can laugh at the results of a particularly bold, stupid or unlucky move that backfires spectacularly, or at some confluence of events so extraordinary that you'll feel like telling someone else about it. You will certainly die far more often than you will win, but this is a game where experience, exploration and repeat plays really pay off, and the strategic element is always vivid, the prospect of victory always tantalising.
Ultimately, Kerkerkruip is an essential and massively replayable game for dungeon and combat fans, and also demonstrates the kind of novelty and elegant design that is inspiring in general.