Libraries. It's always libraries. They appear to be the prime publicly accessible location for a supernatural incursion into our world. In novels, films and games, there's never a swimming pool which features a portal to the realms of Hell. Nor is there an inter-dimensional star fissure cracking open reality from the already horrific depths of a public loo, despite the fact that such a place likely features more obscene and arcane text written on its walls than you'll find in a leather-bound volume at your local library.
Nonetheless, the endless rows of high-topped shelves filled to the brim with dusty old tomes still manage to provide an ideal setting for inducing a feeling of horror in a viewer or player. The eerie quiet that greets you as start Eldritch, the debut release from Minor Key Games, adds to the fear of the unknown within the maze-like library you're instantly thrust into.
Upon starting, a full-length mirror can be used to alter your appearance. Whilst the customisation options are limited, it's a nice feature that add a little bit of personality to the character you're going to be adventuring with. Various books on pedestals introduce you to the game's basic controls, and the first time you interact with an item, a pop-up window appears to explain the object and how to use it. Several of the volumes lying around also give a brief background to the mythos devised by H.P. Lovecraft that surrounds the game. For those with little prior knowledge, these texts give you a simple, truncated view of the situation your character faces.
Herein lies what is potentially a problem for some of those looking to play the game. The background lore is very light on the details whilst being sprinkled around in just a few locations, and the horror aspect is also kept to a minimum. Those who are looking for an engrossing and terrifying look into the dark corners of the Eldritch universe are going to be left rather empty-handed. What there is of the story is very much window-dressing as opposed to being the main focus of the game, in contrast to other Lovecraftian titles such as Dark Corners of The Earth.
After adjusting yourself to the game and its background you can delve into the first of the dungeons. These are accessed by reading from a trio of glowing books which suck you in and teleport you to a new location. There are three of these distinct new areas to explore, with several distinct floors to each one which change subtly in appearance as you progress through them. Your progress is noted by way of a grid-based map in the top corner of the screen.
For those unversed in the concept of a 'roguelike' game, the emphasis of this style of game is exploration through dynamically-created dungeons which are inhabited by creatures that can easily kill you in a couple of attacks. After dying, you are stripped of all your items and currency and sent back to the starting point in the library to try again.
In Eldritch the monsters are pulled from or influenced by various facets of the Cthulhu mythos, and you can defend yourself against them in a variety of ways. These range from direct use of weapons such as revolvers and knives, to more indirect tactics such as throwing rocks to create distracting noises and using timed explosives to take out enemies whilst you hide in cover.
You can also find supporting items, such as a compass which shows you the direction of the exit, or shoes which muffle the sound of your footsteps, allowing you to easily administer stealthy kills. Spells can also be learnt by praying to statues hidden behind locked doors, and they give you special abilities to navigate the dungeons, including beacon-based teleportation and invisibility.
These spells can be purchased with collectable artefacts found throughout the dungeons. The indirect cost for both these spells and the various items you use is that you can only carry one of each category of utility item, one spell and two weapons at any one time. This encourages gameplay based on a risk/reward model where you have to measure up the short-term usefulness of one ability against your long-term survival with the other options available. A destruction amulet may let you dispatch enemies faster and destroy some scenery, but it takes up the same slot as the compass, so you'll be exploring blind without knowing where to head to exit the level.
To further add to the risk/reward nature of the game, defeated enemies can be looted for ammunition and currency with the side-effect that once you've received your spoils the creature will respawn in a random section of the level you're in.
For the first couple of hours of gameplay, these elements balance out to create a reasonable challenge throughout the first two dungeons. However the challenge begins to dissipate fairly quickly afterwards. You'll learn which enemies can be killed quickly and which can be easily sneaked past, and consequently you'll go from having scarce amounts of ammunition for your revolver to constantly stockpiling a supply of a couple of dozen rounds. Artefacts will start to add up, and can be stored in or retrieved from linked chests so you can ensure that you have a decent supply if you end up dying.
As such, Eldritch fails to entirely live up to its roguelike heritage and may not appeal to those looking for the long-term, difficult challenges that can be found in other flag-bearers of the genre. In fact, after making my way through the second dungeon of the game, I sped through the remainder in such short fashion that I forgot to take screenshots as I was whizzing through it all.
After completing the game for the first time a New Game+ mode unlocks, which does turn the difficulty up a notch by allowing some of the stronger enemies to infringe upon you from the very beginning. The downside is that by now you've already seen everything the game has to offer and know how to deal with these threats. If the developers had included some form of difficulty slider or toggle from the outset, I'd be much more in favour of recommending this game to everyone.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Features that some players might perceive as weaknesses may appear to be strengths to others. With a reduced difficulty level and minimal dependency on knowledge of the background surrounding Cthulhu and his bretheren, the game is in fact well suited as an introductory-level affair for both roguelike gaming and the world of H.P. Lovecraft for those with little experience of either. The odds are never unfairly stacked against the player, and any fatalities incurred are always down to a lack of due diligence on the player's part. There are no instant death-traps or enemies that can not be countered, even if the countering action is simply to escape as promptly as possible.
Overall, I can't bring any major technical fault against Eldritch. It does what it does extremely well, and I encountered no bugs, glitches or crashes throughout my playtime. The underlying problem comes from the fact that what it does is unlikely to provide more than a passing distraction for those with a previous experience in playing roguelike games or the writings of Lovecraft.