Review: rooMaze

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I honestly dread games that self-describe as “hardcore” these days. It might have meant something in the days of Super Meat Boy but now it’s cover for poorly-implemented systems and difficulty curves with right angles. Wrestling with imprecise combat and needlessly-complicated puzzles certainly makes a game harder, but in a way that’s not at all engaging or engrossing. rooMaze falls victim to that very design trap, and sadly takes a lot of promising concepts and enemy designs down with it.

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I guess “hardcore” games don’t need stories either, because I don’t have a damn clue why you’re in a dungeon full of monsters and traps. It feels like there’s supposed to be a story though, because the surprisingly-detailed voxel graphics bring alive warm rooms of tables piled high with ancient texts, ruined alchemy labs dashed with blood, and mysterious prisons built to hold unseen prisoners. But nope, you’re just there to loot and kill, and the flying eyes and rickety skeletons and rats of unusual squareness do an excellent job of keeping you from success on that front. No, really, they’re not going to let you do shit.

rooMaze combat is reminiscent of the ancient Morrowind shuffling and stabbing, and in none of the good ways. There are no random misses or blocks here but the hit detection is so exacting that lining up glacially-slow swings can be agonizing. Everything happens at a snail’s pace, which is good because you need to be evading every single one of your opponent’s blows. The most basic enemies like rats and skeletons can murder you unless you’re constantly juking out of their range, then swooping back in for your own hits. This basic pattern becomes mind-numbing against single enemies, and frantically frustrating against groups.

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The game will happily ambush you with three or four foes right out of the first room, before you’ve even had a chance to find real weapons. Casual difficulty starts you with a weapon but what passes for normal gives you naught but a rusty piece of metal. On one of the few runs where I escaped the first rooms alive I found some new gear like broadswords and shields, but I needed a rank up in Warrior skills and that meant I needed to gain four more levels before I could even hold a real sword. Needless to say I died soon thereafter, and only once found an elevator out of the first level. If there’s some secret to survival beyond getting perfect at the boring combat and waiting forever for useful gear, I can’t be arsed to find it.

Combat isn’t even the only place rooMaze tries to earn its “hardcore” moniker, either. Rooms are incredibly dark, often requiring you to use limited candles to light them with still-insufficient light. Dead ends are frequent, expecting you to find hidden switches that lead to more hidden switches, sometimes eight deep. And the traps are everywhere, peppering you with arrows or slashing you with spinning blades if you happen to miss the dark pressure plate on the dark floor in the dark room. Every step of your journey is laborious, fighting an uphill battle against a game that piles more and more shit on you the closer you get to having fun.

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rooMaze feels like a game that started as a student project and then never benefited from any sort of playtesting or feedback or general sanity checking. It’s a game that expects you to “git gud” without ever giving you a reason to git the aforementioned gud. There exist no secrets or gameplay revelations that would make trudging through dismal rooms and dancing around stiff enemies worth it. And even if I wanted to, it’s missing basic features like a resolution that fits my monitor and the option to invert the mouse. I don’t know why anyone would put themselves through this kind of punishment when there are so many better dungeon crawls on Steam, so I strongly advise you go find some of them instead.

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