Review: I.V.A.N.

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A dank tunnel runs beneath the ocean, connecting the village of New Attnam with the continent. In the lowest level of this passage dwells a massive, carnivorous plant that has claimed dozens of my adventurers. But I was ready for it this time, armed with axe and wand, with my trusty puppy at my side. The battle was fierce, and the beast suceeded in biting off one of my legs which made escape impossible. I fought on until I lost my axe arm as well, and in a panic I blasted the thing with a wand of acid rain. The spell worked and fatally burned the arboreal nightmare, but casting it so close splashed acid on me as well, melting my remaining arm and leg. I laid there on the cold, bloody stone, helpless but pleased with my victory. My puppy decided to celebrate by feasting on the fruit dropped by the dead plant, brushing past me and nudging my torso into a shallow pool of acid. My head quickly dissolved, leaving my companion masterless.

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I.V.A.N. stands for Iter Vehemens ad Necem, which is Latin for “Violent Road to Death”. Even among the murderous, merciless ranks of classic roguelikes it’s an apt name, for few titles manage the same degree of brutal, often hilarious difficulty. You are some poor schmuck living on an island in the Attnamese Empire, a self-serving bunch of banana-eating, frog-worshipping jackasses. The chief of your island wants you to deliver a message to the capital, which means scrounging through the deadly tunnel to the mainland and hiking across the wilderness, at which point you can be sure you’ll be sent on another suicidal errand. You’ll need gear to survive, everything from leather boots to nymph hair capes, as well as food, potions, scrolls, and all the other bits and bobs you’ve come to expect from a roguelike.

What sets I.V.A.N. apart and what makes it an eternal classic in my eyes is the absurd level of detail in the systems. You’re not just an amorphous blob of stats behind an @ symbol here, you’re a fleshy person with blood and vomit that can be spilled and limbs that can (and will) be severed. Vital fluids can be splattered all over the dungeon, to the point that you can actually track wounded foes by the trail. Your limbs will go flying off, but you can always gather them up and wield them, or regenerate them, or pray to the fickle gods for help. I was once granted amethyst golem arms from the god of wealth and riches, which tore through my foes until I took on actual golems. They ripped my fancy arms off, and I guess my god was upset I lost their gift because praying again got me arms of colorful cloth.

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Things go wrong in roguelikes, that’s a huge part of the appeal in the attempt-die-retry cycle. But things go drastically, dreadfully wrong in I.V.A.N. every time you play, if you hadn’t picked that up from my tales. The foundations are here for a solid dungeon crawler, with plenty of equipment and stats and enchantments and complex interactions between them all. Fans of obscure conduct and secrets will find more than enough ways to abuse the game and take on beings that should never be challenged. But even then the game can and will ruin your day with kamikaze dwarves or screaming demons or just a very angry ghost or two. I.V.A.N. is not fair, it’s specifically designed to be not fair, and the tradeoff is that it is incredibly fun to lose. That’s more than enough to keep me playing, and it should be reason enough to give this one a try.

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