Review copy provided by developer via Curator Connect
I hate this game. I hate how I’ve played it for four hours and still can’t even beat the first quest. I hate how I get into situations where a 50/50 guess on a tile can kill my run. I hate how I can get a character build going only for the levels to ignore those mechanics. I hate how the omens can completely obliterate a run with their ruinous penalties. I hate how dumb I feel when I miss an obvious monster placement, or use a precious item in a dumb way. And more than anything else, I hate how the moment my run ends, I start up another one because it’s just too much fun clicking through tiles and dying again.
DemonCrawl is roguelike Minesweeper. Roguelike fantasy RPG-lite Minesweeper, if you’re into specifics, but the roguelike part is important. There’s a series of five quests you can take on, each consisting of a dozen or so levels and side areas, which you must clear to complete. Levels are Minesweeper levels, vast grids of tiles that you click on to reveal what lurks beneath. If it’s a monster, you take damage. If it’s not a monster, the tile fills in with a number representing how many monsters occupy the eight tiles bordering that one. By logicking through the arrangements of these numbers, you can deduce where the monsters are and flag them, ending the level by flagging all hidden monsters and clicking on all unflagged tiles. It’s Minesweeper, you know what that is.
If you die, or perhaps I should say when you die, you start the entire quest over again. The RPG elements are what give you at least the chance to not die, populating levels with treasure to collect, chests to open, hearts to restore HP, and NPCs to deal with. Between the main levels you’ll gain access to shops where you can buy items, shrines where you can take risks for better gear, libraries where you can research new items, and more. Items and NPCs can have a dramatic effect on the board and how you interact with it, with some allies straight up hunting down and killing monsters for you, and items revealing whole swathes of the board.
But it goes far deeper than that, which might be what makes DemonCrawl so incredibly compelling. There are hundreds of items in this game, multiple hundreds, each with its own function and mechanics. There are so many, in fact, that the game has invented entire interactions independent of the Minesweeper mechanics for items to hook into. There are items that let you kill NPCs, that let you turn dead NPCs into bones, and that let you bury the bones, all to facilitate other items that provide you bonuses when you bury bones. You can get an axe to cut down the signs you find, which do nothing besides offer you some cutesy message. Why? I have no idea, but there’s another item that lets you burn down signs to restore your health, so anything is possible. You have passive and one-use items in addition to equipable armor and magic items which restore their charges based on how many tiles you click. Some affect monsters, some affect tiles, some affect whole stages, and you can spend hours finding them all and figuring out how they interact.
So that’s super cool, but also not enough to keep you from dying constantly. I mentioned that when you accidentally click on a monster, you take damage. Each level has a power rating, a range of how much damage monsters will do to you for mistakes. This starts around 1-3 and eventually gets up to like 6-8. The thing is, you start with only 5 HP. You might find items that combo into extending that, or sturdy armor that will stand up to a few hits, or other extenuating circumstances. But you also might not. In a game with literal hundreds of items, where your survival is heavily dependent on those items and their interactions, you’re absolutely going to have runs where you don’t get what you need. And sometimes when you do get what you need, like weapons to target cells that you have to make 50/50 guesses on, you might get an omen that makes them target randomly, or hurt you too, or just straight explode.
Unless you are some kind of Minesweeper savant, you are going to lose a lot in DemonCrawl. And the galling part is that it won’t always be your fault. It’s a roguelike where there very much is no perfect conduct to get you through quests, leaving you to deal with the messy details. Despite that significant flaw, though, just writing about this one is making me want to play it. Between the charming pixel graphics, the evocative sound design, and the wealth of items and level variations to discover, DemonCrawl is undeniably compelling in ways other games can’t match. I certainly wish it was more balanced, maybe even more fair, but I don’t need every wish to come true to enjoy a title like this.