Roguelike games — where you journey through procedurally generated levels with the risk of losing everything if you die — can be a hard sell to some players. While some gamers live to get just a bit further in each subsequent playthrough, others are turned off by the idea of having to start from the beginning every time they screw up enough to warrant a death.
Tallowmere, a one-man effort released on Steam earlier this year, is here to make rouguelike games more accessible. But does it succeed?
This game launches you right into the action with no story to worry about — all you can gather is that Lady Tallowmere wishes you to go through her "lovingly violent" dungeons to prove your worth. Before you start you're greeted with a brief tutorial, as well as access to the game's hub world. Interestingly, Tallowmere frequently places warp points in the dungeon rooms that allow you to jump back to the safety of this hub for a few moments, meaning you never feel completely abandoned on your quest.
Tallowmere's controls map well to the GamePad. At the start you'll be able to attack with a basic axe, block with a shield, and use a weapon wheel to switch between all the instruments of destruction you'll soon be picking up. As this game plays like a 2D platformer, you're also able to jump — the twist being that you can jump infinitely. While there are light platforming elements in the game, the infinite jump is not a free pass to easy street, as wall spikes are common and you'll often have to confront enemies in tight passages, leaving no room for jumping over them.
Each room is of a tiny size, so you never feel bogged down or have to explore more than a branching path or two. As you progress you'll encounter orcs, archers, mages, and all sorts of other traditional fantasy foes who all want you dead. In each room, one enemy holds the key that you need to recover to open the door and progress.
They'll be tough to defeat at first with your axe and its pathetic attack range, but soon you'll be grabbing grenades, flamethrowers, ice wands and katanas out of treasure chests, which all behave differently and help you take down enemies using different strategies.
For example, if an enemy is standing below you in a hole, trying to rush in with your flamethrower would be suicide. Here, grenades are the perfect tool, because you can chuck a few down and watch your enemy go splat. All weapons have infinite ammo, ensuring that the action never slows down and you can always experiment to find the right tool for the job.
Speaking of going splat, Tallowmere is a violent game for a 2D pixel-graphic platformer. As you slay your foes you'll see plenty of blood splattered on the walls and decapitated heads rolling on the ground. If this is all a bit much for you, you can adjust the amount of on-screen violence in the options (including increasing it!).
Tallowmere is a game that constantly rewards the player with all kinds of goodies as you progress. Aside from just weapons, you'll be collecting new armour, coins to purchase potions and better equipment, and souls from enemies that can be traded in for stat boosts.
Though there are only so many types of weapons and pieces of armor, there are many variations and levels of rarity for these, each giving boosts to different stats (such as a helmet granting extra katana damage). You're able to regularly re-assess your equipment and choose what to equip based on your play style, though the game will automatically equip the best new items for you if you don't want to bother with it manually.
As you get further into a run, Tallowmere starts throwing all sorts of new twists at you. Of course enemies get stronger and rooms get bigger, but you'll also encounter boss rooms, among other special challenges. These include rooms where the speed of time randomly fluctuates, or where you must capture a flag and bring it back to Lady Tallowmere. These keep the dungeon crawling from getting stale and are a welcome change.
As previously mentioned, there are regular warp points which allow you to return to the hub world. Here, you can be completely healed, purchase potions and equipment, cash in your souls for stat boosts, as well as activate customization options, which is where this game really shines.
Things a bit too hard for you? You can upgrade your starting 10 hit point cap by sacrificing some kittens (grisly, admittedly) in the hub. Each one you kill adds 10 hit points to your max counter, up to a total of nine kittens. However, murdering kittens sends your score to a different category on the leaderboard and prevents you from earning in-game achievements. This is a great mechanic that lets less skilled players enjoy the game without having to grind to master the mechanics first.
On the other hand, if you want to go hardcore, you can also speak with the Grim Reaper, who will happily make your quest more difficult. He'll toggle pain options such as removing potions, doubling the amount of enemies, or keeping treasure chests from appearing. Once you've mastered the core game and want more, these modifiers are excellent for increasing replay value.
That's not all, though — there are also special challenge runs that you can access from the hub that task you with making it through 20 rooms of a special dungeon, such as one filled with poison gas traps or one where you can only use a specific weapon. While still procedurally generated, these specific challenges force you to play in a completely different way.
If all this sounds like a bit much to tackle alone, Tallowmere also offers co-op for up to four players. All share the same screen, and the other players can use either Pro Controllers or Wii Classic Controllers. It's great to have the option to play with some buddies, and can take the edge off the difficulty for newbies.
The only complaints we have with Tallowmere are minor. First, you're not able to use the Pro Controller when playing in single-player, as you're forced to use the GamePad. However, the bulky controller is not utilized at all, as there are no touch-screen mechanics in menus. Additionally, the in-game text, shown in menus and in the opening tutorials, is way too small to read comfortably on the GamePad screen. This isn't a big deal, but it would be nice for solo players to use their preferred control method.
The graphics, while passable for retro-style, aren't the greatest you've ever seen. The blocks especially look a bit bland, and after a while of dungeon crawling rooms start to look too familiar. It would be a nice change to have some different colours and textures once in a while, but it's nothing game-breaking. The music, on the other hand, is great and changes every few rooms. It's pretty catchy for a game about exploring dark dungeons.
Like any roguelike game, this gets better as you progress. At the start of a run, you might be forced to take a few hits from some poorly-placed enemies whom you only have an axe to fight against, but once you start packing heavy heat from better weapons and have more health, you'll be having a blast. It's never enough to get frustrating, and you'll probably be ready to start up another run immediately after dying.
Tallowmere is an excellent roguelike. Its value comes from its customization options — you can make the game easier or harder in a variety of ways, run special challenges, and play with buddies. It's all wrapped up with plenty of weapons and gear, a good variety of enemies, cool music, and an addictive gameplay hook that's immediately accessible for newbies of the genre yet deep enough for veterans. The graphics might not be the greatest and there are a few quirks resulting from its PC roots, but this deeply replayable gem is not to be missed if you have any interest in the genre.