Impressions: Sword Of The Stars – The Pit

ss

Resources dwindling to disastrous levels, a ticking time-limit and a numberless horde of slavering monsters beating at the door, just ready to burst in. Not a scene from The Pit, but quite possibly how things looked in the last days of development of the ill-fated Sword Of The Stars 2. It’s undeniable that Kerberos bit off more than they could chew with their grand 4X/RTS hybrid, and in the end had to release a half-finished game and try to patch it up later. It lost them a lot of goodwill with both the press and gamers, and is probably the reason that the IndieGoGo funding drive for the roguelike spinoff The Pit was a failure.

“A deadly plague ravages your world. Your last hope: a legendary alien facility dug deep into the Feldspar Mountains…a massive Pit, built by the ancient Suul’ka.”

That this game went underfunded is a tragedy as I think that the smaller, tighter focus on The Pit is exactly the sort of game that Kerberos should have been working on all this time. While the game never did reach the funding target, they went ahead with production and rolled out what they produced with the limited budget available at the time, and the end result is a surprisingly entertaining bit of popcorn dungeon-crawling fun. Being a commercial roguelike, everything is animated and graphical. The sprites are a bit beyond what the 16-bit era could offer, as are the verbal comments the player characters share, but the music is pure retro gaming, mostly consisting of ambient, atmospheric loops and drones. Things are clean and clear-looking for the most part.

Set in the pulpy (and remarkably detailed) sci-fi universe of Sword of The Stars, The Pit is the side-story of a small military retirement planet struck by some kind of horrible techno-zombie plague. Quarantined and isolated, the search for a cure leads one of three retired survivors (a beefy Marine, a savvy Engineer and an evasive Scout) back into action, up the mountains and into The Pit, a massive infested research facility built by the evil Suul’ka, villains of SOTS2. In short, it’s a randomly generated 30-floor futuristic dungeon packed with loot, monsters, traps and all the other elements you come to expect from the genre. Just, y’know, IN SPAAAAAACE! Orcs are replaced by space-lizards, giant bugs are replaced by giant sentient bug-people and treasure chests become sealed weapons crates. Giant rats remain unchanged, though. Some things are just universal constants.

Dungeons! In! SPAAAAAACE!

Playing like a hybrid of Doom: The Roguelike and Dungeons of Dredmor (and even aesthetically sitting between the two, both of which were featured in our Roguelike Primer), The Pit is a fairly straightforward, unpretentious take on the genre. Starting as one of three classes, your goal is simple. Kill stuff, level up, hoard loot, delve deeper and probably die horribly a great many times before reaching the deepest level of the dungeon. While you’ll have to rely on melee to help conserve ammo, there’s quite a lot of focus on ranged combat here, and the interface for it isn’t nearly as slick as DoomRL. In the most recent patch, they added the option to use mouse clicks to target your weapons, but previously you had to move a reticule around with the arrow keys (default movement is bound to WSAD). Thankfully, if you fire without a target, it automatically shoots at the closest enemy, but it’s a little clunky.

While death will initially come quite quickly, there are quite a lot of little tactical details to learn in this game. Once you figure how many tiles an enemy can move each turn, you can position yourself so that you can get in the first melee strike in any encounter, and you can hear enemies in nearby rooms and tunnels before you can see them. Interestingly, you don’t have a 360-degree field of vision in The Pit – your character can see almost all around themselves, but not directly behind, meaning that you’ve got a blind-spot to cover, and how you position yourself in a room when you undertake a time-consuming action, like picking a lock or hacking a computer, can make all the difference. Turning on the spot is a free action, but it’s easy to forget to look over your shoulder while exploring. While you can be scuppered by pure bad luck or cruel enemy spawns, there’s a lot you can to to manage risks and stack the odds in your favor. It’s definitely on the more accessible end of the genre scale.

One possible tripping point in the design of The Pit is that survival of the first few dungeon levels is often very reliant on raw luck. While you can make the initial dice-rolling a lot easier if you start out playing as an Engineer - lockpicking, hacking and a stock of rechargeable gadgets aiding these tasks are among your starting perks – the more firearm-reliant (but terribly ham-fisted) Marine can often botch actions as simple as opening ammo crates, forcing reliance on melee against enemies capable of inflicting a range of nasty status effects. It’s possible for you to open a door, only to find several security bots on the other side, which immediately open fire and chew off 90% of your health in a single round of combat. There are difficulty settings to further mitigate these spikes in challenge, but there’s some tuning to be done regarding the general difficulty curve. Of course, a series of lucky breaks may help you breeze through a large stretch of the game in one go.

I might have sounded overly critical of The Pit, but I’ve enjoyed my time playing it so far, and will likely dust it off again the next time it updates. The atmosphere of the game is reminiscent of System Shock 2, as is the focus on gradually building up a useful inventory of gadgets and doodads to help you circumvent the security systems of the high-tech facilities you’ll trawl through. There’s an interesting focus on crafting, too, and recipes found for new, improvised equipment and food will be carried over between playthroughs, even though some elements, such as the colour-coded biomods (think scrolls/enchantments for your armor and weapons), will be shuffled on repeat plays, meaning that you can’t rely entirely on previous knowledge. You can gather more information and early hints through hacking computer terminals, but this is a skill that the Scout (and to a lesser degree, the Engineer) will be more adept at than the Marine.

At the end of the day, The Pit’s grand undoing is that it’s merely a fun, solid game in a genre where the competition is often completely free and of exceptional quality. Any praise is going to sound damningly weak when there are genre titans out there like TOME that aren’t asking for a penny in return. What we have here is a solid foundation that, if supported, could grow into a universally recommendable roguelike. At the moment, it’s merely a distraction – a slightly insubstantial snack between larger, more developed meals. That’s not to say that it’s a bad game by any means, just that I’m really hoping that Kerberos decide to expand The Pit over time, starting with their proposed addition of a Psionic class (even more System Shock 2 parallels?) and some new content to freshen up those samey rooms. Sword Of The Stars: The Pit is available for $10 from a variety of digital distributors (including Steam), and is for Windows PCs only.