AtomP Reviews – Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead

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By Tom Hooper aka Atomp

In these reviews I’ve been gradually shifting ever further from the graphical fidelity end of the spectrum towards the gameplay depth end, and this article is pretty close to the far end of that shift. Cataclysm DDA is a text-based post-apocalyptic survival roguelike. I would describe it as a zombie survival roguelike but the game will throw threats at you far in excess of mere regular run-of-the-mill zombies. I’m aware that it being text-based might be a bit of an initial turn-off for many, but this isn’t a text-based typing adventure game, it’s more in the vein of classic roguelike such as nethack, where the text is used to create a representation of the world. So fear not because once you’ve gotten used to the keyboard control method and adapted to the text-based nature of it all, it becomes massively immersive and a great experience, so suck it Crytek. Graphical fidelity can be important, but it must be used to reinforce already strong gameplay and should not be used as a crutch for some generic cookie-cutter game.

The gameplay is really what we’re looking for in this case, and Cataclysm delivers in bucket loads. Despite being in development still there is a huge world to explore with a similarly huge selection of loot and mechanics. There are all of the standard mechanics that we’ve come to expect from the survival genre; hunger, thirst, weight etc. However there are others such as pain, mood, temperature and an encumberence system based around three different values. For someone who has played at least one or two survival rogue-likes such as Don’t Starve the game will be fairly intuitive despite having deeper layers of complexity. The hunger and thirst mechanics for example are well fleshed out and appear to be tied in to other mechanics such as temperature and weight, so if you’re lugging around a couple of backpacks of gear in leathers and a bike helmet you’re going to get hot and exhausted and therefore thirsty. This encumberence will also affect other values such as speed and dexterity, slowing you down and impeding melee combat. In all the various and in-depth systems are all intertwined in a manner that the player would expect and generally there is no strange warped game-logic in how they interact.

The combat has no separate game mode, instead it is just seamlessly integrated into the turn system used for movement and such. This makes moving tactically important, as at least in melee combat once the enemy is on you all you can do is swing and hope. Ranged combat could be somewhat different, as the use of cover influences the outcome. Personally I haven’t managed to get to a point where ranged combat is an option because (and I’ll make this clear), the game is really very difficult. Monster spawns are mostly based around the urban centres which means the further you push into a town scavenging the more dangerous it gets. There can be any number of zombies, zombie cops, zombie soldiers, spitter zombies, smoker zombies, fungal zombies, etc strolling around and I believe I lost one character to a turret of some kind. That’s not all though as it would appear as heading away from urban centres will provide little safety as wildlife has also mutated providing an array of giant spiders, triffids and the like to contend with. In short; it’s a very dangerous place to be.

The game does provide vehicles, however these will need to be bodged together from the multitude of very broken abandoned vehicles lying around the map, a task I have yet to achieve because my characters get killed before that point. This leads nicely onto the crafting system in place within the game, this will allow everything from basics such as a nailed stick or knife spear up to more advanced technologies I have yet to find. This is done through collecting materials through scavenging or breaking down existing gear and items, then these are combined to create something in the crafting menu… simple. The first advisable crafting is probably the spiked stick, created by smashing a bench or two in the spawn location and using the subsequent stick and nails with a rock found outside to create this basic weapon.

The graphics, well they’re text-based, however the implementation is nicely done with everything being fairly obvious. For when it isn’t initially obvious the look mode allows you to examine any tile within view, confirming what a particular tile contains and what the symbol represents. The implementation of symbols and colours mean that the 2D top-down perspective is surprisingly accessible, and with a neat line-of-site implementation similar to that found in Teleglitch which adds to the tension of checking around corners or moving out of a building. There is no sound, so add whatever music you feel is appropriate, I personally found that Alan Silvestri’s Predator soundtrack gave the whole experience much more tension.

The game is free and open source, available on Linux, Mac and Windows for nothing, which is a huge bonus. The primary development platform appears to be Linux and I would actually recommend playing it on Linux. Whilst it is compatible with Windows and plays just fine, the limitations of Window’s frankly pathetic and ridiculous terminal emulation means a lack of basic functionality such as fullscreen. To be honest even a tiny Linux distro running in a VM will provide a nicer experience, so that is probably a good bet if you want to get the most out of Cataclysm. There is also an Android port in development, and whilst this is still in the development stages it is functional and worth a shot if you’ve a desire to play the game on the move, I’ve tried it on my Nexus 7 and it worked admirably.

The timing of this review is rather good actually (as luck would have it), because there is an imminent Kickstarter by the current developers of Cataclysm, they are hoping to gain enough money to pay a developer to work full time on the project which should allow faster updates and development. This Kickstarter is set to go live on Saturday so if you try out the game and like what you see then maybe consider throwing a couple of bucks at that and help out further development, much like a Humble Bundle really.

Considering the game is available for nothing and will actually run on almost anything (I’m pretty sure it will run on a Raspberry Pi) there isn’t much reason not to try out Cataclysm. Sure text-based may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but with great depth of gameplay it is worth sticking with it past the initial learning curve.

Game Website

Android Port (Github/Compiled Binary)

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