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Loathelike Game

For all my belly-aching about how hard it was to wrap my head around the Ultimate Roguelike Tileset last week, I encountered a roguelike that made brilliant use of it this week: Infra Arcana.  Two little words that are surprisingly difficult to recall the spelling of. Perhaps this is appropriate, as the theme of the roguelike is deeply Cthulean; the object of Infra Arcana is steal forbidden knowledge that does not so much hide from mortal eyes as it does pounce unexpectedly.
Even the title screen is an abyss.
In a way, Infra Arcana is a horror game, but not the kind that seeks to directly scare the player.  There are no jump scares here, nor is the game particularly a mind fuck.  Rather, the trapping of the game is about true monsters, the things that go bump in the night.  The kinds of things we found ourselves drawn to as children, poking our heads into dark holes logically knowing we will never find, but secretly hoping we might, for there lies true adventure.  The unknown; the unknowable; the creatures whose most important essence can only be lost upon scientific evaluation and explanation.  A very precious kind of madness.

The game mechanics are quite clever.  Yes, you have hitpoints, mana, potions, scrolls, weapons, armor, and much of the things you find are unidentified.  However, there is where the usual roguelike trappings end.  Even the setting is quite unusual: not just Lovecraft appreciating, but one of 19th century technology, everything from pistols to Molotov cocktails.

There is a sanity meter, an essential part of any Lovecraftian homage, split into two sections: Shock and Insanity.  Shock builds slowly as your character plumbs the dark deeps, and then sharply as they encounter terrifying beings and situations.  If shock reaches 100%, their sanity begins to slip.  Shock resets when descending to the next level, but also when their mind cracks, increasing the Insanity meter and possibly inflicting phobias or other bothersome conditions.  If Insanity reaches 100%, it's game over: your character is a gibbering mad person now.
Things are going well for my rogue, this level hardly scarred him at all...
I think the smartest change in Infra Arcana is that gaining levels is no longer about killing things; no matter how many monsters you kill, your experience points will not increase.  Instead, you gain experience by doing things that result in gaining knowledge: descending to another level, reading forbidden monoliths, finding new manuscripts and potions, and discovering the horrific beings whose very existence undermines conventional knowledge.  With this change, monsters are no longer walking loot bags, but rather dangerous threats to survive.  Also, given that the experience gain is in the finding, they are wonders.  Adventure is not about wiping the floor in bloody slaughter; adventure is about seeing amazing things and living to tell the tale.

Thus, it makes excellent sense that Infra Arcana implements a top-notch stealthing system.  Trekking about the deeps can produce noise, producing a tactical decision about whether it is a good idea to kick a jammed door (and attract any monsters in earshot) or find another way.  The player is given a basic idea of how long the monsters might be aware of their character's presence, along with some visual indicators of the sounds of nearby foes.  Certain character traits and equipment can help to keep you imperceptible.  The rogue (one of four starting classes) is a specialist in this regard, and will start with a rod that allows periodic reset of monster awareness, a dagger that does over three times the damage when attacking unaware targets, and spikes to wedge doors shut with.  As in life, remaining undetected is never a sure thing, but you can certainly hedge your bets.
... yet, a mere two levels later, he finds himself wedged between poisonous snakes and a hard place.  He survived that encounter, but the shock took its toll later and drove him into a rage.  Thus incensed, he fell out of my control and launched himself into a room full of ghouls.  He did not re-emerge.
The monsters are worth avoiding, not only because there's no experience reward in defeating them, but because they are monstrous indeed.  Even if you feel well armed and armored, a needless skirmish with a denizen of doom is a pointless gamble.  Snakes will poison you, ravens will peck at  your eyes.  A cultist will pack a gun that can kill with one good shot.  Undead has a strong penchant to simply reanimate unless you scatter their remains.  These are examples of some of the weaker common threats in Infra Arcana, and heaven help you should you encounter some manifestation of the deep ones.

Yet, like any good roguelike, Infra Arcana is hard but fair.  When you have the likes of molotov cocktails, sticks of dynamite, guns, and magic spells at your disposal, you have the tools to overcome quite a few encounters... although, in practice, it's usually already too late.  Also fair is how examining each monster gives you a very accurate portrayal of just how likely you are to hit them in melee or ranged combat, as well as a good estimate on how easy they would be to evade.  (Of course, mere examination saves the monsters' more nasty surprises for discovering firsthand.)  The damage readout on the weapons is quite clear, and armor damage mitigation is a straight up point reduction.  In these and other ways, how simple and straightforward it all seems, right up until a shambling corpse decapitates you with a rusty axe.

Overall, Infra Arcana is a very solid game.  Also suitably atmospheric, although I'll leave it to you to decide if it's the Ultimate Roguelike Tileset that accomplished that, the flavor text of the monsters and equipment, or the clever sprinkling of spooky sound effects that play.  I think I can learn some important things about quality game design here, although hopefully nothing that will keep me up late into the night.
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