I had three bullets for my revolver.
A sudden burst of insane military clones surprised me as they spilled from their nest in an air vent a few rooms back. Most of the ammo I was carrying then got sprayed into their babbling ranks. Sure, I killed them. Only a few of them got to me, I’m still alive.
The lights flicker and hum, more evidence that the spacetime anomaly that’s wrecked this teleport research station is still shifting about. I can hear rusted fans turn and creak, the clicking of a server turning over somewhere. The mutants, robots and demented clones that lurk out in the darkness don’t make much noise. Not until they spot me, at any rate.
As I scrape the last scraps of life-restoring meat from a dented tin can, I know I’m not going to last long. There’s no food left in my bag of scavenge, just some electrical scraps, an empty shotgun and my last two sticks of explosive. Outside the door of the office space I’m huddled in is a corridor with two doors at the end of it. Either could lead to the way out of this nightmare. Or another den of horrors and my inevitable death.
Time to go.
Ode to a Nightingale
If you’ve ever been half in love with an easeful death, then roguelikes are almost certainly pressing your buttons. Rogue was an old DOS game that had you exploring a randomly created dungeon to collect a magic amulet. Every time you play it, the layout is entirely different. And if your character dies, that’s it for them. No reappearing at a save point, ready to try again – their life is over, the dungeon resets.
Roguelikes use the same basic set up – randomly configured places to explore and permanent character death. Compare that to the bulk of modern games, in which death is often merely an expected inconvenience to slightly hinder your progress through the game. Want to know what happens at the end of, say, Diablo III? Well, just keep playing and you’ll get there eventually, even if you can’t play for toffee. In most roguelikes, some skill is necessary.
Not that this style of game will teach you what you need to know. No, part of the fun is slowly learning what works and what doesn’t by being repeatedly killed by some unexpected horror. Death comes with a final message, a little haiku or passage, poetic yet desolate beauty to speed you on your way. A grimly humourous touch, nicely applied.
Teleglitch is an arcadey roguelike. You get a top down view of your hero (well, craven scientist who has survived a disaster by hiding in a closet, at least) as you steer him through the eerie, deserted corridors of a futuristic research complex. Doors hiss open as you approach, machinery mutters and throbs in utility areas. Weird shifting zones of blackness, the teleglitch of the title, have eaten through the walls in places. The sinister burbling this stuff makes would get an audio design prize from me all by itself.
But it’s not by itself – the sound throughout it excellent, from the wordless groans of mutants and zombies to the digitised chatter of abandoned computers. Although the graphics are deliberately blocky and old-school, they combine perfectly with the atmospheric sound to give an oppressive feel to the labyrinth of passages you need to navigate. Even large open chambers feel nerve-wracking to traverse. Will there be mutants waiting in some foliage-disguised corner?
The minimal gear you start with won’t get you far. You need to search through the levels for odds and ends, many of which can be combined to make useful gadgets or deadly weapons. Explosives combine with tin cans and nails to make a variety of lethal IEDs; tubes and microchips make lifesaving scanner devices.
But the joy of this inventiveness is that most of the ingredients are useful in their own right. Those explosives can blow open secret passages, for example, and also make excellent bombs for clearing the dumb packs of low-level critters in the early levels. So do you use your gear or save it for later weapons? It’s a good conundrum. Save too much and you won’t last long enough to use it, as even the weakest enemies can chip away your health pretty quickly.
As a roguelike, it’s good. But it’s also good as a twitchy, bulletswarm shooter as well. The combination of the two, tense exploration with fast-paced gun battles, makes this a memorable thing to play. Every shot needs to count; ammo is in very short supply. Your knife can get you through the early enemies, if you’re good, but won’t help you against a minigun-toting combat robot. That’s when you’ll wish you’d sellotaped your explosives, tincans and tubes together to make a rocket launcher. But you didn’t, did you? You fool.
Play it again, Sam
The ‘Die More’ edition was a free upgrade to the original, a large patch that added plenty of content. An alternative path of levels, new gear to find and even the option to take a randomly selected starting pack of gear. Most of these were low-ammo-count guns, more powerful than the usual pistol but with fewer shots. A nice touch, although some are much better than others, so if you don’t like rolling the dice in an already tough game, you can turn the option off.
Tough, it certainly is. If you manage to clear enough levels, you can start from a later point in future games. But the first of these checkpoints is level five, which lets you restart on level three. Getting even that far is a tough proposition, I can tell you. I’ve managed it only once in the six or seven months I’ve had the game.
Levels are created from a randomised layout of specific rooms and corridors. This is good as it gives each level a distinct theme. Stumbling on familiar rooms gives combined apprehension and relief that helps with the already-strong feeling of place. Knowing that there always is a storage cupboard full of canned goods in the first level, for example, gives you a reason to look for it rather than press on as soon as you find the exit.
Enemies can be pretty much anywhere, though, so there’s a fine line to tread. One room more and risk a tide of zombies? Or push on despite being under-equipped? Each door brings that same stick-or-twist gamble. Computer terminals give you snippets of lore or even handy map tips, like the location of the way out or all the storage cupboards on a level. But you never know what’s guarding them, so your choice doesn’t really get easier.
Four Hundred Mutants Enter, One Man Leaves
The game is still getting tweaks, balance updates and bug-hunting mostly. The latest addition was a series of arena challenges, which are a great way to practise using the weapons and fighting various enemy groups in the safety of… well, okay, it’s not safe. But it’s easier than the game itself as the starting gear is much more generous.
It’s a good add-on for an already rich and replayable game. The mysteries of the deeper levels may still elude me, but I’m still interested in finding out what they are. Teleglitch is a rigorous roguelike, with finely-tuned difficulty and relentlessly fast and brutal fights. It’s also a fairly unique blend of those two playstyles, and that for me is what singles this out as a near-perfect indie game.
See, unlike the last game I reviewed, it offers something you can’t get elsewhere. It’s inventive, it’s got a great style and sound of its own, and it gives you a wealth of game to explore for a low cost. That, for me, pretty much defines what indie games should be about. Not the endless tide we’re up against at the moment, of someone trotting out a low-quality of something more successful with a few changed mechanics or settings.
Okay, if I picked nits, Teleglitch is so punishingly hard that it will almost certainly frustrate most people into giving up. And the levels aren’t so randomised that the early ones (the only ones I’ve seen much of) won’t get a little worn after a while.
That said, I’d still rather play this than any of the other indie games I’ve reviewed in the last few months. Most of the triple-A stuff, too, in all honesty – it reminds me of arcades in the 80s, but without the continuous drain on my wallet. I can’t really think of anything that would improve it beyond slightly more forgiving save points, and that’s just my own lack of skill talking.
I highly recommend this as a sci-fi survival experience, as an arcade-style shooter and as a lesson in good game-making.