Caves of Qud: A Weird Journey Into the Future
Originally a roguelike, Caves of Qud became a pretty good RPG
Despite the surge in roguelikes and rogue-lites in the last few years, not many people think the genres mix well with “traditional” RPGs. There are quite a few blends that have worked out successfully, such as Darkest Dungeon and the Sunless games (Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies), but the overall idea of having to restart from the beginning seems counterintuitive to the typical progression RPGs present.
Enter Caves of Qud. Developer Freehold Games weren’t the first to just pick the roguelike formula and give it save states and exploration - Tales of Maj’Eyal and Elona did it before - but I would argue the game is the first one in which the player’s experience is elevated by playing using save states, instead of treating it as a traditional roguelike.
Before I talk about this, though, I need to explain what is Caves of Qud.
Imagine Earth at an undisclosed amount of time into the future - it could be thousands of years, it could be millions. Imagine countless civilisations rising and falling through the centuries, each one leaving a mark, a layer, in the world’s history. Technology is constantly forgotten and rediscovered, space exploration starts and stops, other creatures become sentient, and so on.
This is the world of Qud. And it’s up to you to explore it.
And let me be clear: you will explore it. The worldbuilding behind Qud is fascinating, to say the least. The developers mixed fixed and random maps together in an interwoven way that is, simply put, awesome. The game has an immense overworld map, and each tile in it is made up of 9 areas in a 3x3 configuration, and they are always connected - which means that you can traverse the map in overworld view, or you can run through each area, traversing the overworld in “real-time”.
The overworld and some locations are fixed, meaning they will always look the same, have the same physical structure, the same NPCs, and so on. This is important because the game does have a main quest that makes you go through these locations and talk with specific NPCs.
The rest of the maps, though, are randomly generated, just like your typical roguelike. This means that, despite a certain tile always being a forest in the overworld, the area itself will have a different configuration when exploring it in each run.
Among these areas, the player can find dungeons, villages, NPCs (friendly or not), or secrets. This is also where one can find the caves of Qud: an almost infinite expanse of dungeons - some interconnected, some not - with an infinite amount of levels to explore. Each level down makes the difficulty go up, but awards better prizes for those brave enough.
This is why the game is such a good mix of CRPG and roguelike. It scratches that itch involving exploration, making sure that each run is different, but at the same time, it has some “stable” places with which the player familiarizes themself and can grow accustomed.
Ok, that is all dandy and good, but why is the player experience elevated by this mix? Well, because of the setting and its challenges.
Everyone that has played roguelikes knows that despite being very, very difficult, they aren’t always unfair. In Caves of Qud though, unfair deaths are all too common. It’s not unusual to be having a great run, with great equipment, lots of resources, and almost steamrolling the part of the map you are exploring, then suddenly meeting a new type of enemy that deals some sort of damage you’ve never seen before and one-shots you. Or maybe it can nullify all your damage and just chips your HP away, while you can’t do anything.
What I mean is, no amount of preparation can help you against the unknown. And there are a lot of unknown things in Qud.
That’s why having a save state elevates the experience: you don’t suffer capital punishment for something you could never expect. It helps the player continue their exploration without having to restart a 20-hour run just because an interdimensional being smites you with a psychic ray from across the screen. Now you know that this can happen, and can prepare better to keep going instead of having to restart everything again.
But bear in mind, please: I’m not saying this is the only way to play. Some people like the randomness and the challenge of starting again, from scratch. But with a lore-rich game such as Qud, it could take hundreds of hours before someone can piece the world’s history together, which is something save states also help. Because, believe it or not, Qud’s lore is pretty great.
I’ll not get into details, as to avoid spoilers, but Caves of Qud has deep sci-fi lore that’s explored a bit through the main quest. While the quest itself involves an antagonistic faction that, simply put, believes themselves to be the epitome of racial purity, your journey takes you from Joppa, a simple village where you arrive at the edges of Qud, to the Spindle - I won’t reveal what it truly is - and beyond.
All the while, you’ll be dealing with talking plants, talking bears, talking dromedaries, and so on. You can also give sentience to objects or feral creatures if you want to.
There will be a lot of talk about “the Eaters” too, both their technology and their past. A lot of items will also mention “sultans”, regents from a distant past that ruled over Qud and its people, each one with his or her own history complemented by the game’s own procedural text generation (which is not as good as Dwarf Fortress’s in my opinion but is still cool).
Each NPC you meet, be it a friend or foe, is part of a faction, which might represent a political organisation or just a general species classification. This will determine how they will interact with your character: if you are a friend of their faction, they will talk to or ignore you; if you are an enemy, even NPCs that would’ve given you quests will attack on sight. And believe me, more than once players killed someone they shouldn’t have and were locked out of merchants, or even entire cities.
As you progress through the main quest, the relationship between certain NPCs, or even among some species, becomes clear. All the while, people (or plants, or animals) whisper about some sort of Lovecraftian horror.
Despite its simple start, the story can be very engrossing, especially as you uncover more information about the world and about what happened before the disappearance of the Eaters. Maybe someday we’ll even find out why all the natural sources of water are salty.
Despite all this focus on the lore, Caves of Qud has great mechanics for character creation and development - and to be honest, they are quite fun to mess with.
At first, you have to decide whether your character will be a True Kin (a “pure-breed” human who lives in an arcology) or a Mutant. True Kins have higher attributes and access to exclusive high-tech stuff later in the game, including implants, but rely heavily on their equipment to fight efficiently. Mutants, on the other hand, have lower attributes, but access to dozens of mutations - be they psychic or physical - and don’t always have to rely on equipment, depending on how the character was built and which skill they have.
After finishing the character, the game becomes the same for everyone: you start at a village and will embark on the same quest, the difference being how the journey will be made.
The randomness of the exploratory aspect is where the mix between lore and gameplay shines, though. As a True Kin, you can interact with some long-forgotten technologies that litter Qud’s surface and underground. On the other hand, as a Mutant, it can be easier to survive Qud’s nasty environment, resist different status effects, or even dig your way out of a dungeon - literally - without having to scavenge or carry specific types of equipment.
True Kins can equip mechanical wings and fly. Mutants themselves can have their own wings. True Kins can equip glowing items to illuminate dark caves. Mutants can glow themselves and even focus their light into a laser beam. Everyone can craft equipment, instead of buying them.
The game also has some survival aspects to it, like the necessity to eat food and drink water. They aren’t major obstacles to the game’s enjoyment as some people think, but can be disabled through mods if the player wants to.
On the other hand, contracting diseases or fungal infections in Qud is a true nightmare, which can lead you to a tangent to find a cure. What I mean by that is: you don’t receive a quest saying “go find a cure”; after experiencing the first side effects, every player will think something like “goddamnit, I better find a cure”. It’s actually an incredibly engrossing part of the experience.
Just to give you an example, here’s what happened with one of my characters:
After returning from Golgotha - a (very) unique dungeon that you visit as part of the main quest - I found out my character had caught Glotrot, a disease that makes his tongue literally fall off. This makes it impossible to communicate, which means I couldn’t deliver quests or buy items. It also has a chance to contaminate all the water in the liquid container from which you drink. So, pretty bad.
I knew there was a specific NPC, in a certain town, that has a 100% chance of having a book with many cures for illnesses. Why look for that book? Because the cure is randomised at each new game.
After a dangerous journey, I get there and find the book. The cure consists of mixing 3 liquids in a container and drinking it while the container is on fire. Seriously.
So there I go, in search of the three liquids. I knew one - honey - could be bought in another town, on another part of the map. The other one, asphalt, could be found in a random dungeon I passed by some time ago. The third one was fresh water, which I had enough of due to also being the game’s currency.
I mixed the liquids, put them in a water skin, and threw it in a fire. Waited for a few turns and when it was flaming, grabbed it and drank its contents.
Done! I was cured! Except that being cured didn’t mean I had my tongue back - I needed some way to regenerate it. Luckily I had a serum that grew body parts back (quite a few enemies have dismembering attacks, - you can never be too careful), so I just applied it and, now, was truly done.
Despite the brief irritation the disease caused, I did embark on a perilous journey to find a cure and grow the tongue back. It was a very immersive experience. It’s in situations like these that Caves of Qud shines, and it would’ve been cut short if I wasn’t using a save state since I died a few times during the journey itself.
I would say that Caves of Qud scratches that itch for people that want an exploration-focused game with deep lore and great mechanics. Being originally a roguelike, it isn’t the prettiest game around, but the default sprites are very pleasant to see - even if confusing sometimes - and give the option to play using only the mouse, so there's no need to memorize tons of shortcuts. The devs are very focused on making it accessible for everyone, not just “hardcore” players.
The game is still in development, but hopefully, we’ll see a final release this year, as its roadmap indicates that there are only two more steps from the main quest to be finished. I wouldn’t call it necessarily a hidden gem, but it is a gem nonetheless.
Now, as they say in Qud: Live and drink, my friend.
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