Brut@l from Stormcloud Games, and Rising Star Games is a great 3D action dungeon crawler combined with a clever gimmick which provides hours of entertainment with just the right amount of challenge and accessibility coupled with fun exploration and combat.  I suppose that’s a full review right there, but just for the sake of argument, let’s delve deeper into what makes Brut@l so enjoyable.

First off, Brut@l is a good looking game in a quirky sort of way.  The meshing of 3D animations and ASCII characters is delightfully weird.  Character models are large and detailed (just check out the grimaces on the skeleton warriors as an example), and the backgrounds are actually nicely varied considering the simplicity of the lines and the characters that make them up.  Brut@l makes excellent use of light and color which enhance the gameplay, especially when you’re desperate to find a light source in an otherwise completely darkened cave with monsters approaching from every direction.  Every item is instantly recognizable, which is encouraging me to go give Dwarf Fortress or NetHack another try without tile sets since the game trains you to recognize the ASCII codes even as it presents more enhanced versions while you’re exploring the dungeons.  Weapons, attacks, and magic spells look exotic and powerful (I really like the floor shattering effect), and animations are silky smooth.  The game does a nice job color coding items so you are immediately aware of what kinds of threats or challenges you face as you delve deeper into danger.  The music sounds suitably epic and the sound effects add to the atmosphere by making attacks sound important effective.  Brut@l features some well-written flavor text in the form of pieces of journal entries describing the various enemies you’ll encounter as you progress.  I like the idea of splitting the entries, which makes you work just that much harder to work out enemies weak points, but much of that information comes from playing the game anyway, so I’m not sure how useful it is in the long run.  For instance, the game flat out tells you that you can only destroy zombies with fire, so other than for achievement purposes, what’s the point in hiding that information in separate journal entries?  It’s an extremely minor quibble which affects gameplay not a whit, but it is a bit odd.  I wish the help screens were a bit more helpful in providing basic gameplay information, such as clearly letting me know my characters can double jump.  I’m not sure how many times I lost characters to bottomless pits before I found that tidbit out online.  I suppose that’s a homage to the roguelike nature of the title, but it irked me a bit anyway.

Despite some issues learning the mechanics, Brut@l plays extremely well, featuring solid, responsive controls and easily accessible inventory and map information.  I found the default buttons to be a bit strange (B to call up inventory and select for the map) which caused me to fumble around more times than I would have liked, but it only really caused me difficulty once when I was surrounded by enemies and couldn’t access a potion in time.  Even then it was my fault for not equipping potions to a control pad direction.  The game’s difficulty sneaks up on you.  Your first runs may be challenging, especially because you’re not fully aware of your character’s abilities, but then you’ll start to get the hang of things and begin clearing lower level dungeons like the hero you are.  Don’t get cocky.  The enemy AI likes to send out squads of enemies that complement one another such as having archers pelt you with freezing arrows that root you in place for the larger ground troops to come smack you around.  Fortunately, all of the starting heroes are agile and can dodge and block with relative ease.  Interestingly, you don’t start with any weapons, so you’re limited at first to your fists and a distance weapon (the Mage’s bolts and the rest of the characters’ thrown shield).  You’re required to craft everything else you need by finding ASCII runes throughout the dungeons.  The crafting system is simple and enjoyable.  I like the fact that weapons can be further enchanted to deal different types of damage.  These enchanted weapons can serve other practical purposes as well such as allowing you to open similarly charged treasure chests and doors.  Each hero plays a bit differently in that they have unique starting abilities, but eventually you’ll need to upgrade all of them to be jack-of-all trades types to be successful, since you’ll need to be able to identify potions, enchant weapons, and so on.  In fact, unless you’re the mage with the early ability to recognize all potions immediately, you’ll probably want to stay away from potion brewing in the early going.  The effects are randomized each time you play, so what you thought was a health potion last time is now deadly poison you should have thrown at your foes rather than quaff.  A further cool feature is the ability to make offerings to the gods of loot you’ve collected in order to attempt to appeal to their better nature and grant you a bonus life.  If you’re offer is declined, you’ll take serious damage.  Hint:  It’s often all the money you’re carrying.  Once you’ve gotten used to exploring the procedurally generated  dungeons, there’s a creation suite that allows you to build your own which you can share online after you’ve playtested it yourself.  The suite is fairly easy to manipulate, so you’ll be able to create your own nightmare levels within minutes.

Brut@l is really a no-brainer.  It’s enjoyable, engaging, and offers most players a decent challenge, especially at higher levels.  It belongs in every gamer’s library posthaste.

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