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Art from, by Krzysztof Dycha

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Style 9.5

Content 10

Overall 10

I have a new friend. His name is Sammy, and he is is a Hurthling. Sammy has had a rough life. His miserable parents tormented him throughout his childhood. But eventually he escaped their clutches and trained to become an assassin.

Was he planning to one day train his dagger against his cruel parents? He didn’t say. But then, he didn’t say much.

I met Sammy at the entrance to the Drakalor Chain, a mysterious mountain range that seemed to be the centre of an invasion of otherworldly powers. Monsters thought long-extinct overflowed its passes. The orc clans, contained for generations, were on the warpath. There were even reports of ogre armies arrayed for battle. Like many adventurers, Sammy was drawn to investigate.

Entering the pass, Sammy’s first stop was a village named Terinyo, where he was asked to find a missing carpenter. Sammy sought him out in a dungeon to the southeast, where he battled through a horde of goblins ... and then died of acute blood poisoning when bitten by a viper.

A death in ADOM Art from, by Krzysztof Dycha

I have been playing Ancient Domains of Mystery, better known as ADOM, for more than 20 years. It took me 13 to close the Chaos Gate and end the invasion successfully, and I’ve long-since lost count of how many heroes died in the process. ADOM likes to kill you, and it does this a lot. As far as I can tell, there are hundreds of ways to die. You can execute yourself, for instance, with a bouncing magic missile. You can be crushed by your own backpack when an annis hag curses your bracers of lifting. You can starve to death in the wilderness. You can be electrocuted by a lightning lizard, or sacrificed to a teleporting pixie’s god, or straight-up beaten to death by an angry troll (all trolls are angry).

You can also, assuming you haven’t found a spider corpse to give you resistance, die of acute blood poisoning.

Since ADOM is a roguelike, when you die, your character is erased. No coming back, no recording saves. Gone. (Farewell, Sammy. I barely knew ye.) This is what makes the game both so difficult to beat and so compelling. Once you get past the very early game, when progress is in large part determined by luck, each death will (slowly) teach you how to navigate deeper and deeper into the Caverns of Chaos, where you will eventually stem the infernal invasion threatening the realm. Or die. Probably you’ll die.

But if you don’t, you may find strength beyond your wildest dreams. My most recent winner, Orodreth, was a high elven duelist who became a paragon of virtue (much like myself) and befriended the Cat Lord. The rewards for doing so let him shred even the more formidable opponents with ease. Before that, I won with a beastfighter who specialises in hand-to-hand combat (with a boomerang or two thrown in, mostly for style). I reckon that now, with two decades of experience, I can probably win somewhere between 10-20 percent of the time on a random character.

ADOM has changed a lot in those 20 years. For most of its existence, it was an ASCII-only game, which meant it looked like this:

The orange @ is my character, the grey B a giant bat that is trying (unsuccessfully) to fight me. I love everything about this look, from the hashtag corridors to the one-square monsters. I’ve learned to be terrified of brown “&”s (GREATER MOLOCH), capital-“D” dragons, and black-“L” emperor liches. I’ve learned to look out for yellow-“d” blink dogs, which grant the important intrinsic of teleport control when eaten. And I’ve recently learned to be on the alert for the glowing green cloak Venom Mantle, denoted by a sickly green “]”. Venom Mantle grants, among other things, acid immunity. Very handy.

Modern ADOM now looks very different. A few years ago, the game’s creator, Thomas Biskup, led a successful crowdfunding campaign to reboot development, and part of that campaign included modernising the graphics to be more welcoming to new players. Now that same fight against a giant bat looks like, well, a fight against a giant bat:

For me, ‘tile mode’ loses rather a lot of the game’s charm, but that’s probably because I grew up playing the ASCII version, and therefore tiles annihilate all of my familiarity with the game. But the rest of the new content is fantastic — Thomas and his co-developers have pumped new locations, quests, baddies and items into an already deep world, breathing new life into the ADOM community. (They’ve currently paused development in ADOM itself to work on the sequel.)

Style 9.5

As I mentioned earlier, ADOM is a roguelike, which is a type of game mostly associated with the player character dying a lot. Roguelikes are also associated with procedurally generated content, which means that significant parts of the game are randomised each time you start. Almost every dungeon is reset with each game (the extremely weird infinite dungeon gets randomised during play, which makes it a fun challenge to deep-dive). The pool of special items varies as well, which means that you never know what character build you’re going to end up with.

ADOM contains enough secrets that I haven’t managed to exhaust them in all the time I’ve been playing. Some say that the path to becoming a Chaos God begins in the Drakalor Chain, for instance. Others rumours suggest that the legendary Trident of the Red Rooster can be found somewhere deep in the mountains. Let’s not even get into where one might find the Scroll of Omnipotence (I think I came close, once, but had to retreat). The story might be on the shallow end, but, really, you’re here to explore and kick ass. Plot mostly gets in the way.

Art from, by Krzysztof Dycha

Meanwhile, each class of characters plays wildly differently from the next. I favour duelists, which are powerful and very fast melee fighters who are mostly useless at range or with magic. This makes them vulnerable to enemies you really don’t want to fight at close quarters, which vastly changes your approach to, for instance, an ultimate doppelgänger. A wizard, on the other hand, would simply fry said doppelgänger with an acid bolt (or whatever else), but would have a significantly more annoying time against a diamond golem, which are immune to most forms of magic.

ADOM has 22 playable classes, from farmer to mindcrafter. (These are wildly unbalanced, as they should be. It turns out it’s easier to save the world when you’re a powerful elementalist than if you’re a traveling merchant who likes to sell scrolls.) You can pick among twelve races — I like hurthlings and elves — which all have their own unique traits and styles. If you play as a troll, be prepared for hunger to be a constant problem, and to run like hell from any monster with an aging attack (trolls die young). If you’re a Mist Elf, born during the song of creation, you may be less stressed out about encountering a ghost lord.

With essentially infinite build variety and style, you can keep playing ADOM for decades and still want to come back for more. Trust me, I know.

Content 10

When ADOM came out, it was ‘postcardware.’ If you enjoyed the game, Thomas asked you to send him a postcard from wherever in the world you happened to be. I never got around to this, because teenage boys are the most inconsiderate people in the world. Thomas, if you read this, I don’t know if this post makes up for the lack of postcard, but thank you from London for keeping me entertained for so long.

Ancient Domains of Mystery is available on Steam (there’s also a free-to-play version with fewer features).

Overall 10