Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pitman Review

Pitman, developed and published by Rat King Entertainment.
The Good: Randomly generated levels consist of manually unlocked sections, decent loot, $3
The Not So Good: Bland drawn-out combat, slow experience gain, very small initial inventory, limited interface
What say you? This rougelike role-playing game provides the occasional cheap, simple thrill: 5/8

Dungeons are dangerous. Filled to the brim with monsters and traps, the allure of gold and treasure simply isn’t enough to get me to want to venture inside dark passageways of doom. Good thing, then, that computers have long simulated the experience for the less brave among us. While I generally avoid generic action role-playing games due to their linearity and repetition, I do enjoy roguelikes due to their inclusion of randomized content and generally faster-paced action, which results in more replay value. Not coincidentally, here comes roguelike Pitman, released last year for something called an “iPad,” but now gracing the glorious PC in all its glorious glory of gloriousness. Originally developed over seven days and now expanded into a full game, how does Pitman stack up in a reinvigorated genre?

Pitman is in 3-D, and it includes a mix of graphical qualities. Since the maps consist of tiles, the dungeon environments are blocky by necessity. That said, the terrain is varied and each floor uses a distinctive texture for the walls and floors. The characters and enemies, however, lack texture detail and are generally just simply colored models. The most impressive aspect of the game’s graphics is the lighting, which looks great and overshadows (so to speak) a lot of the graphical shortcomings. The sound effects consist of a small selection of battle noises, though some were entertaining (the pitiful death sounds for some of the enemies, in particular). The music is also pretty good, providing some simple tunes to go along with your dungeon exploring. While Pitman doesn’t deliver cutting-edge graphics or sound design (although the lighting is very nice), it does maintain an appropriate presentation for a $3 game.

With a name like Pitman, there aren’t many career opportunities other than dungeon crawling. In the grand tradition of rougelikes, Pitman features randomly generated levels that are unlocked one piece at a time. Instead of entering rooms, you can choose which large square portion of the map to appear next. I really like this approach as it makes it feel like you have more control over your adventure. You can also survey the next block and see whether it’s worth venturing in, based on the enemies and treasure contained inside. Besides those enemies and valuable loot, dungeons may contain obstacles (which may even block your path into the newly revealed section), generally useless NPCs, and a ladder to the next level. While Pitman is by no means a complex game, it does have a lack of tool-tips explaining things in the game and there is no tutorial, although a help file accessible from the in-game menu covers the basics.

Pitman is a turn-based game, and each turn you can use an item and then move and attack. If you choose a destination outside of your movement range, it does not automatically advance through the couple of extra turns required to reach your waypoint, requiring you to manually click the mouse after each turn, which does tend to get annoying after a while. Items are scattered around the dungeon and occasionally dropped by enemies. These include three types of weapons (blunt, blade, and bow), five kinds of armor (boots, trousers, chest, helmet, and shield), and a wide assortment of interesting magical potions, runes, and scrolls, all with randomized stats (you will find two knives with different attributes). In addition, you should carry food that replenishes health and fights hunger (you can die of hunger even if you have a full health bar) and ignite a torch to light the way every so often. Weapons and items must be replaced as they are used, and most items imbue a penalty (to movement or dodge) while using them. Switching and picking up items is a pain, however, as you can’t equip with a right-click and you can’t use things that are on the ground and not in your inventory. The very limited inventory size doesn’t help matters, either, as you must make hard choices about which items to bring and which to leave behind. You simply don’t have room for a ranged weapon, melee weapon, helmet, pants, boots, food, and magical scrolls until you level up. There is no trading in the game, so you don’t need to keep obsolete items, but keeping yourself fully equipped is impossible. The limited inventory also means you’ll have to swap a lot of consumable items in and out of your possession: drop an item, pick up apple, select apple, eat apple, pick up dropped item. This process gets tiresome, and a more efficient method would be appreciated.

Pitman has no classes, so you can tailor the character’s upgrades based on your play style instead of being locked in to a “mage” or “elf”. Experience is gained very slowly over time (you need to defeat around ten enemies before you level up for the first time) and offers upgrades in several areas. You can choose one upgrade in strength (increasing your damage and inventory size), dexterity (increasing the probability of dealing a critical hit), or intelligence (regenerating mana faster and identifying magical items). In addition, you get three points to increase your health, mana, blade damage, blunt damage, bow damage, blocking, walking speed, or dodge. The best path is choosing upgrades based on your current weapons (blade damage if you a sword, blunt damage if you have a mace). Because you must rely on randomly dropped spell scrolls for magic, specializing in mana-boosting upgrades is a tricky choice that may not pay off if you don't happen to find any spells.

Combat in Pitman is a plain affair. Firstly, the enemies are uninspired with no special powers to force you to alter your tactics. In fact, you can’t even see their health or level after they have spawned in a newly created room. The combat is unnecessarily long, with lots of misses and blocks that only make you click your mouse more before the enemies (or you) die. Longer battles would make more sense if enemies surrounded you more often. The tiny inventory makes you choose your tactics more carefully, but ultimately limits the variety you’ll see in a single game, an interesting contradiction in a game that relies on randomly generated content.

Pitman has a solid foundation for a rougelike with some pacing issues and feature limitations. First off, I like the map design mechanic: randomly generated sections drop in when you choose, allowing you to scout the next section and see if the treasures are worth the risk. Like most role-playing game, Pitman comes with a variety of weapons and items to equip, though the limited inventory size never allows you to carry everything you need and forces you to make tough decisions on what to keep and what to drop. You also must carry scrolls to cast spells, which eat up even more precious inventory space and limit your tactical flexibility. Your character gains experience very slowly, spreading out rewards thinly over time. Combat is dull, with a lot of blocks and misses and repetitive enemies that lack special abilities you’d need to intelligently counter. The interface could be more informative and easier to use, and it’s simply annoying to have to swap items between your inventory and the ground just to eat an apple you don’t have an open slot for. Still, for only $3, a lot of the shortcomings could be forgiven, and fans of rougelikes will find a light take on the genre.