STAFF REVIEW of Curse of the Dead Gods (Xbox One)

Friday, March 5, 2021.
by Adam Dileva

Curse of the Dead Gods  Box art While roguelikes aren’t my favorite genre that I clamor towards, the ones that are done right tend to sink their hooks into me. While I don’t enjoy dying and having to start all over, as long as there’s some sort of overall progression that I’m working towards, slowly becoming more powerful as I run the game once again, then I’m interested. I’m surprised how many roguelikes forget this key element, as that what makes me want to continue to try 'one more time', as each run becomes slightly more manageable as I become better skilled and obtain better gear or stats. Thankfully Curse of the Dead Gods does this right, slowly giving you an overall progression that gives you just enough reward to make you want to play again when you inevitably die.

While Curse of the Dead Gods does have a narrative, it’s thinly veiled and you won’t remember what it’s even about aside from wanting riches, eternal life and taking on a number of different gods. In a game like this it’s not a deal breaker, as you’re more focused on the gameplay and progressing in power slowly. Prepare to enter the depths of dungeons to take on hordes of enemies, all while avoiding traps and trying to stay within the light as much as possible, before the curses pile on and make it incredibly challenging to simply survive.

As you're thrust into different temples and dungeons, you’ll be exploring room by room, having to clear each one of all enemies before being able to progress further. With an Aztec-like aesthetic, the dungeons are exactly what you’d expect; dark, dirty, full of breakable pottery, gold, traps and enemies. Traps are a near constant, and not just the typical spiked floor ones that will no doubt be difficult to avoid mid battle, but many other types, especially ones that spew fire or simply look like they’re regular statues but will attack if you get too close.

Like most roguelikes, much of the gameplay is based on its randomness and procedurally generated rooms. One run you might start off with a sword and shield, the next maybe you’ll have a pair of claws and a whip. The weapons are quite varied and alter your playstyle, though the randomness can be a blessing or a curse, as I found I really enjoyed the ranged weapons and claws, but when I didn’t get to start with those I didn’t last nearly as long. The randomness will also sometimes work in your favor or make you want to quit when you have a really bad run.

As you start each run, you’ll choose from one of three different dungeons types that correspond to its god, the boss you’ll hopefully survive to face off against. As you complete each room you’ll be shown a map, allowing you to select which room you want to go to next. These are indicated by the type of reward or treasure you’ll get in said room, so if you’re not happy with your starting weapon for example, maybe you’ll want to choose a weapon reward room. Low on gold? There are rooms that focus on that as well. There are even a few healing rooms where you can refill your health, but for a cost of more curses, but more on that shortly. The room paths keep working towards the boss at the top, culminating a boss fight that generally aren’t too challenging once you’ve learned their patterns after a few attempts, though that’s if you survive long enough to make it there. This is a roguelike after all, so prepare to die quite often.

As you explore your dungeon, you’ll have two weapons, akin to a light and heavy attack, eventually also getting a larger two handed weapon if you’re lucky enough. You also have a torch, and this plays into the light and dark mechanics that, while I understood, still frustrated me. Your torch emits a light and you can set fire to certain objects to light up the room. You’ll want to do this as often as you’re able, not just because light will unveil any traps nearby but you take extra damage if you’re hit in the darkness. Keeping a source of light around you until you’re quite skilled at combat is imperative in the beginning.

While you’re going to die often, what does persist through death is any crystal skulls and jade rings you find. These are essentially two different types of currencies that you’ll be able to spend on a variety of different items, perks or bonuses that will make each subsequent run just that little much easier. If you’re a fan of a specific weapon you can unlock them to have a better chance at receiving them before each run at the table you choose from, though it’s still not guaranteed. Or maybe you want some passive bonuses that will suit your playstyle and make you take less damage in the dark or some other perk. There’s a small gameplay loop, but it’s rewarding as you unlock new items and bonuses, though you’ll need to defeat the bosses of the temples if you want the most rewards of course. It’s an uphill treadmill of progression, but it does start to ease out as you become more proficient and gain some unlocks, making each run slightly easier each time.

Combat, while challenging, it very rewarding once you start to get the hang of it. You have your basic attacks with your weapons, allowing you to combo with them, but you’re also going to have to watch your stamina meter. To dodge or parry you’ll need stamina, a skill you’re going to have to master if you want to make any meaningful progress, forcing you to stop attacking for a brief time to refresh. Perfectly timed dodges will refill one bubble of stamina, so as you become better at combat you’ll be able to sustain your damage and avoidance much more smoothly. Parrying is another skill you’ll want to master, as it leaves enemies open for more damage on the next hit, and some of the enemies have large health bars, so it comes in quite handy.

Chain attacks and combos and it starts to feel really good once you start to get a good feel for it. You can even charge attacks, so the combat is quite varied and left in your hands how you want to approach each wave of enemies. Remember, you take more damage in the darkness, so avoiding being hit is almost more important that dealing the damage, though enemies can attack the lit torches and extinguish them as well. As you chain kills together you’ll earn bonuses as well, making combat feel really smooth after you get over the learning curve.

What makes Curse of the Dead Gods the most unique though is actually in its name: the curses. Every time you clear and enter a new room your corruption gauge will fill. One it’s full you’re given a curse, of which you can have five stacked at once. Curses aren’t all bad though, as there’s also a tradeoff of positives as well, not just negatives that will make you frustrated. These curses are also random, so some are a little more punishing than others, but I found none to really be rage inducing.

Just like your randomized weapons and rooms, these curses are going to play a large part if you’re successful in your run or not. With dozens of different curses, you’ll surely see the same ones a handful of times, but there’s enough variety to keep things interesting. An example of a few of the curses are, maybe there will be plenty more gold drops, but it will disappear after a short amount of time. Or another curse where you no longer take extra damage in the darkness, but also lose your regular torch, forcing you to play completely different than you normally would. There’s no avoiding getting curses, and some enemies’ attack will add to your corruption meter as well. Remember that healing room I mentioned above earlier? Would you pay to heal yourself and survive longer but add to your corruption? These are the choices you’ll need to make nearly every run.

Visually, Curse of the Dead Gods has a very Diablo likeness to it, not just in its isometric camera, but its overall tonality of being in a dark and brooding dungeon full of enemies and traps. When you’re in the light it can be quite delightful to take in the environments and enemies with an almost comic book-like aesthetic to it. Music is quite decent but the sound effects from traps and combat hits and dodges are the most satisfying.

While most roguelikes eventually frustrate me, Curse of the Dead Gods has a rewarding treadmill that I didn’t really tire of, especially because of its excellent combat that feels great once you learn its intricacies. While certain aspects did frustrate me, that simply comes with the territory in the genre. Never once did I die and felt as if it was unfair, as I knew it was something I did or didn’t do, and the blame was directly on me. If you’re looking for a challenging yet gratifying roguelike, Curse of the Dead Gods should be on your list.

**Curse of the Dead Gods was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 8.7 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.5 / 10
Sound: 8.5 / 10


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