Is it fair to give a game a negative review when it’s not the game’s fault that you didn’t enjoy it?
DemonCrawl is a game that, statistically speaking, I should have liked. I started playing it on a Tuesday, finished playing it on Thursday of the same week, and in that time I racked up a worrying twenty-hour playtime. Clearly, for all intents and purposes, it can be said that I must have enjoyed the experience, given that I was playing the game of my own free volition and choosing to spend time on it rather than playing anything else; or, heaven forbid, doing something that didn’t involve video games. Also, this is future me talking (after I finished the article and am now proofreading it again) and when I reinstalled the game to get screenshots, I ‘accidentally’ spent another twenty hours playing it. Oops.
DemonCrawl is a Minesweeper-inspired roguelike (come to think of it, isn’t any game of Minesweeper technically a roguelike?) with fantasy RPG elements, board mods, enemies, unlockable classes with their own skills, and more than 600 items that range from passive abilities to reusable magic spells to cursed effects named omens that actively hinder your progress. Like any roguelike – a game where the levels you play and items you can find are randomly generated each time for increased replayability – the only major flaw I could get into is the element of luck required to play sometimes.
Hell, to act as if all this game has to offer is ‘acceptability’ and ‘flaws’ is a complete misrepresentation anyway. It has great music, way more variety than you would expect, a bunch of interesting and unique ways to approach every level, and having played many games that follow the “What if we took one of those free Windows games and turned it into something people paid money for?” formula, DemonCrawl is easily the best one I’ve ever played. It’s creative and cleverly-designed and ridiculously replayable, and… and…
And I kind of… hated it?
So I wanted to explore exactly why I hated DemonCrawl so much, how much I can fairly blame on the game itself, how much the game is accidentally tailored to ensure that I had a terrible time playing it, and what I can do to avoid playing objectively decent games that I will nonetheless grow to despise. But before any of this, I should first probably explain why, if you’re not me, and you’re looking for something to sink your teeth into for a reasonable price and with more than a hundred hours of replayability, then in all fairness you might want to give DemonCrawl a shot yourself.
So right away I want to say this, especially given that I’ve already described DemonCrawl as a game that I hate; I would also call it an objectively good game. The concept of taking a relatively simple and traditional game like Minesweeper and expanding it into a fantasy adventure with multiple playstyles, customizable gear, stages, abilities, etc, is a good one, and credit is owed to Therefore Games for executing it so well. Given that every stage has a different theme (Forest, Sea, Desert) then there’s an extensive variety of music and visual effects and they’re all utilized brilliantly. An opening level in one of the quests takes place in what appears to be a barnyard and the ‘mines’ you can flag are eggs, and you can occasionally hear chickens clucking in the background. That’s fantastic design.
Another gameplay tweak that adds infinitely to the replayability is that the player character now has health and defence, and mines are replaced with enemies that attack you if accidentally clicked on, which means that – in the early stages of the game, at least – making a mistake or two isn’t necessarily the end of the game, and you can find hearts to replenish your health spread intermittently throughout the boards. You can also find coins, diamonds (worth five coins), treasure chests containing more coins or bonus items, and a colourful variety of travellers who offer their unique services to you; for a price. Mercenaries will roam the map, moving every time you pass a turn (i.e. clear a cell) and killing any enemies they wander into. Blacksmiths can craft you armour that can protect from attacks and also provide bonus effects. Nomads can sell you items, priests can remove curses, talking plants will eat your items in exchange for rewards, and you can even find people who fire bubbles in all cardinal directions, trapping enemies/items inside so that they can be transported from stage to stage. I have my issues with DemonCrawl, as I will go on to explain, but it is truly remarkable the amount of content that is in this title.
If you embark upon a quest then in between the minesweeping stages, you can visit shops to purchase new items, upgrade your innate abilities, learn new skills or hire more people to join your cause. The items you find can be passive (by simply holding them, they provide you some kind of benefit, i.e. “You will find loot more often!”), or single-use (most often when recovering health or lowering the difficulty of a stage,) but many are multiple-use and simply require recharging with ‘mana’, which is also gained automatically whenever you open a cell that doesn’t contain a monster. DemonCrawl doesn’t shy away from game-breaking combinations, such as rechargeable items I’ve found that increase your maximum health by the number of stages you’ve already completed, or fortifying your armour (adding to its defence) by its own value, doubling its durability over and over. I found this item early on one run and by the end, my armour had a combined defence of more than 300; I literally could have beaten the final level by clicking on random cells and effortlessly tanking all of the damage.
If that’s not enough, the stage modifiers bring their own benefits and handicaps. Some of them are rather self-explanatory; ‘Large’ for bigger stages than normal, ‘Double’ for a board that needs to be cleared twice, or ‘Toxic’ for a stage scattered with poisoned tiles, which should not be clicked on unless you feel like losing 1 HP every sixty turns. But then there are mods like ‘Fake’, in which exactly three cells on the board have false values on them, so you can find a cell that is allegedly touching six mines next to a cell touching just one, or ‘Nightmare’, where you are unable to flag cells as mines, testing your memory as you struggle to remember which cells are safe and which aren’t. My personal favourite is ‘Valhallan’, in which the board is covered in light cells filled with fantastic items, but at the end of the stage, for every empty cell that used to contain an item, you take 1 damage. I always go into them thinking that I’ll resist the temptation to grab something and then I immediately give in when I see something cool. The stages themselves have set power levels that range from 1-2 at the start of a quest to 4-8 as they conclude; these power levels are how much damage you will take if you click on an enemy, so early in the game, mistakes aren’t very costly, but slipping up towards the end is likely fatal.
And then there are the masteries that you can unlock and use in subsequent playthroughs! Barbarians can attack NPCs if you can’t afford their charges, and receive reduced damage from combat. Bankers start quests with ten extra coins and gain double the amount of coins from chests. Guardians start with a higher defence, and if they complete a stage flawlessly, it lowers the difficulty of the following stage. It takes the completion of an appropriate task to unlock these masteries; to unlock Barbarian, you need to kill at least five strangers in a single quest, to unlock Banker, you must finish a quest with at least one hundred coins, and to unlock the Guardian, you need to pay a monthly subscription to a newspaper that claims to be left-wing but publishes an awful lot of transphobic nonsense. This joke is going to age phenomenally well in five months when The Guardian has closed its doors and it just looks like I’m offering really impractical and intolerant advice.
In order to gain the full effect of these masteries, you need to unlock Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 of their abilities, which become available in the token shop whenever you complete a more impressive task than the left (i.e. to unlock Banker Level 3, you must finish a level with more than 300 coins,) and you gain tokens by levelling up, which you do automatically by gaining experience points every time you complete a level in a quest. My favourite mastery was ‘Spy’, because every time you begin a level, ten random cells will have already been ‘gleaned’, meaning that their values are visible without having been clicked on. The value only relates to the number of mines touching a cell though, so it’s entirely possible – and fairly frequent – that if a cell is marked ‘0’, it could contain a mine itself. Still, you now know that all eight of the cells surrounding it are guaranteed to be safe to open, and that’s one of the most helpful benefits in the game.
DemonCrawl also has a really good sense of humour. The story is seemingly generic and mostly told in a text box at the very beginning of a ‘quest’ with seemingly no elaboration as you progress through the gameplay, but there are a few twists towards the end that surprised me. Also, every enemy has a unique name, and upon finishing a quest, you will often be notified “ALFRED THE KRAMPUS SLAYER knew you could do it!” or “EDWINA THE KILLER GIRAFFE will never live down letting you escape!” and these enemies will also appear on the game over screen if you’re unfortunate enough to bump into them without proper protection.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing I can really do to impart upon you how fantastic the soundtrack is short of tying you up and forcing you to listen to it, but it’s amazing enough that this genuinely might not be a bad idea. If any of these tracks individually had been featured in any RPGs or platformers of yesteryear, they would no doubt be some of the most beloved tunes in all of gaming. The Island theme has the perfect feel of a happy beach level in Donkey Kong Country, the Shrine theme has a magical, mystical quality enhanced by atmospheric chanting, the Hell theme sounds like it came straight from a climactic boss fight in a Final Fantasy game, the Tower theme is a haunting but simple piano melody that wouldn’t sound out of place in Silent Hill; it is genuinely amazing that not only does the soundtrack cover such a wide variety of genres, but that it gets full marks in every single one. I speak no hyperbole when I say that DemonCrawl may have the best soundtrack of any video game I’ve ever played.
The difficulty curve is also; nope, I’m sorry, I thought I was done gushing about the soundtrack already but I am absolutely not. The Metropolis theme is a delicious slice of techno-cyberpunk that, according to the comments on the YouTube video I found of it, evokes strong memories of Phantasy Star Online. The Elysium theme has nothing to do with disco, but has a nice electric guitar solo that has a strong ‘final battle in an anime arc’ feel to it. The Vale theme reminds me a lot of the overworld music in Chrono Trigger, itself a game with one of the best soundtracks out there. And finally, the music that I have no choice but to include in the article; the Fungus theme is a cheery, offbeat and incredibly catchy tune that wouldn’t be out of place as the credits theme in Super Mario RPG.
If I sound a little bit like I’m rushing things, it’s because I am; DemonCrawl does a great deal of things really well, and I could easily make this an entire article based solely on those positive things, giving it the glowing praise that it arguably deserves. But the game does have a few problems, and as bad omens go, you can’t get much more straightforward than a group of items called ‘omens’ that literally make the game worse.
Whenever you find a treasure chest in a level, it could contain coins, or a randomly-selected item, or an omen. Omens are like treasures, except they almost exclusively provide negative effects, and they hang around in your inventory until you come across a priest, who you can pay to remove them, or a hungry plant, who will happily eat everything in your inventory (although you may have to part ways with a few beloved treasures before it randomly selects the omen.) This isn’t exactly a terrible idea, but the big issue with the omens is that they’re incredibly unbalanced. Some of them provide small inconvenient effects, like doubling the prices in shops, or turning loot into enemies if you don’t pick it up quickly enough, but there are others than can immediately ruin a run.
‘Dark Idol’ gives you a 50% chance to take damage every time you finish a stage. ‘Extortion’ removes a random object from your inventory every twenty moves, which isn’t so bad if it removes itself, but if your run depends heavily on the items you’re carrying, this omen just straight-up ruins your attempt unless you have a means to quickly rid yourself of it. ‘Underwing’ has a similar effect, removing a random item every forty turns, but it replaces the item with another randomly-selected omen! ‘Tear Gas’ obscures the value of every single cell on the board for the next 3 turns. Sometimes, an omen can be an obstacle that can be overcome with careful planning that adds a little amusement or variety to your run, and other times, it feels like the developers personally put this in just to say “Fuck you!” to anyone who stumbled across them.
Both times, I couldn’t get rid of the Faulty Bomb in time and it blew up and killed me. Nice.
Some of the stage modifiers are also extremely unbalanced, and on later levels, a bad combination of them can make a run practically unwinnable, no matter what items you have. If a stage is ‘Cryptic’ then any cell containing a 4 or higher is represented by ‘?’, making it much harder to determine exactly how many mines are in the surrounding area. I had the misfortune of getting ‘Cryptic’ on the same stage that I got ‘Overwhelmed’ which drastically increases the number of monsters on the board, which made it impossible to continue because every visible cell I found was uselessly labelled with ‘?’, which, as you might imagine, makes it quite difficult to play a game of Minesweeper.
And what makes this especially annoying is that there’s a game mode that removes omens and stage modifiers, but this is the ‘Casual’ difficulty setting, which doesn’t count if you’re trying to unlock any of DemonCrawl’s 24 alternative classes. And as the final insult, every single stage on casual mode is guaranteed to be solvable without guessing. In non-casual quests, this is itself a stage modifier – an incredibly helpful one – named ‘Trusty’, which guarantees that there is no guesswork required. Now, guesswork has been a part of Minesweeper for as long as Minesweeper has existed; hell, here’s the example image they use on TVTropes for the page ‘Luck-Based Mission’.
Now, I always hate it when people say “I think I speak for everyone when I say…” because they never do, and also, since I live in Britain, it usually precedes something incredibly racist. But I’m going to break my own rule here because I really do think I speak for everyone who has ever happily idled a few minutes of the day away playing Minesweeper, when I say that my favourite thing about the game is not, in fact, that occasionally you’ll be presented with a board that is impossible to logically solve and just comes down to picking a cell and hoping that the random number generator is smiling upon you.
This wouldn’t be so bad in itself, but with the omens and the stage modifiers and the increasing damage you take as the stages progress, and the health and defence that you are entirely dependent on random drops for, and/or whichever three (out of more than six hundred) items the shop is stocking today, then after making it through all of that and then stumbling into a situation where you still just have to pin your hopes of victory on the time-honoured tradition of eeny-meeny-miney-mo, can feel more than a tad unfair.
And this isn’t something that happens occasionally. If you play DemonCrawl, this will happen again.
But this still doesn’t explain why I ended up hating my time with a game that is so good in so many other regards. I’ve tried phrasing this several ways, and for a long time I thought the clearest way to express my disdain would be to say “It’s still just Minesweeper,” emphasizing that in spite of all of the new gimmicks and modifications and amazing pieces of music, you’re still just playing a flashier version of a free game that comes with your computer and isn’t particularly interesting or engrossing. But that explanation doesn’t make sense because I’ve played Minesweeper and I never had any especially negative opinion of it. And the key difference – the one thing I keep coming back to that gives me a bad memory of DemonCrawl – is the length of the game. Minesweeper is a free game you play when you need to kill time for a minute or two. If you lose, it sucks, but you’ve wasted a maximum of, what, three minutes? Minesweeper is a perfectly functional game that serves the same purpose as checking Twitter on your phone or idling at work because it’s the only game the IT department haven’t figured out how to remove from your office computer yet.
DemonCrawl wants to be played for hours.
And not just a few hours either. This isn’t an issue exclusive to DemonCrawl and nor is it even an issue at all in many games that have taken me much longer periods of time to beat. My first playthrough of Tales of Symphonia took me almost 100 hours because I wanted to finish every sidequest and fight every boss. But… Tales of Symphonia is a fantasy world-spanning action-RPG with nine playable characters and voice-acting and character development and plot.
And DemonCrawl is… Minesweeper.
And there are games without deep and involving plots that can also be played for a ridiculous amount of time like The Binding of Isaac, which I’ve played (if you take the original and add it to the remake ‘Rebirth’) for more than 1,000 hours, and practically all of that is based on the uniquely enjoyable gameplay. But The Binding of Isaac is a Zelda-inspired roguelike where you shoot tears at enemies and can pick up items that replace your tears with lasers, blood beams, boogers, bombs, nukes, bones, etc, and can also find items that make them homing, electric, acidic, poisonous, explosive, etc. Here’s what my last run on The Binding of Isaac looked like.
… See, got an item that replaced my tears with laser-rings, and then I got an item that allowed them to transcend the borders of the screen and wrap around, and then I got a really high rate of fire and some familiars to deal more damage and I’m also holding a reusable item that fires tears in eight directions and recharges for every room you complete that contains an enemy, and I also have 99 bombs and keys. It was a very fun run, is what I’m saying. Also if I fired laser-rings for long enough, then the game would crash from the sheer overload of objects to keep track of, but if anything, that wasn’t a slap in the face as much as it was a hallmark of what a game-breaking combination I’d found.
Tangent: As I write this, I have a saved quest in progress on DemonCrawl that I don’t want to erase because it’s the final stage of a very difficult quest that I haven’t beaten yet, but am unable to continue because it has also broken the game, but unlike in Isaac where it’s kind of acceptable because the game only crashes when you have given yourself three hundred items and are firing a constant stream of game-lagging laser-blood-booger-bomb-scatter tears, DemonCrawl consistently breaks on this level because… there are some pyros shooting fire around. Not many either, just five or six. If anything, I was initially happy, because if their fire hits a cell with an enemy, the enemy is killed, and the fire also damages the boss that every final stage has (in hard mode, at least) so it was a bonus, but… nope, the game crashes. Yippee.
But the point is, The Binding of Isaac is a roguelike with almost infinite possibilities, some of which are nearly impossible to win with but some of which are incredibly fun and break the game wide open. And while DemonCrawl certainly gives you spells and items and omens that can drastically change the way you approach a stage… see if you can guess what’s coming.
It’s still just Minesweeper.
But even so, this doesn’t really explain why I didn’t enjoy the game. Just because it doesn’t have a replayability of a thousand hours doesn’t mean that I can’t just play it until I stop having fun and appreciate it for what it is. And this is where I stop complaining about the game and start explaining sincerely why it is an entirely unfortunate coincidence that this game is tailored for me personally to hate it.
I like to get achievements in video games where I can. I don’t say this as a boast because it’s not the kind of thing I’m particularly proud of and also the achievements I get aren’t particularly a result of skill; more like perseverance. That said, I used to have the attitude of “Well, if I could beat it, it can’t have been that hard!” amongst friends, which was supposed to be self-deprecation but instead just came across as “If you can’t beat what I can beat then you’re basically trash,” so I’m still trying to find a suitable middle ground here. The point is, I like to finish games completely, and the most obvious way to do that on Steam is to unlock 100% of the achievements. I even recently passed this big milestone!
Beautiful. Now, the thing is, I have absolutely no problem whatsoever leaving achievements locked if they’re achievements that I genuinely don’t think that I can get. In the selection above, there’s one for generally doing everything in Super Meat Boy, and I unlocked it, and I was proud, hence why it’s there. Super Meat Boy also has a bunch of achievement for beating each world in the game (20 levels, in a row) deathless. I do not have those achievements. I have some of them because the earlier worlds are easier and it’s still a fun game to keep playing for a few hours every once in a while. But there are bonus ‘Dark World’ levels, and a brutal bonus world named Cotton Alley that I am confident that I would never be able to beat without dying unless I quit my job and dedicated my life to Super Meat Boy, which I am not prepared to do. I do not have these achievements, and I worry that I cannot truly express just how much this does not bug me. There is nothing wrong with realising that something is above your skill level and deciding not to pursue it. Maybe one day I will learn that about becoming successful writing about video games on the internet.
That’s not to say that there aren’t horrible games with horrible achievements that frustrate me. This can also work in reverse; I almost had a breakdown playing Outlast 2 because there’s an achievement for finishing the game in the tactfully-named ‘Insane Mode’ (enemies kill you in one or two hits, no checkpoints, die once and it’s back to the beginning of the game) and unlike the bonus levels of Super Meat Boy, that task is, unfortunately, within my skill level and I feasibly could do it, which means I had to. This is an issue that has previously been brought up by one of the greatest philosophers of our time, Mr. Sans Undertale.
No, but seriously. The Genocide route of Undertale is a thoughtfully-miserable experience in which you are warned several times that you are going to have a… (I’m not going to say it) – a pretty unsatisfactory time, and it’s emphasized over and over that nobody is forcing you to play the game in a way which is destined from the beginning to provide you with the most hollow and empty victory imaginable. Nowhere is this clearer than in the dialogue that Sans provides in his boss fight.
“i know your type. you’re, uh, very determined, aren’t you? you’ll never give up, even if there’s, uh… absolutely NO benefit to persevering whatsoever. if i can make that clear. no matter what, you’ll just keep going. not out of any desire for good or evil… but just because you think you can. and because you “can” … … you “have to”.“
And essentially, this is why I shouldn’t play something like DemonCrawl. Because not one of the (pause to check because the developers are still frequently updating the game with more content, which is admittedly very cool and good of them) 124 achievements in DemonCrawl is above my skill level; after all, it’s just Minesweeper. All I have to do is persevere and I will eventually unlock everything. But persevering in a game that you’re also legitimately having a good time with, and persevering in a game which is just Minesweeper, are very different things.
This isn’t entirely on me either (it is certainly almost entirely on me though,) because there are other games that encourage a longer playtime that I don’t hate, like the digital board game 100% Orange Juice, AKA 100% RNG Juice, AKA Anime Mario Party, AKA If Marie Poppo steals my stars one more f&%#ing time I am going to stab a dog. This game has 220 achievements, 27 DLC packs containing more characters, more cards and more voices, and to get all of them, you would doubtless have to sink hundreds of hours into the game, and even though all of the achievements fall within my frustrating purview of ‘Well, technically they’re within my skill level’, then I haven’t gone too crazy chasing after them.
That’s because 100% Orange Juice has some very well-defined cut-off points. The base game comes with four character-campaigns with six levels each, and one bonus campaign with another six levels. There are definitely some other achievements that I found annoying (trying to get 700 stars in one game is pretty tough when you only need 200 to win) but it wasn’t too bad and when I started to get bored, it was easy to find a spot where I could call it quits and say that I had at least 100%-ed the base game and didn’t need to spend any more time playing a game that I no longer enjoyed, and for that reason, I had a pretty good time and would happily recommend it to others. Also, the spot I picked to stop playing just felt perfect to me.
But DemonCrawl doesn’t have that. There’s no easy spot to pick where you should obviously call it a day if you’ve had enough. And I hate to make it sound objectively negative when if anything, it’s a good thing, but the ease with which you can start a quest again after losing, mixed with the twenty four unlockable classes, none of which are hidden in DLC packs, means that if you’re like me and you want to play this game until you feel like you’ve ‘completed it’, then I hope you like playing Minesweeper for hundreds upon hundreds of hours.
So none of this is to say the DemonCrawl is objectively bad, just… I’m going to go to the store page for DemonCrawl on Steam, and I’m going to look at the positive reviews as they currently appear and I’m going to list how much time they have spent playing the game. 127 hours. 106 hours. 124 hours. 245 hours. 47 hours. 58 hours. 89 hours. All of these people honestly enjoyed the game, and I’m not here to say that they’re wrong. It’s a well-made game with lots of variety, replayability, and an excellent soundtrack. But if you’re like me – and I truly hope you are not – and like to play games to completion, and you’re not prepared to spend a very significant upcoming part of your life playing Minesweeper, I cannot recommend DemonCrawl to you.
But if you are prepared to spend a hundred hours playing Minesweeper, or you have more self-control than I do (not exactly difficult) then I would strongly recommend you give the game a chance. The developers are actively seeking feedback and frequently providing free updates with more bosses, more masteries, and more content that leaves me wishing that I was the kind of person who could just stop playing when I stopped having fun, because DemonCrawl certainly has a lot of fun to offer.
So I’m sorry, DemonCrawl. I can’t often say this about games I don’t like, but it’s not you, it’s me. But just because we’re not working out doesn’t mean I don’t hope you can find happiness with someone else.
Not that I’m bitter or anything.