The Co-worker Homicide Simulator
Okay kids, I’m going to be waxing a little nostalgic today because Rogue-Like games are important to me. When I was young and Dungeons & Dragons was still viewed as a gaping portal to hell, the game Rogue was my go to. Top down, round by round, bump into the bad guys to hit them, all controlled by a few keys on the keyboard. Gear drops you prayed would be good – and potions that could mess you up just as bad as the monsters. Sure, Moria had lots of refinements and character options, but my love for the original ran deep so I always went back to Rogue.
So we now live in a gaming era where Rogue-Like is bandied around by lots of folk who may never have actually experienced the original. That’s okay, they get the basic idea, and the phrase is “Rogue-Like” – so I shouldn’t be expecting an exact copy of the original.
Enter MidBoss. This is the first game calling itself a “Rogue-Like” in a while, where I really feel fans of the inspiration are going to be extremely happy. The creation of Kitsune Games, MidBoss is a really clever take on the old idea. You are a lowly Imp in a dungeon. The other monsters give you crap all the time, and while the heroes raid the dungeon you get the inglorious task of rat killing. Your little fire elemental pal Mid (who always calls you Boss…. Get it? Do you get it?!) suggests you toss caution to the wind and try making a name for yourself. So, with your really handy ability of possession, you start off taking over the body of one of your intended victims and the fun begins.
There will be hardcore Rogue fans that will turn up their noses at aspects of this game, who would roll their eyes at the level of customization and accessibility the game grants the player. However this is a well-designed Rogue-Like experience for those who want it, one that can be custom made for each player.
The Choices of Death
Death Cards and Custom Games are both very important to understand before you give this game a try. Your engagement with them – or lack thereof – will greatly flavor your own personal experience with this game. Acceptance or rejection of these three mechanics will also help us identify if you will consider this a true Rogue-Like.
As anyone who has had the misfortune of watching me start a new video game can tell you, digital death and I are old, comfortable friends. And not just comfortable college friends or work buddies. There can be no denying that I die with a great deal of frequency in most games, and in the Rogue-Like genre, I likely have my greatest number of visits to the Underworld. So the Death Card system was pretty amusing for me – with its snapshot of my death and brief synopsis of my time in the dungeon – but then I started my second life as an Imp with big dreams.
That’s when things got really interesting.
When you start a new game, you get asked if you would like some Grave Loot. Possibly having missed mention of it in a tutorial, I had no idea what Grave Loot was – outside of the fact I did not recognize the offer from my first try in the dungeon. So I said “Hell yeah, I’d like some Grave Loot! Lay it on me, MidBoss!” Up pops the humiliating reminder of my first death-by-bat in the dungeon by means of the Death Card.
The system is actually simple to understand. From the playthrough that resulted in a Death Card, you could select one piece of gear from your inventory and bring it to your new game. Once used in this fashion, the Death Card will be tagged so it’s no longer viable for Grave Loot. The card remains in your gallery, but has the corner cropped off to signify prior use. On the start of any new game you are able to make use of up to six Death Cards in such a fashion. This system, if it wasn’t clear already, is completely optional.
Upon generation of a Death Card you can do several things with it. For one thing, you can name them. This allows for a bit of sardonic humour or for easy cataloguing (Like naming it “Really Awesome Sword!”) for your next adventure. The system also allows you to replay the random world seed that was used in that particular murder jaunt. On top of that, you may see a familiar blue bird floating around the Death Cards – click this to share your card on Twitter, so others can marvel at your defeat or even give the same dungeon a try. You know, to prove they’re better than you.
Death Cards are important to note because they can have a great impact on a run. Still, no one is forcing you to take it; if you turn your nose up at starting with even the most terrible piece of gear, wanting your Imp to start out naked as the day he was misbegotten on this poor world, then more power to you.
Like Death Cards, the Custom Game setting provides options. Maybe you just feel like a challenge and want to ramp up the difficultly, or maybe you’re interested in just playing the most horribly overpowered Imp you can, and just want to tromp virtually uncontested in the dungeon. Or maybe you want to play just to inform yourself of all the different beasts and powers before you settle in for a “serious” game.
Your reasons are your own business, but the game has you covered no matter what they are. Your settings do not currently restrict your Death Cards, and that’s just fine. If someone wants to do six really easy playthroughs to get some awesome top quality gear, and then play a normal game – but start out with the good stuff via Death Cards – the game makes that an option. Don’t let the knowledge that out there someone may be playing in a way you wouldn’t dissuade you from enjoying what is the best part of the game.
Possession is 9/10ths of the Game
Ever have a job where you just looked at a co-worker and thought, “Boy, I’d love to just possess their body, steal their talents, and run their shambling corpse in to the ground until I found another victim,” and longed for it to be a reality? [Editor’s Note: I think I need a new, more distant office.] Well, uh, if you ever have, maybe some anger management is in order, but Midboss really lets you live this dark fantasy. Starting with the lowly rat that was in your care, you take over his body and start hunting for bigger and better things. As you murder and betray those in the dungeon you gain experience in two ways: Your Imp gains experience for an overall improved character, but arguably more important, your knowledge of the form you are currently possessing increases. Eventually this will lead to mastery of the form.
The possession mechanic is the hardest thing about the game to understand, and really it is not that difficult, it just takes some experimentation, patience, and several deaths. Some monsters will only have one ability, others far more. Each monster you are learning can only have three of its powers equipped at any time, so go through, find the ones you like, and make sure they are selected. I didn’t grasp this until I was several trips in to the dungeon and kept wondering why my possessed Warlock couldn’t cast Fireball.
In addition to needing to customize the forms you are inhabiting, you must also choose which forms your Imp will have equipped in his own body. The game is complex juggling act of jumping from body to body to take advantage of healing, mastering abilities, and figuring out combos. This means it is important to be comfortable in your own skin, so you can become the monster you always dreamed about being. Your Imp can have three different monsters forms equipped at once, and this will grant him different sets of powers depending on your previous choices. Some of the combos are pretty fantastic.
Because the base engine of the game manages to cleave so closely to the roots of Rogue, it makes the fact that so many of the additions are simply optional all the more interesting. As a personal experience that allows you to hold the keys to your own entertainment, this game should have a wide appeal to both traditionalist and newcomers to the genre.
Too Much Loot, Too Little Life
As with many games of the Rogue-Like kind, leveling plays a large part in the game. When you level, you get skill points that can be assigned to four different stats. I experimented a great deal with various builds, seeing if one stat was better or worse than them all. Honestly, they’re pretty well balanced from what I can tell, and at first I dismissed the one called “Relentlessness” but quickly found in later levels how important the extra mana and hp would be.
The one I always invested more in was Adamancy, not because it was better, but it simply was best for my playstyle. I like tough characters with high defense that can just stay there and shrug off even the most powerful strikes – it helps make up for how terrible I am at games. I think most people are going to be able to find something that allows them to play their way.
If various forms, levels, powers, and ability scores were not enough customization – MidBoss has a time honoured and tested randomly generated loot system. Starting with the drab common gear and working your way up to truly powerful items with special abilities added in, the gear system is not something that can just be put to the side. As you progress you may find yourself getting a bit stressed about how you could choose just one piece of your current gear to take with you to your next life. New gear appears with great frequency, and many times I found myself overburdened and leaving piles of stuff behind as that damned cat merchant was no where to be seen.
Potions can play an important role in the game depending on how hard you’ve set up your current romp. Most of the time you’re desperately searching for the all important Healing potions, as they seem to be the most useful ones you can find. Mana and Stamina regenerate over time, Hit Points do not, and if the Gods are unkind, you can find yourself in a pickle after a few fights. Some of your magical beverages are going to be beneficial, others less so. So while using identify scrolls to get a firm grasp on your gear is good and all, you may want to prioritize using them to figure out what your potions do instead. Your local cat merchant can’t identify potions for reasons I don’t understand. So, just take that into consideration before you decide to quaff a random potion.
That reminds me, scrolls stack, potions don’t. Personally I would have liked each potion type being stackable, but that is just me. I can see an argument for it, but the end result of this system is that I’d just end up tossing anything that isn’t a healing potion on the floor, and I never really got to make use of the other ones. Except remove poison, yeah, keep those too. Trust me.
The last piece of gear to talk about are the Tomes. They function as consumable items that have charges. Once all the charges are depleted, the tome vanishes. In games where you are struggling more and it takes you longer to master your forms, you are going to find these fairly valuable.
Plague Rat Sized Problems
I think with purists, the biggest concern will be the fact this game is not top-down. At first I was a bit disappointed, but then I realized I couldn’t enjoy seeing all the goofy looking creatures with a top-down view, so I got used to the isometric camera angle and eight direction movement control.
Connected with this are my issues with the mini-map. I am grateful for it, don’t get me wrong, but it could have used just a few tweaks to make it more useful. This of course is all stuff that any dedicated player could do on their own with a pen and paper (and some patience), but I’ve always felt that if it could be done that way, just put it in the game. Don’t take us out of the experience.
So, the biggest issue: Information. There just isn’t a lot of info on the mini-map, and if there was a way to toggle this, I couldn’t find it. Firstly, I would have killed to have the location of the merchant displayed on the map after it was found. Second, letting us see where gear was dropped would be cool too, and if you wanted to get fancy you add colour coding by rarity. There’s no need to make the gathering of all your goods for resale even more of a slog. As rooms all have types, even seeing them show up (barracks, library, treasure vault) would be nice, even if just for fun. Barring these suggestions, giving players the ability to add their own map markers would be good. A little note say “Come back here, big pile of loot” or “That jerk cat merchant is over here.”
And about that merchant… This may sound like I am splitting hairs, but I could not stand the buy/sell UI. It isn’t a deal breaker by any leap of the imagination, but the games I play normally have inventory/merchant screens that go up and down, even if in columns. So, if I am selling an item, the one that was listed directly below it will now occupy it’s place in the UI. Not this game, it goes left to right, and when I first started that caused a great deal of confusion for me. I still have to be careful not to sell a bunch of the wrong stuff. I’m old and easily frightened by these things.
Honestly, these are really tiny issues and with the exception of the map issues, I feel the devs putting their attention on content expansion would be better.
This Pleases Our Eyeballs and Sound Holes
Speaking of quality, graphics are always a funny thing in these games. I’ll confess, I’m done with ASCII graphics. I mean, unless there is something really important about a game being in ASCII, I’m good with graphical upgrade. The graphics aren’t bleeding edge, but they are good. The designs are fun, the monsters all subscribe to the same theme, and it generally all fits together nicely.
And then there are the graphics settings. I didn’t mess around with them at first, but while doing the review I decided to look at the options for “Retro Mode,” and while I’m not sure if I could play it on any many of these modes (painful memories), they go through a cute history of old graphical modes for games. EGA, CGA, C64 and more, it was worth a laugh and I am sure there are many who will want to play just in these modes for the fun of it.
In addition there are various graphical tweaks you can play around with to get the best looking dungeon crawler you can strangle out of the engine. In less graphic intense games like this, you don’t normally see all these options, so I enjoyed playing around with them until I found the settings that were most visually pleasing to me.
On a final colour related note, there are two settings to help accommodate colour-blind players, so that’s always nice to see. I have friends who struggle to enjoy the same games I take for granted, simply because the colour palette makes the game inaccessible to one degree or another.
Sadly, in the modern era of Rogue-Like games there is a tendency to overlook sound. I may come off as a broken record in this regard, but audio is so important for a video game. In my opinion less is more for games like MidBoss. You need sound effects that don’t grate on you when you’ve heard them hundreds of times – but more importantly, music should be inoffensive. Got a comical jaunty tune, make sure it is still as jaunty after hearing it on loop for 7 hours straight. Fortunately for us, MidBoss handles the audio portion of the game like a champ. I even found myself humming the soundtrack while puttering around doing old person things in my house. The music isn’t the same tune either, as your progress through levels it changes it up, but you get pretty used to hearing the tracks from the early levels.
The Adventure Continues
While many companies take the venerable name Rogue and just slap it on their product because it generates random levels, Midboss stays very true to the concept. Everything works on that system where when you take your action or movement, everything else does too. After a hard fight, you hit the rest button and hope you aren’t interrupted by some creepy crawly looking to do you in. Potions are a dangerous gamble as deadly as any enemy, and I could go on.
But, the original Rogue was hard. People get frustrated with and just rage-quit. I get it, trust me. So the fact you can customize the game with such freedom means you have something with a wide appeal here.
More importantly the system twists the trope of the adventurer’s dungeon. You start really rooting for your little Imp and may find yourself venting the frustrations of the day through him. I think with the rise of social media, more companies need to do things like the Death Card system. I hope to see more done with Midboss in the future, since there are still lots of creatures that can be added with more abilities we can steal. I think this is an excellent game, both for old fans of the genre and for players just starting out that are interested in the concept of the little Imp that could.
MidBoss releases on Steam on May 25th, 2017.
Reviewed by Joshua Smith aka Old Man Mordaith
Edited by Jesse Roberts
This game was received for free as a review copy.