Difficulty is the bread and butter of roguelikes, but sometimes I wish there was more to the genre than just difficulty for the sake of difficulty. Why just bread and butter? How about some meat and barbecue sauce? The loot cycle and the feeling of accomplishment may be reward enough for some, but I always find myself hankering for a meatier experience, especially in terms of narrative and exploration. In my impressions of Lovecraft’s Untold Stories, I hoped it would be similar to a childhood favorite of mine, Alone in the Dark. It isn’t, but it will probably appeal to roguelite fans.
A tale told by no one
You start out as the shotgun-toting Detective, a typically noir character thrust in this Lovecraftian nightmare world. As you enter the Mansion, you explore its rooms, killing cultists and monsters, collecting loot and gleaning the horrors and perplexities that Lovecraft’s works explored. The game abounds in references and allusions to Lovecraft’s characters and stories, but that’s all it is. I kept waiting for the game to build on top of these references, and it never actually does. Lovecraft’s Untold Stories is an apt title. There is no actual story being told. The game is devoid of a proper narrative arc.
Then again, it’s likely that the vast majority of roguelike gamers don’t really care about narrative. So I guess it’s enough to have these little tokens of Lovecraftian lore. The thing is that the lore simply doesn’t instill the horror of existence that Lovecraft tried to convey through his stories. It seems catered to people who think something like: “Cthulhu is so cool! Cthulhu for President! Why settle for a lesser evil?” It’s as generic and insipid as it gets. Of course, this isn’t unique to this game, there are more than a dozen games inspired by Lovecraft, and many of them fail to live up to his legacy of horror and awe.
There are glimpses of something that might approach a narrative arc that could come close to that legacy, but it’s never properly developed. Instead, you find yourself clearing level after level as you collect some cool loot and face a Lovecraftian monster boss. Rinse and repeat. Along the way you will meet other characters, unlocking them for new playthroughs. These characters are the Witch, the Thief, the Professor and the Ghoul. They all have different stats and exclusive weapons. There’s plenty of replay value in that sense.
Shooting your way through different levels can be really fun at first. The procedural levels and the variety of scenarios offer enough variatin to keep you coming back. The problem is that the progress hinges on collectathons for the items required to access the ultimate nemesis, the Great Old Ones. As you advance between chapters, you will find yourself in the Strange Place, a sanctuary of sorts where you can check a board showing the percentages of progress for each of the Great Old Ones. Unless you manage to collect all of the necessary items, you won’t be able to face them. You’ll just end up in the Strange Place with nothing to do. It’s a dead-end for both gameplay and narrative.
The UI is really awful considering that you constantly need to use antidotes or bandages to stop your character from suffering of poisoning or bleeding. The game’s design seems to confuse ease of gameplay with ease of use. The user experience becomes a tedious back-and-forth grind as you’re constantly opening your inventory to replace the hotkeys so you can heal yourself, or stop the bleeding and the poisoning. It’s just not a smart design, and the constant switching gets old really quickly.
"...to correlate all its contents."
In my impressions, I mentioned the insanity mechanic, and I hoped there would be something more narratively interesting tied up with it. Sadly, it’s just an alternate health bar dressed up as a fancy mechanic. As you progress through the levels you might see objects that cause your character to lose sanity. The insanity meter is just a bunch of dark tendrils that slowly envelop your character’s portrait in the top left. You can eat chocolate to regain sanity (because apparently Lovecraft wrote in a letter: “Hershey's sweet chocolate is one of my favourite nibbles,” true story). If you lose all your sanity, your character commits suicide. That’s all there is to it.
I keep bringing up narrative because I really believe that a game that’s supposedly inspired by Lovecraft should indeed have more focus on narrative and storytelling. I don’t even expect something cinematic in that sense, there are many other ways to tell a story. There are hundreds of indie games that tell great stories with few resources. So it’s particularly disappointing that the game simply offers nothing but references, which most roguelike fans won’t care about either. It’s just a missed opportunity, and it might be too late to make up for it.
For a roguelike, “easy” is usually a death sentence. Lovecraft’s Untold Stories is fairly difficult for a roguelite, even on Easy. However, if you’re looking for something as difficult and engaging as The Binding of Isaac or Enter the Gungeon, you’ll probably feel disappointed. While these are all 2D shooters, Untold Stories lacks that special oomph that roguelike fans need as their fix. And as much as I love the pixel art, and though it is playable and fun enough even with all its narrative shortcomings and interface issues, it just won’t stand out in any meaningful way.
Richard reviewed Lovecraft’s Untold Stories on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.