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Cryptmaster Hands-On: A Darkly Good Time

Cryptmaster Logo

As a creative kid, I met the announcement of the original Scribblenauts with starry-eyed wonder. Okay, that game came out in 2009 and I wasn’t a kid. Just go with it. The idea of a game where your solution to puzzles was to type in whatever you wanted and see if you could get away with it was so immensely powerful and groundbreaking — and a dinosaur really could solve many problems, thank you — that I’m on board with any game employing similarly creative gameplay. Cryptmaster is not Scribblenauts in any way beyond freeform input, of course, but it activates a similar part of my brain that gets excited about possibilities in games.

I played the Cryptmaster demo (on Steam) semi-recently, but I played it again at PAX East in Boston more recently and spent a little more time with it. It’s impossible not to notice the striking high-contrast black and white art style. This look gives the whole game a great aesthetic that feels like a very old PC dungeon crawler but with very detailed, high-res textures, animations, and environmental effects. I love that the detail isn’t realistic, either, but feels like it’s pulled right out of the sketchbook of an artist who sketches exclusively in pen.

One thing I dug into at PAX East was the nice color filters the game offers. Whether it’s to soften the contrast or just to spice things up, Cryptmaster has many color filters to accent the graphics. And they aren’t a basic solid color overlay — some add multiple shades of color, while others focus on a single color but vary its intensity based on distance. See a side-by-side… by-side comparison below of the standard graphics and two of these color filter options:

The Soul of the Cryptmaster

Leave it to me to talk about visuals first, right? But the gameplay is where Cryptmaster has the most potential, thanks to two major components: The titular character, and the letter inputs.

I have to talk about the Cryptmaster first, who is fully voiced. And since you interact so much on a one-on-one basis, it’s essential to make this enjoyable. Thankfully, the writing and acting are excellent, perfectly dripping with melodrama and sarcasm, so I enjoyed every line of dialogue tossed at me, whether it was congratulating me on identifying treasure or mocking my odd requests. (Look, if the game will let me request to lick the contents of a treasure chest, I’m gonna do it.) The Cryptmaster’s character and voice are so integral to the game that even trailers and other promotional videos are voiced in character:

So, you see what I mean. The actor just chews on every scene like an excitable social media food critic, and I’m super here for it. It is so unexpected the first time you hear it and so darkly fun that I can’t get enough of it.

Wheel of Misfortune

From the outset of the game, you control a party of four now-dead characters who have forgotten everything they’re capable of doing. But by fulfilling duties for the creepy Cryptmaster, you can help them regain abilities to traverse this new land and find the way around with the power of words. While you can sometimes guess your characters’ abilities and learn them by typing them, exploring the dungeon, finding treasure, and fighting foes will give you clues.

Treasure boxes are a big one: In a fun twist, what’s inside is not actually the item you get, but rather, the name of a chest’s contents will fill in gaps in your character’s current letter lineup, leading you to re-discover abilities. But wait, there’s one more rub — first, you must figure out what’s in the chest. You’re dead, so the Cryptmaster, more or less in the role of a Dungeon Master, opens chests for you, and you have a limited number of actions you can ask him to perform to hint at what it is. By using LOOK (or similar words), he may describe something shiny and metal. This means licking or sniffing it may not get you further in this case… but those are options! Creative use of the Cryptmaster’s senses can lead you to the result. Turns out, that shiny metal thing was a helmet, so if any of those letters are in the next ability your party members can learn, it fills in, Wheel of Fortune-style.

Based on each character’s backstory and skill set, it’s up to you to guess what these clues are leading you to. Joro is more of a fighter, so he’ll have abilities like JAB and BLOCK, while the assassin-like Syn has her blades and more stealthy abilities, and Maz can heal. If you can fill in and guess the next ability, it’s yours to use, whether in battle or while wandering, depending on the ability.

Battles are also word-based, with letter tiles creatively representing HP for both your party and the enemy. When a character takes damage, they lose a letter, so it’s clear how well a battle is going by looking at enemy names. It doesn’t take long to discover enemies with special abilities, like a shield that blocks any word with “B” in it (meaning Syn’s “JAB” can’t be used), forcing you to think on your toes — or fingers, I suppose — for other abilities. Thankfully, it’s not as stressful as I’m making it sound. You can bring up your ability lists as a refresher, and Cryptmaster lets you swap between real-time and turn-based combat based on your preferences. I didn’t realize this until after I played, but I feel it is in many players’ best interests to start on turn-based to get used to the system! I hope that’s a consideration for the full game, even if only to present the option at the outset. Either way, I’m glad this option exists.

Creative Solutions

The demo version is not overly long, but mostly long enough to get a feel for Cryptmaster‘s world and basic systems. But playing through it more than once meant I got to try different approaches each time and relish in the differing results each time. There is a “character” who tries to stump you by asking what it thinks is a very complicated series of questions. One is to see if you can describe the sun, and it accepted several answers from me, such as “hot” or “searing,” and who knows how many more. After that, it asked me what the last fruit I ate was. For fun, I mentioned a vegetable, which, of course, got me a negative result, and I was turned away. After that, I took a simple route with “apple.” Since the answer must simply be a fruit to “pass,” I was let through. But on my second playthrough, I tried something else, and this has been my favorite discovery of all. I answered “tomato” and got a completely different and specific line of dialogue in response, commending me for knowing that a tomato is a fruit.

A large, judgmental eye staring at the player in Cryptmaster
Looks like the entrance fee is about $10.

This is notable for two key reasons. First, it perfectly illustrated the developers’ systems for freeform input and freedom in puzzle solving. But more than that — and I learned this from my contact at Akupara Games — in this age of AI computing, Cryptmaster does not rely on AI or generated responses for its logic. All of it is coded into the game, a task even more monumental given that Cryptmaster is being developed by two people: Paul Hart and Lee Williams.

Also, there’s one more thing I didn’t mention because I haven’t demoed it myself: Cryptmaster also supports voice input. My understanding was that the demo version at PAX East was an earlier build where this system was still being refined, but given the ambient noise levels at a con, I wasn’t going to test it there anyway! Still, I was told the voice input is working very well in the full game’s current build. Between the work involved on hand-coding dialogue and responses and supporting both text and voice input, I can see why Cryptmaster will “only” support English and Spanish at launch. My Akupara contact mentioned they may consider other language support down the line, but nothing is set in stone. Beyond standard localization considerations, Cryptmaster‘s letter-based gameplay is rooted in its use of a Roman-style alphabet. This would make supporting languages that use a vastly different system, such as Japanese syllabaries, a far greater localization task than some others.

If you couldn’t tell, I’ve had a great time trying the game out. I think Cryptmaster will be fun for solo players, but also for streamers or playing with friends. Maybe I should talk to Scott about playing it on our Twitch channel and see what wild ideas the audience comes up with.

In any case, none of us have long to wait. In addition to revealing that Cryptmaster recently won the Excellence in Design award from the Independent Games Festival, Akupara Games revealed a Steam release date of May 9th, 2024, in their usual way.

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Mike Salbato

Mike Salbato

Mike has been with RPGFan nearly since its inception, and in that time has worn a surprising number of hats for someone who doesn't own a hatstand. Today he attempts to balance his Creative Director role with his Editor-in-Chief status. Despite the amount of coffee in his veins, he bleeds emerald green.

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