The action RPG/roguelite hybrid genre trucks on with no sign of stopping. With Hades in contention for Game of the Year awards alongside mammoth titles like Final Fantasy VII Remake, clearly developers and fans have fallen in love with procedural generation, randomness, and frenetic combat. Curse of the Dead Gods is one such example of this attempt to cash in on the hybrid, but with sterling examples in recent years flooding the market, can it differentiate itself from the pack?
With little in terms of storytelling, players work their way to the tippy top, where the biggest, baddest mean guy intuitively rests, waiting to be killed. The general atmosphere is somewhere between Darkest Dungeon and Hades, an odd melding of the two titles. This mood is primarily driven by the sounds and visuals, which can certainly be a medium for storytelling, but literally speaking, Curse of the Dead Gods has little in the way of narrative except for enemy bios.
We’re not here for story, though; how does it play? Curse of the Dead Gods controls immaculately. The standard fare reigns: stamina points (five pips), dodge, parry, and combo attacks delivered in a tasteful isometric angle. Players can equip a main and a secondary weapon simultaneously (dual wielding), a two-handed large weapon, and a torch that never changes out. The torch can technically be used to attack, but it’s primarily to keep braziers lit as fighting in the light is better than fighting in the dark, which results in taking higher damage. When using the main and secondary weapons, players can charge either, combo with one and lead into the other for an “off-hand” combo attack, or simply complete a combo with one of the weapons. This provides an impressive degree of customization, as players can change out weapons if an enemy drops one or if they choose to purchase one.
As players traverse rooms within the floors of the temple, they usually come to a shrine of sorts before the door the reward is hidden behind. The prize they receive could be upgrading a weapon, buying a weapon, buying a relic, or obtaining stat bonuses. When players enter the final door of the floor, they are treated to a map giving them an option of paths to choose from. The only information they’re given is what the reward is, as referenced earlier. Eventually, this leads to a boss for that section of the temple, which never changes. Curse of the Dead Gods offers three routes with different families of enemies, bosses, and traps.
The final mechanic players should be aware of is corruption. As one’s corruption bar fills up, they will eventually be cursed when the bar reaches 100 points. At this stage, the bar resets and the player can earn additional curses. This can happen five times, but the fifth time is a mega-super-scary-very-bad curse with no benefits and one major consequence.
Wait, curses have benefits? Yes, the first four curses will typically have a cost and benefit. For example, a random curse might force players to spend 300 gold every time they enter the door at the end of a series of rooms, and if they can’t pay, they take damage. The upside? Players heal 10% of their max HP when they pay the full amount. So, if money’s not an issue for your run, players can use this as a reliable healing source. This could also drive their strategy in terms of routes and purchases.
The curses are an absolute joy for this reason. Initially, the cons feel worse than the benefits as players learn how to master the mechanics and understand the strategy, but after a few hours, many curses can be a welcome sight. What’s more, when players beat a boss, they can remove a curse of their choice. Some curses are strictly negative, but those have weaker consequences, such as a trap always being activated when encountered. The key is to not go crazy on corruption, or the fifth curse might come before the run is over.
Corruption can be earned not only by exiting a room, but through some enemy attacks. Additionally, shops can be paid in either gold or blood. Naturally, spending blood increases corruption. The cost for both is determined by the quality of the purchase. Upgrading a level 1 weapon to level 2 costs much less than upgrading a level 3 to level 4.
Curse of the Dead Gods is full of fun, strategic decisions like this. I always felt like I had a good amount of control over my fate both in terms of customization and gameplay. Out the gate, I fell in love. Most games like this are punishing, but Curse of the Dead Gods feels almost too kind at first. Losing on the first floor of any temple route feels impossible unless a player really isn’t paying attention. The second floor of each route gets decently more challenging, and players can definitely lose here, and then the third tier can be brutally difficult, requiring a bit of practice.
If the game starts to get too hard, rest assured that currency is earned over the course of each run, which can be spent to improve one’s character in true rogue-lite fashion. Fortunately, Curse of the Dead Gods does this a little more creatively than its ilk. Players can equip three blessings, which are outright benefits suited to a player’s playstyle, but the more expensive ones aren’t necessarily better than the cheaper ones. I used two relatively cheaper blessings and one mid-ranged blessing. The more expensive blessings simply didn’t appeal to my approach to the game; however, after reviewing the multiple options available, some may be better in specific routes or strategies, which is fun!
Unfortunately, Curse of the Dead Gods loses its luster after about ten hours. Once I hit the third tier, I knew each run was going to last about 40 to 50 minutes until I got to the brutal boss at the end, and then I’d die in a couple of minutes. This can be disenchanting, because after facing the same family of mobs for that long, the gameplay becomes formulaic. Perfect controls, exciting visuals, and impressive customization only go so far when I can dodge or parry and then counter in my sleep. Once in a rare while I’ll get overwhelmed by sheer numbers, which presents a challenge, but most of the time, smart gameplay keeps the numbers manageable and the enemy patterns consistent. This destroys Curse of the Dead Gods‘ long-term appeal.
Curse of the Dead Gods just feels too safe for this reason. The dungeons have an occasional breakable wall with goodies, but the flow of every run is pretty standard. No risks are taken. Gameplay plods along in the same fashion over and over. What’s more, I rarely feel the desire to buy new weapons and change my build mid-run, because I’ve already chosen relics that synergize with my build. I stick with what works, because that keeps my health full and corruption low while maximizing damage. Eventually, Curse of the Dead Gods seems to present the illusion of choice with little fanfare upon victory.
Part of the appeal of roguelikes is the depth. Since static maps aren’t developed and a linear (or non-linear) story doesn’t unfold in typical RPG fashion, a generous serving of content is almost required. Curse of the Dead Gods feels like a proof of concept in this way, because what’s here is tight, enticing, and consistent, but it needs more. Without meaningful changes across runs, everything just kinda bleeds together. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe Curse of the Dead Gods was always intended to be a 15-hour game. If that’s what you’re after, then by all means, but a game like this needs teeth and a degree of chaos oftentimes found in other roguelikes. With this hybrid genre hotter than ever, maybe it came out of development just a little too late.