Sword of the Stars: The Pit is a science fiction roguelike, originally released on Steam in 2013, where you are tasked with getting to the bottom of the titular “Pit,” a dangerous and labyrinthine alien facility deep underground. It takes a traditional approach to its subgenre, with procedurally generated dungeon floors, plenty of stats to upgrade, and an expansive set of items, but executes most of those elements quite well and stands out from much of its competition as a result.
The story in The Pit, as with many roguelikes, is basic and mainly presented as introductory text before the title screen. A “Xombie” [sic] plague has overtaken a planet, and alien tech from a subterranean installation could hold the secret to finding a cure. There are other small bits of story information peppered throughout the game, usually in the messages you find and decipher while playing, but these are mostly atmospheric in nature rather than contributions to a grand overall plot. Despite the lack of traditional storytelling, The Pit does manage to present a bit of world-building through gameplay. As you wander deeper into the dungeon, encounters with a variety of alien species, robots, and items give a sense of a broader universe outside the confines of the titular Pit itself. Also, as a disclaimer, I have not played the Sword of the Stars 4X strategy games that reside in the same universe as The Pit (somewhat surprising as I’ve played so many space 4X games I should really be writing for Space4XFan.com), so there may be stronger story connections with the races and technology of those games.
The intricacies of gameplay, not to mention the level of challenge, are the main factors that bring me back to The Pit every few years since its release. As you plunge deeper into the dungeon, difficulty mounts in multiple dimensions. Of course, as expected with any dungeon, the monsters get bigger, scarier, and more numerous, and the floor layouts expand in size and complexity. In addition, you must keep your hero fed as time progresses (the game is turn based but time passes with each action). You start with some meager rations which will run out relatively quickly, leaving you scrounging for food in random containers. Beyond just the food scarcity, players also need to conserve ammo, watch equipment durability, and be wary of various status effects that can quickly get out of hand if not treated. These challenges, however, are one of the main draws of the game, as you always feel you can get a bit farther in the next attempt if you tweak your strategy and get a bit lucky.
Speaking of food, there is also an extensive cooking and crafting system in The Pit. Not only does this give players a better way to stay fed, but it also allows for the creation of some useful items, like weapons and lock picks, from junk picked up during the run. The crafting recipe mechanic is also where The Pit has a bit of a “metagame” component. On any given attempt, you may find messages which can be partially or fully deciphered (based on your Decipher stat). Many of these messages hold background story fluff, but others contain recipes which are saved for use in future runs. The less scrupulous player can always just research all of these recipes online, but I found it more enjoyable to discover them on my own and feel a sense of progression despite dying time and time again.
At the core of all of The Pit’s gameplay mechanics is how you develop your character. There are a lot of stats you can specialize in, including various weapon and foraging skills. Even though each character has starting tendencies and equipment that encourages a certain play style, I enjoyed customizing my character over the course of a given run for a semi-unique experience each time. For example, if I found a good rifle early on, I might specialize in the Rifle skill to make the best use of it. I also might want to raise my lock picking skills to access locked ammo crates, which become progressively more difficult to open as you go deeper.
The Pit does not impress graphically, but the visuals do not impede the game either. There are a fair amount of palette-swapped enemy sprites, and overall enemy design is not particularly unique. Some of the player character designs also looked a bit goofy to me. One good graphical choice, however, is how the Pit itself changes as you delve deeper, beginning with a typical cave look and steadily evolving into a more technologically complex alien facility.
The music of The Pit is somewhat limited in quantity, but it suits the game’s grim and claustrophobic nature well. The title theme is ominous and lends some weight to your impending descent, but at the same time, it has a few opening notes that I had difficulty not humming during the weeks I played the game. The main in-game music is a repetitive chiptune that mostly stays in the background, adding some atmosphere but also not standing out. After many playthroughs, I did start to wish for a bit more variety, but the lack of music was never something that affected my gameplay experience much. The sound effects are relatively basic, with beasts growling, robots beeping, and various gun/explosion sounds. The sound design is mediocre overall, but some of the weapon effects have a resounding quality that makes them just a bit more satisfying than normal.
I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the multitude of DLC that has been released for The Pit since its initial debut in 2013. The Mindgames and Gold Edition DLC are the largest, and I highly recommend them for a more complete experience. All of these (the base game, Mindgames, and Gold Edition) have since been bundled together as the “Osmium Edition.” The Mindgames DLC expands your arsenal and character development with Psionics (essentially a magic system), which can do anything from harm enemies to manifest bread for you to stave off your hunger as you explore (in the game, anyway). The Gold Edition DLC adds quite a bit as well, including four new characters and an extension to the dungeon’s depth. The remaining DLC are single character packs that add new heroes you can use to challenge the dungeon. Some of these are quite unique, such as the necromancy-wielding Lich, but others may not impress those looking for wildly different experiences.
Whether played with DLC or not, The Pit is one of the more solid roguelike titles on Steam, especially in a relatively flooded market. It is challenging but generally fair and allows the player a lot of choices in character development while providing a good atmosphere for dungeon delving. While its graphics and sound may not impress, The Pit’s gameplay will keep players unafraid of long streaks of failure and ensure they come back to challenge it “just one more time.”