Review: Sword of the Stars: The Pit (PC)

The Pit

Ah, the roguelike. Those perennial scalliwags, those punishing rapscallions. They elevate your sense of accomplishment and progression with the firm but fair strike of the digital guillotine. Roguelikes suffer no fools, but the foolhardy? Well, to be foolhardy certainly has its rewards. And only the foolhardy would throw caution to the wind and take on a moonbear. Welcome to Sword of the Stars: The Pit.

It’s funny to think how Kerberos Productions’ follow-up to Sword of the Stars 2: Lords of Winter would be a roguelike, but then it makes a whole lot of sense. Lords of Winter buckled not only under the weight of an imperfect engine and more bugs than Dianne Fossey’s outhouse, but by the scope the small team was trying to capture. With The Pit, the reduced emphasis is laser-focused. The thematic elements of The Pit are sieved from Kerberos’ 4X strategy franchise, and provides some fan service for the IP stalwarts, but this is indeed a new experience independent of prior releases. A tight, lean roguelike with limited production values, clean visuals and challenging gameplay.

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If you’ve played a roguelike, you know what you’re in for. If you haven’t, then these types of games might seem comparatively anemic when set against bigger, more bombastic RPGs. These are Old School, or Skool, if you want to be retro-trendy about it. Turn-based gameplay, limited combat and very basic aesthetics are the evergreen functionalities of the genre – as meagerly populated as Roguelike town perhaps is. But the truth is, without counting the Roguelike-inspired – Roguelike-like? – games such as Dark Souls, Teleglitch or Cargo Commander - we really don’t need a glut. These are taut productions, razor-sharp and offer massive replayability. The Pit is certainly a fine addition to the brood and I’m actually quite thrilled to see Kerberos in the basement, out of orbit.

We find ourselves in an ancient research facility within the Feldspaar mountains, a diseased world’s last hope for deliverance. The Suul’ka within dug a hole millennia ago and there is the possibility the key to immunity lies deep in the darkness. Without stopping to ask why they couldn’t have just put it in the first aid kit kept in the bathroom, we dive in.

To begin, three classes — Marine, Engineer and Scout — are offered with each run. Each do feel markedly different, and their initial loadouts, while limited, do help to diversify player approach. The Marine, correctly inferred, is an expert marksman with starting skills, of which there are many, emphasizing a preference for guns and a clumsiness with electronic equipment. The Engineer operates all manner of technology with a profound deftness, but pales in the combat department. The Scout showcases fine skill in the melee department, an eye for sorting through piles of refuse and desperately loves a good kevlar jacket.

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And from there, the descent begins. Enemies and entities roaming the hallways and rooms of the facility are initially relatively easy to dispatch, but the journey to the thirtieth level is as all roguelikes are known to be; fraught with danger and inescapable death every step of the way.

Doors embedded with traps, booby-trapped lockers, sickness and effects from combat, dwindling ammunition and supplies; everything a leathery roguelike fan needs is here. What is most enjoyable for me personally is the sci-fi setting and itemization. Having never been too thrilled by fantasy, to get not only a serviceable experience in the genre, but a really good one, is refreshing. As an aside, it’s one of those genres I want to see more thematic and aesthetic experimentation in. Surely there’s room for anything other than just another fantasy romp? The massive success of FTL, while probably not solely due to its Star Trek-esque visual and mechanical design, supports the notion. And we’ve got Steam Marines in the works, too! (Focus, Alex. Focus! — Pete) Ahem. Another topic for another time.

What many a genre fan may be wondering is how the crafting aspect is. Well, take heart. Take heart, combine with grenade and bindings and BAM, you’ve got a meat beat bomb. There is no truth to that last combination, but the itemization and varied crafting elements in The Pit will satisfy. Lots of interesting recipes with the usual bungling in combining items at crafting points such as lab tables. You’ll end up creating door lock bypass systems, targeting systems, sonic rifles, heavy slug throwers and the most important item in the universe: fondue.

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Sword of the Stars: The Pit is an unexpected surprise from Kerberos Productions, but an earnest addition to the roguelike pantheon. As someone who has become ever so quietly a real fan of these punishing but intoxicating little gauntlet-runs, I’m quite fond of The Pit. It’s tight, lean and brimming with expectations met and exceeded. If you’ve recently come off your usual diet of Dredmors or have bound Isaac to relative completion, it might be a little too soon to jump down the sci-fi hole, but if you’re ready for a new roguelike and want to trade a sword for a shotgun and replace a troll with a moonbear, then Sword of the Stars: The Pit has a ladder waiting.

Thanks to Kerberos for providing us with a review copy.

An unexpected — and pleasant — surprise from Kerberos Productions.

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