Focus Home Interactive’s latest doesn't quite live up to two of this century’s greatest video games, but it comes close enough that fans of both will find a lot to love in this addictive yet punishing dungeon-crawler.
You explore a shifting, Lovecraftian labyrinth and face hordes of enemies like in Hades. But your goal isn't to escape from hell. Instead, you’ll delve deeper into the ruins of an ancient Mesoamerican temple seeking to claim the power of the gods and untold treasure.
You control adventurer Sir Caradog McCallister. With his pistol, whip, and mutton chops, he’s a greedy foil to Indiana Jones. For his greed, McCallister is cursed by Xbeltz'aloc, the God of Death, to never truly die. Instead, he must explore the shifting labyrinth over and over.
Grueling combat is enhanced by a sense of dread and an oppressive depth of darkness. Hades’ Greek mythology trappings are positively cheery by comparison.
Curse of the Dead Gods’ bruising difficulty can make for a thrilling experience, especially when the timing of every parry and dodge is crucial to your survival. But some of the game’s best qualities are also its greatest weaknesses.
A Roguelike for Soulslike fans
In Curse of the Dead Gods, you play as a character doomed to explore a procedurally generated dungeon, who must start over upon each death. Along the way, you can wield a variety of weapons and magical augments that force you to adjust your playstyle based on what the game throws at you. For anyone who loved that core Roguelike gameplay loop in Hades, do not hesitate to go all-in on Curse of the Dead Gods.
Both games have also seen great success with an extended early access period on Steam before moving towards a wide release. Hades spent almost two full years in early access, but by the time Curse of the Dead Gods launches on February 23, it’ll have been refined by a devoted community for almost an entire year. The level of polish and potential is noticeable with the game’s final release build, which arrives today on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
Curse of the Dead Gods stands out for the remarkable degree of skill required. “Curse of the Dead Gods is almost a strategy game where every move has to be thought out to avoid it falling back on us, whereas in Hades you can get carried away by the superb frenzy of the fights,” Margaux Saly of developer Passtech Games told Nintendo Life in an early February 2021 interview.
In games like Hades and Curse of the Dead Gods, discovering synergistic new “builds” makes you feel brilliant, and that gratification is what makes Roguelikes so addicting. Whereas Hades is a power trip that moves at a furious pace, Curse of the Dead Gods makes you feel like a greedy dude with mutton chops who is barely able to survive. But because of that, successfully embracing the chaos can, at times, be even more satisfying.
Pernicious roots in greed and darkness
Curse of the Dead Gods is light on storytelling, but the basics are simple enough: McCallister came to this temple seeking “untold riches and eternal life.” But from the moment we see the temple entrance door seal shut behind him, it’s abundantly clear that McCallister’s greed has exposed him to forces of darkness both literal and figurative.
Many horror games use darkness to obscure enemies and scare the player. Curse of the Dead Gods does that in spades, but it also forces you to embrace darkness-related mechanics and to deal with its effects at every moment. Carrying a torch aloft while exploring is a necessity because there’s no other way to spot and avoid the game’s deadly traps. Navigation can often be more challenging than combat, which is surprising and frustrating at first. For certain segments where light isn’t an option, you have to rely on the glint in your enemy’s eyes to dodge, parry, and counter — or a sound cue to spot a trap that’s about to skewer you.
McCallister wields an interesting mix of weapons that can be swapped on the fly. There are swords, maces, spears, hammers, bows, whips, throwing knives, regular knives, and even guns. A variety of damage types and passive bonuses on each weapon might steer you towards experimenting with certain builds. A whip may have increased damage when paired with a sword, and if it has poison damage, then picking up an Artifact that boosts this damage type is a smart move.
To capitalize on those synergies, you’ll have to navigate the branching paths seen on the dungeon map in between rooms. You can pivot towards things you may need, be it gold, weapons, healing, artifacts, attributes, or the random unknown. Leaning into randomness and making dynamic choices is an essential part of the experience.
Despite a minimalistic approach to storytelling, Curse of the Dead Gods is rich in lore through the game’s codex, another design choice reminiscent of Bloodborne and other Dark Souls-style games. All we ever hear from McCallister are grunts and screams, but in his journal, we peer into his inner psyche. Defeat enough Blood Priests, and you’ll unlock an entry with a sketch of one with McCallister’s musings about how they came to be. Each of the temple’s three branches — Jaguar, Eagle, and Serpent — have their separate bestiaries and unlockable lore.
Not only does the Codex provide a series of quests (like killing 50 of an enemy or 20 of them without taking damage) for more task-oriented gamers, but it also means a compelling narrative is there if you want it without ever interrupting the action-heavy core gameplay loop.
Even more prominent than darkness is the theme of greed, which permeates through every game mechanic. Killing multiple enemies in quick succession, dubbed “Greed Kills,” awards you with additional gold.
You pay for weapons, artifacts, or attribute boosts at fountains using said gold, or you can make a blood sacrifice that adds to your Corruption meter. At certain thresholds, Corruption will manifest as specific Curses. One makes it impossible to earn Gold, another constantly triggers every trap. Healing rooms will replenish hit points at the expense of increased Corruption. Even moving into a new room adds to Corruption, ensuring that the longer a single run goes, the more likely it is that you’ll become overwhelmed by Curses stacked on top of Curses, all of it a punishment for McCallister’s greed.
Corruption becomes an essential part of the experience that forces you to reckon with how these Curses fit into your builds, making them more important than weapon perks or other buffs. While it can feel frustrating and uneven at times, it makes for some unhinged yet satisfying progression. Embrace the madness in just the right way, and a Curse just might work in your favor. (Even when you get slapped with a particularly annoying Curse, you can always remove it by defeating the next boss several rooms later … or by dying.)
Not even Hades can match Curse of the Dead Gods in terms of that chaotic dynamism when a single random Curse can derail your entire playthrough. But there’s a rabid audience out there who suffer through overly challenging bosses in games like Bloodborne. They’re the ones who will keep coming back for the sinister thrills that Curse of the Dead Gods has to offer time and time again. 8/10.
Curse of the Dead Gods is available now on PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
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