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Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 57: RPG Double Feature

´╗┐Holiday weekends are for RPGs.  Having three days off instead of the usual, far-too-short two is a perfect excuse to dive deep into level grinding, loot collecting, dungeon crawling bliss.

But what kind?  Single-character or party-focused?  Real-time or turn-based?  Plot-driven or randomized?  There are a lot of choices out there, and a lot of good free options whichever way you go.  Let's keep things simple this time, and cut plot out of the equation - if you wanted to spend your weekend reading you'd go pick up a good book.  Allow me to present you with two options I've become thoroughly hooked on over the last couple of weeks in a Labor Day Weekend...

First up, credit goes to Phil Kollar for pointing me to The Enchanted Cave in his recent free games feature for Game Informer (which you should also go read - he gets paid for this stuff.  How do I get in on that?).  Enchanted Cave is a turn-based RPG that bears more than a little similarity on first glace to the previously-featured Desktop Dungeons, though it develops in a very different way once you start playing.

You'll start out as an unimpressive weakling...

Most of the gameplay is straightforward turn-based hack & slashing.  Static enemies litter the screen, and moving into them triggers a battle.  Any spells that you find can be dragged onto your character during the fight to help turn the tide, and you'll gain some gold for your trouble every time you defeat an enemy.  Where Enchanted Cave differentiates itself is in its progression mechanic - you don't gain experience or levels.  Instead, you pick up permanent stat bonuses in the form of gems as you go deeper into the dungeon, and the occasional golden-colored artifact that is much more powerful than your standard items.  When you are forced to flee via a pair of escape wings - and you will need to flee regularly in the early game - you get to keep those stat gems and artifacts, making your next trip down that much easier.

If you've played any of the Shiren the Wanderer games, it's a very similar design, though considerably easier here as you get going than in that series.  If I have a complaint about Enchanted Cave, it's that the difficulty level drops off sharply in the latter half of the dungeon - there are 99 floors, and every 10 floors you find a shop to barter items with and a new checkpoint from which to start your next run.  Eventually, you have enough gold and artifacts that the escape wings almost become an afterthought, because surviving to the next checkpoint is an almost certain event.

But with a little perseverance, nothing will stand in your way.

Still, it managed to be a fun ride for me the whole way through, and I'd say I spent 2 to 3 hours exploring Enchanted Cave before I definitively put it to bed.  The stat system and loot drops are diverse enough to serve as a solid "one more turn, let me see what I get next" carrot, and Kongregate's achievement system is at play here as well, so there's a little bit of extra incentive to keep going even after floor 99 if you're into that sort of thing.  (You can make repeat trips into the dungeon after winning, and I did.)  It'll also save your game for you, so you don't have to finish it in one run.  Go give it a spin and see if you can beat it into submission faster than I did.

If you find yourself disappointed that The Enchanted Cave quickly becomes a walk in the park, don't worry.  I promise there will be no complaints about this game being too easy.

From the same team that brought us the exceptional Action Fist, Shoot First plays like the frenetic child of the roguelike genre and Robotron.  Moving your tiny monochrome adventurer with the WASD keys and aiming with the mouse, you'll go as deep as you can through randomized levels, shooting everything that moves and running from the stuff you can't shoot.  "As deep as you can", by the way, may be Level Two.  Three if you're lucky.

Theoretically this screenshot shows Level 6. I cannot confirm that it exists.

Where Shoot First triumphs - aside from being an extremely challenging top-down shooter cast in an RPG mold - is in aesthetics and tightly focused design.  Much like Action Fist, there's so much love for games of yesteryear in here that it hurts.  The game "boots up" with a DOS command each time you run it, and (optional) scanlines evoke memories of grainy adventures on the tiny CRTs of my youth.  A superb soundtrack and great sound effects round out the package, making this feel like a lost classic you might have stumbled across in somebody's shoebox of 5.25" floppies.

And yet, from a gameplay standpoint, it couldn't have been done back in the 80's;  it's too much informed by the ideas and technology of the time since.  Thrown back by the force of your shots, monsters blow apart into piles of coins (synonymous here with experience) when defeated.  Cover is destructible, and crumbles under enemy fire or your own.  A surprisingly large variety of weapons - of which you may only carry one - forces you to choose a combat style and master it, while item pickups - of which you can only hold three - help you even the odds a bit.  An automap helps you keep track of where you've been and where you need to go.

If I have a complaint about Shoot First, it's the opposite of my problem with The Enchanted Cave...  this game seriously, but seriously wants to kill you.  Your character has precious little health to begin with, and there are so many ways to take it from you.  Trap rooms lock you in with swarms of enemies.  Boulders roll at you down innocent-looking hallways.  Floor tiles fall away to reveal deadly spikes.  Powerful bosses threaten to crush you in moments.  It's malicious.  It's like the most tense moments of Spelunky, all the time.

But it's also a hell of a lot of fun.  Oh, and it has co-op!  I didn't get to try that, but hopefully one of you will, and you'll let me know how it goes.  Shoot First is Windows-only, and is available as a free download (under 10MB) here.   You'll also find at the bottom of that page a "Donate With Incentive" button - if you like the game, any amount you want to give will get you a version with a new environment and two new weapons to play with.  I ponied up some dough even though I'll probably never get to the Ice Level.  It's worth it anyway.

That's it for this week, kids.  Have fun, and we'll see you back here again soon.

"Free And Worth Every Penny" is a column I collaborate on with Mike Bellmore at Colony of Gamers.  This piece also appears there.

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