Curse of the Dead Gods is the latest rogue-lite to come to the Xbox platform. It spent the past year-plus on Steam’s Early Access program being refined by the developers Passtech Games, who built a solid foundation and kept adding more and more content until its release last month. The game is an isometric dungeon crawler with many randomized elements. It features an intricate combat system with many different weapon options and combinations. You play as a treasure hunter exploring vast temples made up of procedurally generated levels that are inspired by ancient South American civilizations like the Aztecs and Mayans. There are multiple layers of mechanics that coexist with each other to hinder or help your adventure, many of which revolve around a system of risk and reward. Is Curse of the Dead Gods just another entry in the ever-growing rogue-lite arena or can it claim a place amongst the top tier games of this crowded but much-loved genre?
I’ll start by pointing out the main element that is lacking in the game – its story. When you start a new game there’s a brief cutscene of a man walking through some sort of entryway. After a few steps, the door starts moving down on its own trapping the explorer. Instead of running back and attempting to escape it appears as if the man starts running forward. Then a tutorial begins without any more explanation. As you play the game you get a sense of the man’s intentions and purpose for his exploration. Not only is he looking for tangible rewards such as gold and treasure but also the intangible, like immortality and omniscience, things that only the gods of these temples could possess. Pretty much all of this information is gleaned by reading the bestiary that is compiled once you kill enough enemies of each type. When a new enemy is encountered an entry is created with just a black and white picture of the creature. After defeating fifty of that specific enemy a text entry is added (boss entries only require five).
There are three distinct temples for you to explore, each with its own set of enemies, traps, and bosses. The Temple of the Jaguar is focused around the element of fire and looks the most like how you might imagine a video game version of an Aztec or Mayan temple would look. Many of the traps and hazards are fire-related; exploding urns, flammable cobwebs on the floor, and statues that shoot fireballs. All the temples contain plenty of sharp, pointy contraptions ready to slice and skewer careless explorers. The Temple of the Jaguar has spike traps on the floor that trigger a split second after stepping onto one.
The Temple of the Serpent appears to be in an underground cave system, and the layout switches back and forth from narrow caves with stalagmites and larger cavernous areas to sections that are more temple-like. Poison is the Serpent’s element and his temple has poisonous clouds and poison-spewing statues as well as wall traps that shoot a barrage of arrows if you walk in front of them.
The Temple of the Eagle (the most difficult of the three, in my opinion) is filled with strange lightning-powered contraptions. There are electric mines scattered about as well as eagle head statues that launch electric-powered orbs that home in towards your character. There are a few other lightning-based traps as well as spear and sword-wielding statues that trigger if you walk in front of them. The traps can be very dangerous but they also damage the enemies which is one of many techniques you’ll learn to take advantage of as you play. Each temple has its own set of creatures, a few of which make use of that temple’s element. The Serpent Temple has slugs that explode in a cloud of poison when killed and the Temple of the Eagle has these creepy, huge baby-like monsters that shoot lighting everywhere and are a gigantic nuisance. To make things tougher each enemy type also has larger more powerful elite versions that get mixed into play as you traverse farther into each temple.
Each Temple is made up of multiple levels (the game calls them rooms which is confusing since most levels contain multiple rooms). When you first enter a temple you are presented with an area map and you can pick to start in any room on the bottom row, but once you pick a room you will only be able to access other rooms that are connected by the lines on the map. There are seven different types of regular rooms, most have a random layout with a few monster encounters and an altar at the end. Some of the levels are just a large room with three waves of enemies; after defeating them you can access a smaller room containing an altar and the exit. Depending on which altar it is you might be able to purchase a new weapon or relic, upgrade one of your current weapons, or increase one of your stats. The names for these rooms are pretty basic: Weapon, Upgrade, Relic, and Attribute. They are all marked on the map which is easy to read and understand. There are also rooms labeled Gold, these have more gold than the other levels and usually contain one or more treasure chests which not only give you some gold but also a relic; I would usually try to go through a few of these early so I’d have enough money to spend at the altars. But if you don’t have enough money or prefer not to spend it you can instead pay in blood, which increases your corruption bar. Once your corruption bar fills (100 points) you gain a random curse at the start of the next level.
There are many other sources of corruption in the temples besides blood offerings. Every time you enter a new level you gain twenty corruption. Each temple has a few specific enemies that can deal corruption damage so you always need to be aware of those – look out for purple attacks because this always means corruption damage. The curses are one of the many featured mechanics that combine to make Curse of the Dead Gods a difficult but entertaining experience. Most of the curses aren’t that hard to deal with and usually have a positive effect in addition to the negative one, and once you are familiar with the game you will be able to take better take advantage of these. Some examples of curses include Dark Fervor, which causes corruption to passively increase over time but you no longer gain corruption when entering a new level, and Blinding Greed which makes gold disappear from the ground after a short period but also increases the amount of gold you could find on the ground. There are ways to decrease your corruption bar such as certain relics as well as some weapons that decrease your corruption by one for each enemy killed with that weapon. The only way to remove a curse is by defeating a boss. After completing six levels in an area you fight that area’s boss (the final challenge dungeon, the Pantheon, has seven levels per area plus the boss). Each of the three temples has their own set of three distinct bosses, and they are always fought in the same order. As soon as you’ve killed the boss you get to choose which curse will be lifted.
There are a few more rooms that can make up each area such as healing rooms which are almost always located immediately after a boss fight. These let you heal 20% of your health in exchange for ten corruption. This is a great trade off if you’re low on health. Challenge rooms are a little less common but give you an opportunity to earn some extra gold by defeating some enemies as quickly as possible. Some rooms on the map have a question mark and this just means that the room type is unknown until you enter and find out what it is. There’s one more room type once you get to the Pantheon, the final challenge in the game. These are extra boss encounters that can come in handy if you want to get rid of a nasty curse.
One aspect where the game somewhat falters is the progression between the temples. You can’t play a full temple from the start, you have to play one area and beat the first boss of that temple. After beating the first area and boss of each temple you gain access to the second area, but you have to replay the first area to get to the second. Once you complete those then you can play the full three areas of each temple, but to play the final challenge The Pantheon you have to beat all three temples fully. It seems like unnecessary hand-holding while at the same time trying to stretch out the content, which isn’t really necessary since the game is very challenging and it will take most players many tries to just beat the regular three temples. If you’re banging your head against the wall trying to beat one of the temples, (Eagle in my case) you can switch things up by attempting one of the three daily challenge runs. You have one chance each day to complete each one, and they all add extra layers of challenge and difficulty into the game. There’s one in which you are always in a state of hallucination, which makes the HUD disappear and changes the color to an old-timey black, white, and grey. Another one has you start with an almost empty health bar and only gold and blood will refill it.
The combat system is one of the game’s biggest strengths. There is a vast arsenal of weapons and figuring out which combinations work best together was a fun experience. Overall it might be a complex, layered system but what makes it stand out the most are the simple controls. Each face button controls one weapon and with that one button you can easily make use of different attacks. The main weapon is assigned to the X button, these include an array of one-handed melee weapons like swords, maces, and claws. These all have different attack speeds and patterns. You also have to option to equip ranged weapons as your main, these include throwing knives, throwing axes, and throwing stars, although they all have essentially the same attack animations. Tapping the X button once does one attack, but you can press it multiple times to do a combo with a finisher at the end that does more damage but also takes away one of your five stamina points. If you hold down the X button a charge animation will begin and once released you will do a charged attack with your main weapon; each weapon type has a unique charge attack as well as different combo animation. The Y button is your off-hand weapon. These offer a little more variety with shields and daggers as well as more ranged options like whips and pistols, but they work just the same as X: tap, combo (dagger and whip only), and charge. Every time you use your off-hand weapon it depletes one stamina point. Since you are wielding two weapons at the same time you can mix together combos with both buttons, these can get pretty intricate if you combine taps with charges and vice-versa.
Some weapons work better in combos than others and you always have to keep an eye on your stamina bar. The B button is assigned to two-handed weapons and has the same three attack options as the other two but it can’t be used in a combo with any of your other weapons since you’re holding the weapon in both hands. There are only three types of two-handed weapons: spears, bows, and heavy two-handed weapons. Each attack with the two-handed weapons uses one stamina point except the charge attack which uses two. The spear and heavy weapons are both fun to use, good for crowd control, and have unique traits. The spear always does critical damage if you hit an enemy directly with the tip. The heavy weapons can be used to break all statue traps as well as certain walls. Each weapon type has specific traits that can be taken advantage of just like the spear and heavy weapon, learning these traits and mastering the weapon takes skill but is very rewarding.
A big mechanic in Curse of the Dead Gods revolves around the light and dark system; you always have an icon at the bottom of your screen indicating whether you are in the light or in the dark. The light is very much your friend as you take 50% more damage in the dark, and traps only show up in the light. There are some natural light sources in each temple like lit braziers, but for the most part, creating light is up to you. The A button is reserved for your torch, tapping it swings the torch and you can light any unlit brazier in this manner. You can also ignite enemies with your torch or with fire imbued weapons. When on fire they take some extra damage over time. Some rooms do not have any potential light sources so it’s up to you whether you want to switch back to your torch in between attacks or not.
You have three options for defense, the first is weapon-related. Most of the off-hand weapons’ charge attacks are able to break/interrupt an enemy’s attack. Any attack with a two-hand heavy weapon will also break an enemy’s attack. Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to most of the bosses, and there are a few regular enemies that take exception as well. Your second defensive option and the one most new players will likely use a lot is the dodge, which is mapped to RT. Each time you dodge it uses one stamina point. Stamina starts to regenerate if you don’t attack or dodge for a short period. It is possible to get a perfect dodge if you dodge directly through an enemy’s attack right in front of them. Instead of losing a stamina point, you gain one when hitting a perfect dodge. The final and arguable most risky and rewarding defense tactic is the parry, which is controlled with LT. Enemies telegraph their attacks by lighting up briefly beforehand, so once you are familiar with the timing you can hit LT to parry the blow. The timing window is small, although it is increased slightly if you have a shield as your off-hand weapon. Parrying doesn’t use any stamina and when successful you immediately regain a stamina point, in addition, the parried enemy is put into the weakened state (indicated by a broken shield under their health bar) which means they will temporarily take more damage. One more aspect of the combat system that is unique and should be mentioned is the greed system. Every time you kill an enemy you get a small amount of gold, but if you kill enemies quickly enough you can build up your greed meter which awards you more gold. There really isn’t any downside except that you might get careless trying to keep the chain going. In addition to gold, enemies also can drop weapons and relics as well as crystal skulls and jade rings both of which are used to buy permanent upgrades in between runs.
There are multiple types of buffs and bonuses you can get for your weapons, either by finding one with them already applied or by upgrading them at an altar. There are the three elements, fire, lighting, and poison, as well as numerous other bonuses that a weapon can have, like a whip that does extra damage if you also have a claw equipped, or a sword that heals 1% of your health with every kill. There are some base weapon variations that you can permanently unlock in between runs as well as altars that give you better starting weapon load-outs. There are also blessings that can be unlocked and equipped, some of these can really make a difference in how far you are able to get each run.
One more aspect that adds to the randomization that I’ve already mentioned briefly is the relics. These have many different properties such as giving your weapons extra damage or giving you crucial avenues to regain your health, like gaining a percentage of health every time you enter a new level or healing a percentage of health every time you make a gold offering at an altar. Each relic also typically increases one of your three stats – Constitution which increases your max health, Dexterity which increases your base weapon damage, or Perception which increases the value of found gold.
Another highlight of Curse of the Dead Gods is the art style. Other games like West of Dead and Darkest Dungeon have used a similar black ink-heavy cartoon-like style, but to me it never gets old. It has a strong artistic resemblance to the Hellboy graphic novel series by Mike Mignola. I wish the game featured more cut scenes with this fantastic art style, I know it costs money and time, but I think the game would really benefit from a little more exposition, having the story visualized in this art style would just be fantastic. I’m holding out hope for a rewarding cut scene once I defeat the final boss, but I doubt there is one, and it might be even more doubtful that I ever defeat him. The HUD and overall interface design in the game should also be mentioned for how well it fits in with the aesthetic, providing all the necessary information – there’s a lot – without getting in the way. It has a very stylized, slick appearance since it’s depicted in the same appealing art style as the rest of the game.
The game has a somewhat unconventional soundtrack, most of the music is very subtle, with just a small bit of instrumental music in between fights. During the fights, it’s all about the action and the sound effects add to the intensity while also acting as an audio cue to what is going on around you or what might be coming. One interesting aspect of the sound design occurs when you are in the dark out of combat, you start to hear continuous, unnerving whispers.
Like most rogue-lites, it’s all about synergy. I haven’t had any game-breaking/god-like builds, but each time I’ve completed a full temple I almost always had a good weapon combination with high damage and a consistent way to gain health. The game is very challenging and offers tons of replayability even if the beginning feels a little strung out. Each run feels unique but if you want a break from the regular temple runs you could attempt one of the daily challenge runs. Curse of the Dead Gods isn’t for everyone but if you’re a fan of combat-focused rogue-lites then this should definitely be on your radar. It has the potential to be in the upper echelon of the genre; in order for it truly get there the developers will need to give the game regular content updates, which seems like the norm for the top games in the genre. Whether they do or not the game has a solid foundation built around a weighty combat system and a slick-looking art style. Even after playing the game almost exclusively over the past two weeks, I’m still staying up way too late saying “oh, just one more level”.Become a Patron!
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.