Source of Madness Review

Source of Madness is a new game by Carry Castle and Thunderful Publishing. Everyone and their dog knows the saying that you shouldn’t judge a book, game, etc. by its cover, but Source of Madness’ hypothetical cover checks off a bunch of boxes in what I look for in a video game. It’s a 2D Action-Roguelite, the theme and setting are heavily inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, and the art style is stunning. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? There is a lot to like about the game, but in my eyes, there are a few things that hold it back as well, so read on to find out more.

The game follows the typical roguelite structure. Each time you die you start over at the beginning hub area as a new character, and for each new character, the game world is randomly generated to a degree. Source of Madness changes the structure slightly from your typical Roguelite by splitting the game into three chapters, which you tackle one at a time. The first two chapters have different starting points, but the third chapter sees you go back through the areas you explored in the first chapter, however this time they have a more sinister appearance and are much harder, mostly due to the fact that your health flask use is more limited. Some of the levels are very interesting and overall the in-game art is fantastic. It has a hand-painted, highly-detailed quality and an eerie, grotesque feel to it, which makes sense since it is heavily inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s work.

The levels that take place outdoors are my favorite; the very first level, The Lands of Loam, is a good example of this. It is a countryside village with rocky hills scattered in between the settlements. There is a forest-themed level that has a great feel to it as well. Both of these levels are primarily left-to-right affairs, with occasional platforming and working your way up and down hills and around large house structures. The interior levels also have a nice variety to them in terms of locations, they range from caves to sewers, and even on a moon. However, some of these levels get repetitive because of their almost maze-like design. I never found myself getting lost, you work your way left to right in these levels as well, but I saw too many of the same environmental designs in these levels. One other thing I liked about all the levels was the evocative names, in fact, they used some of the actual names found in Lovecraft’s work, such as the Plateau of Leng.

The game focuses on a group of acolytes that reside in the Tower of Knowledge. They believe that a great amount of power is harbored within the moon and your mission is to learn more about this power and find a way to harness it. Each time you start a new run a new acolyte is rolled, with slightly different stats and a unique name. The hub area in the Tower of Knowledge also has an upgrade tree where you can spend the two types of permanent currencies that you keep on death.

There are six different classes, five of which can be unlocked in the upgrade tree after you discover the corresponding altar in the game world. Each class has its own strengths and weaknesses like a damage boost for a certain element, a shield, or less starting health. I found myself drawn to the pyromancer (the first altar you find). I realized that they could do a large amount of damage when I had equipment that boosted fire damage. The one downside of the class is that the explosive ball the pyromancer drops when dashing can damage you along with the enemies if you don’t get out of its blast zone.

One of the first upgrades that is available unlocks the option to choose from three acolytes at the start of a run. This is useful since each one will have different stats and starting rings. You can also purchase more powerful rings and items in the upgrade tree which permanently adds them to the in-game item pool. All of the upgrades I’ve mentioned so far require blood, which is earned by killing monsters in the game. A rarer currency, Evenstar, is awarded after defeating boss-style creatures. These are much larger than normal enemies and usually give out a guttural, bone-chilling scream before appearing on-screen but can also be identified by their large blue health bars. This currency can be used to increase the amount of currency you find in the world and to improve your chances of finding quality items while playing.

Carry Castle, the developer, have taken procedural generation to the next level in Source of Madness. We’re all used to seeing randomized levels in roguelites, but here they have also created procedurally generated monsters that are powered by A.I. machine learning. When I first heard that this was the case I thought it was a perfect idea for a Lovecraft-inspired game since the monsters he created for his worlds are some of the most gruesome, mysterious, and unique creations in media. His medium was literature of course, and many different artists have imagined how these creatures might look over the years. Having the monsters change each time you play should add to the creepiness and dread. It is also a good reason for the characters in the game world to question their sanity. Having strange, grotesque monsters around is bad enough, but when they’re constantly changing, almost evolving, that sounds much more sinister. The one issue I had with the enemies is that sometimes it seemed like I was taking damage from unknown sources. Most of their attacks are highlighted by purple light, or you’ll be able to see projectiles, but there were more than a few times where I took damage from unknown sources. I suppose this does play into the fear of the unknown factor though. I’ll be honest, I’m not quite sure what the A.I. machine learning portion of their design entails. I’ve played the game for roughly fifteen hours and I haven’t observed the monsters getting smarter, but perhaps it becomes more noticeable with more playtime.

The game makes use of a physics engine that has its highs and lows. The movement feels very bouncy at times which looks somewhat odd, but at the same time it’s entertaining watching the character bounce around, and occasionally you or an enemy will get blasted into the air. Overall I think the physics system adds to the game because it’s just one more aspect of randomness in the gameplay.

The combat system as a whole is very enjoyable to play with. The game employs a twin-stick shooter-style setup, where the left joystick moves the character and the right joystick aims the weapons. The majority of the weapons are ranged, and they have a multitude of properties, from small single-firing projectiles to waves of lightning, to gigantic fireballs that halt you in your tracks when launched (or propel you downwards if you are airborne). I found the button layout a little odd at first. The shoulder buttons control each of the two equipable weapon slots, and jump is assigned to the A button so I found it kind of awkward trying to aim and jump at the same time, but then I realized that when you are charging an attack the left joystick can be used to aim as well. There is a large variety of items such as armor, deployable items, and weapons, as well as stat-boosting charms, meaning you’ll have a lot of options during each run.

As I said I have spent roughly fifteen hours with the game, and I’ve reached what I believe is the main boss of the third chapter. Hopefully there is more content afterward because that playtime is a little low for a roguelite. There are only achievements for three chapters, so I’m not sure if there’s anything else. In addition, the achievement list has a lot of grindy cumulative-style achievements which is not how I want to spend my time when achievement hunting. I think this game might have worked better as a normal 2D Action-Platformer. Replaying the levels gets tiresome very quickly, and if it had static levels the designers could have really gone all out on their design because the art style of the levels already looks fantastic. They could have still made use of the procedurally generated monsters, especially for the boss encounters.

Conclusion

Despite some flaws, I’ve enjoyed my time with Source of Madness, but it’s not a roguelite where I want to start over as soon as I fail. I think the art design and Lovecraft theme help it stand out in a crowded market, and even though it’s filled to the brim with madness it’s nowhere close to being at the top of the mountain.

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This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox One console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.
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Good
  • Art style captures the themes perfectly, it looks fantastic
  • Decent variety in terms of loadouts for each run
  • Music and sound effects also fit with the gameplay very well
  • Core gameplay is fun and unique thanks to the physics and procedurally generated enemies
Bad
  • Replaying levels isn't as enjoyable as it should be for a roguelite
  • The design of some levels felt much more fleshed out than others
7.3
Good
Written by
I started my gaming odyssey playing 8-bit console and arcade games. My first Xbox was the 360 and I immediately fell in love with achievement hunting and the overall ecosystem. That love was cemented with my purchase of an Xbox One. I play a bit of everything, but I usually end up playing fast paced games that remind me of my days spent in dark, smoky arcades spending quarter after quarter, telling myself "one more try!". Gamertag: Morbid237.

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