Cardinal Quest: Return of Rogue

It has gone by many names … It started off as Adventure, Telegard, Moria, Hack, Rogue … then came games like Temple of Apshai, Sword of Fargoal, Mystery Dungeon, Ultima … and in recent times it has gone by the name of Shiren the Wanderer, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, Chocobo’s Dungeon 2 and even (to a lesser extent) titles like Diablo, Torchlight and others.

Now, we call it Cardinal Quest, a new Android “roguelike” dungeon exploration adventure game.

Hmmm… so what does “roguelike” mean?

Roughly based on Dungeons & Dragons, roguelike games typically feature a handful of similar traits. Most of them feature a “top down” randomly generated dungeon stocked full of every-growing-in-danger enemies, player “stats” (like strength, dexterity and wisdom), an experience + level up system, treasure chests with equipment/gold/potions, basic magic and inventory features, is played in near-real time – and of course, they typically have more simple graphics that look trite and boring to anyone that didn’t grow up with the genre.

Oh, and they are notorious for being hard and unforgiving; death of a player usually means the game is over (that’s right, no going back and loading previously saved games).

As these types of games “grew up” or matured, they started adding things like stores to buy/sell/trade your loot (and a shrewd, intelligent Innkeeper like in Temple of Apshai), towns and other way points not considered dungeons, magic and skill “trees”, etc. Then they morphed into “action hack & slash” like Diablo – and of course, they moved up from there.

Truth is – when it comes to roguelike games; you can get them as simple or as complicated as you like – and everywhere in between. Cardinal Quest definitely falls “in between”.

The Wizard

Cardinal Quest features a good, solid and pure roguelike experience with a couple of niceties added on. As with the genre, the game quickly ramps up and death will come quickly and often to the new adventurer. The random dungeons will have you searching for the stairs down to the next level; sometimes you’ll run across the stairs right away – sometimes, you’ll have to explore the entire “floor” to find the staircase. Once you find the stairs, it is up to you; take your fighter, wizard or thief down to the next, harder maze … or stay and explore – finding loot, much-needed potions and equipment/weapons you might need. How much time you have to play won’t help you decide as the game has a “Save and Quit” option so you can continue your journey later.

Regardless, you’re going to encounter monsters in the dungeon. Some will chase you. Some can turn invisible. Some shoot fire – while others are melee only creatures. They all have one thing in common, though; they want you dead.

Your trip through the dungeon is depicted in about a 10×10 visible area – with the full dungeon available for viewing on a map. Of course, if you had a completed map that would take the fun out of it. So instead, the map will “auto-map” or draw itself as you explore the chambers within. Doors will keep you from seeing into adjacent rooms but can be opened without actually going inside. Both of these are little niceties that are not often offered in roguelike games. The game respects “field of view”, so even if you can see the corridor “around a corner”, unless your character is in line of site – you can’t necessarily see a monster waiting in there for you.

Another of the key elements of roguelike games is the sparseness of assets. Graphics are simple and rarely feature animation. Sounds (if they even have any) are primitive but effective. Cardinal Quest follows a lot of this mantra – offering attractive but simplistic “8-Bit style” graphics, occasionally animating them (mostly spell castings). The sound and music are simple (and each has independent volume control – thank you!) but again, quite effective. There is a strange attractiveness to these sort of “crude” looking games; it’s almost an art form into itself.

One of the draws of these sort of games is that you can take it as fast or as slow as you want. You can blaze through the dungeon at breakneck speeds, hoping to snatch everything you can and avoid the monsters – escaping down the stairs as the Monster Squad is hot on your heels – or, you can literally sit there and do NOTHING – and the whole dungeon stops until you move and/or act. The latter allows you to play a much more strategic game, while the former gives you the ability to make the game session considerably shorter and a bit more like the Diablo  brethren that morphed from the original game. Cardinal Quest adheres to this concept quite well. Many games don’t let you have a map open AND allow you to move at the same time but Cardinal Quest does – which makes it awfully fun to kick around the dungeon once you’ve dispatched the majority of the monsters on the current floor.

As you roam around, two bars follow you; health and experience – the former decreases as you take damage the latter increases as you kill monsters. Once the experience bar fills, you level up and the bar is reset (leveling up tops off your health too). You can use spells and potions to regain health and once you’re out of health – you’re dead – and as Norman Bates’ mother liked to say, “The dead don’t come back”.

That’s not exactly true. Cardinal Quest, unlike its rogueish brothers, does offer more than one life – obtained by finding very rare hearts scattered around the dungeon. There is no guarantee you’ll find one – so treat every minute like it could be your last.

Inventory Manager

With every good adventure game comes equipment. Part of “grinding” your character to higher levels (and heightened levels of “bad-ass”) is finding newer and better armor, weapons, rings, boots and other items of value. Potions play a big role in this game – offering everything from health to Mana (more in a minute) to temporary skill increases. You can keep five “types” of potions available “at the ready” as well as five special skills (spells, etc) ready to use. You have 6 slots for worn equipment (armor and weapons) and another 9 slots for “inventory”. Same-type potions stack into a single space and anytime you find something you already own, it is instantly sold on the spot and you are given gold (NICE – no portal scrolls back to town – ha!). You can drop (destroy) any item you no longer need (like if you upgrade your weapon – you can destroy the old one). Unlike some games, Cardinal Quest isn’t about a lot of inventory control and slot swapping – although you will do some of that. Spells are actually ITEMS in this game and take up a slot – either on the main screen or in the inventory screen.

Unlike scrolls, though – spells don’t disappear after you use them. However, they do have to have time to regenerate. Every time you take an action (aka move) the spell will recharge a little (if you played Puzzle Quest, you’ll know exactly what I mean). Using a Mana potion will instantly recover your spells. Right, I know what you’re thinking? Why use Mana when you can walk x steps and recover the spell? Well, I’m glad I asked that question.

Combat is done by “running into” a creature (melee) or casting a spell (some spells are ranged weapons). Melee combat uses your currently equipped item to invoke damage and/or perform modifiers (like stealing health from the creature and giving it to you, stunning the foe, etc.) – while ranged weapons do exactly that; fire across long distances. As previously mentioned, line of site is enforced, so you can’t shoot a monster around a corner with a fireball. The monsters of the dungeon may also have ranged attacks and attacks with modifiers (slow, stun, etc.) that will affect your ability to defend yourself. These wear off in time, but if you’re in a sticky situation, out of spells and need a hit – that Mana potion can save your life. It is not uncommon to find yourself fleeing a monster (to recharge your spells) only to run into a room filled with one or more other monsters or fleeing a monster that is technically FASTER than you are. The enemies that are faster than you actually will catch up and start inflicting damage, even if you’re running away; essentially they get more turns than you do and every third or fourth move you make, they get an attack in.

Unlike some games of this genre, health can ONLY be restored with a potion, by leveling up, casting a spell or using an item that saps life from your enemy. There is no “health regen” going on in this game. Of course, if you managed to garner an extra life, you will respawn with full health.

Magical items and spells abound in Cardinal Quest. Along with the standard collection of spells (fire, bless, fear, teleport, heal, etc.) you’ll also find magical equipment in the way of armor, weapons and jewelry. As typical with games of this genre, these are typically imbued with stat-altering magic – adding to your defense or offense capabilities, raising key stats like dexterity or strength. One of the great niceties of this game is that when you pick up an item, the game tells you with a “toast” style message that a) you already have the item, b) you already have a BETTER version of this item, c) this item is better than what you have or d) you don’t have this item at all. These cues will save you a lot of inventory screen management – just don’t forget you still have to equip better items if you want to gain their effect.

What was that? What is the goal of the game? Silly rabbit – there is no goal. Roguelike games are about survival of the fittest; your “score” is how long you manage to live. Your trophies are represented by how far down you can go without getting perished. In some games, this is called grinding – and it all started with early roguelike games. There are no achievements here; your reward for a job well done is to get to fight another level of monsters and find that next item that will help you carry on the quest at hand.

The Thief

Three character classes are available – fighter, thief and wizard.  Each one starts with a skill or spell.  For the fighter, you get Berserk as your standard spell.  Thief, you get an Invisibility spell.  Wizard, of course, Fire(ball).  Your stats will also be representative – fighter will be stronger and start with more hit points.  The fighter also offers a much more “arcade” experience because he is a brute and melee combat is his forte.  With the thief and wizard, you will need to play more of a strategy game.  Fun to have a choice.

Fans of this genre probably haven’t even read this far; they are probably three floors down getting their asses handed to them by two or three dragons. For those that are still here, we still need to look at the downsides to this game.

The first and obvious point is; this game is not for everyone. This is a nostalgia game; like Pac-Man or Pong – it is fun for the people that grew up with it, but those of you who are first time players of rouguelike games are probably going to find this repetitive, boring and too simplistic to be any fun. There is no multi-colored volumetric fog here. You can probably count the pixels on two hands. HDMI out will make the game look worse, not better. Don’t spend your cash, then come back to me and say, “Shane, this game sucks .. you owe me $2” – like some maniacal paper boy looking for compensation. If you didn’t like one or more of the games listed in the first paragraph of this review, you should probably look elsewhere. I hear Max Payne just came out for Android – and that might be a better game for you.

On the other hand, if you’re a big fan of any of the games I listed above, it is worth your $2 to give this a whirl.

With all journalistic integrity, this game IS missing a couple of things to really spice it up; namely a means to track prior game accomplishments. Even a “top” score based on hero level, floors delved, monsters killed, etc. would add a “high score chaser” element to the game which would keep score attack people happy. The ability to share these accomplishments with friends via Open Feint or similar service would be a nice addition; I have a lot of friends that would play this game if not only to smack down my accomplishments.

While we’re at things missing – what about the gold? What can I do with it? You earn it. It goes up – but at the end of the day – it doesn’t mean anything (not even a stat on a scoreboard). Gold is made for spending – and I can’t spend it here. Even if it is just about letting me buy myself back to life ONE TIME, that would give gold “meaning” in this game.

I need a reason to explore every crevice of each floor of the dungeon. Give me a little incentive. Give me a “cleared dungeon” bonus if I get all the items and kill all the creatures on the floor. Throw in a Gauntlet style “treasure room” for me to pilfer. Steal an idea from Gateway to Apshai and hide some doors that requires us to cast a SEEK or REVEAL spell to find. While I personally am a completionist in these kind of games, others need more incentive.

The next evolution of this game could easily branch into a “buddy” experience; where you and your friend (maybe friends, but let’s not get carried away – two people is still intimate) could explore the dungeon together – offering the ability to “split up” (“yeah, I know – Scooby and I will go that way”) and possibly even tag team and rout heavy infestations of monsters. Both players have to exit together; possibly take the “treasure room” mentioned above and turn it into a friendly contest; only the winner gets to keep his loot. You get the idea.

A note to the developer: What this game should not do is turn into a quest, RPG game with storyline, missions, side-quests, etc. That’s not roguelike. Keep it random and keep us hungry for updates. What I mentioned above is just the tip of the iceberg of possibilities that can be inserted into a roguelike game without spoiling the fun. Simplicity is thy watchword – but variety is the spice of life. Don’t cave into some of the reviewers; keep it real, homey.

I ran across this game by total accident and it has quickly joined the ranks of my favorite Android games to date. It is rare for a mobile experience to grab and goose me – and keep me coming back for more, day after day but Cardinal Quest does the job well and even if it never gets another update (please don’t crush my spirits like that) it will continue to be a worthwhile time killer for any roguelike game fan.

Get it from Google Play.


About Shane Monroe

Shane R. Monroe has been doing technical and social commentary writing for over 20 years. Google+