Yurl was a sentient cucumber plant that acted as the main merchant of Kyakukya, my first respite after days of traveling through the jungles and canyons of Qud. I had gone there to acquire a book on diseases, as a fortnight ago I’d ventured into a fungal cave and had been infected with both Fickle Gill and Glowcrust, which by then had spread across two of my four arms and one of my hands. Having bartered with the mayor for the book, I glanced at the ingredients required and decided to stock up on provisions before setting out to make my antidote.
Yurl was a sentient cucumber plant, and plants had a feud with fungoides. To it, a horned, four-armed creature with spores growing out of its arms and back represented some sort of primeval enemy, and that was me. I won that battle, but in the end met the same fate as Yurl.
Caves of Qud has these interactions scattered throughout its world, happening with and without your input. I’ve seen people of different sects clash in displays of magic and power that left artifacts for me to plunder, and I’ve seen quest-giving NPCs beheaded by some foe or another. If modern RPGs often have essential NPCs, areas where your actions are limited and cutscenes, Caves of Qud is their complete antithesis: not only do NPCs interact with one another according to their reputations and faction relations, you can act in whatever way you wish – steal, murder or spare someone, offer gifts and enthrall wanderers to join you on your quest, the options are vast.
These systems are strewn across a bizarre world of science fantasy and retrofuturism, where animals (and plants) have mutated to sentience and humans have branched into the varied mutants, who may have wings, multiple legs or psionic powers, and the true kin, who through seclusion have maintained a relatively pure strain of humanity.
This is reflected in character creation, where you’ll allocate attribute points and pick between the True Kin and Mutants. True Kin have higher attributes and gain skills faster, as well as starting with better equipment, while Mutants have access to over seventy mutations, which progress in power as you gain experience. Carapaces, wings, claws and stingers not only give mechanical advantages and unique skills, but at times give you bonuses to your relationship with certain factions: a mutant with a Carapace will be better received by tortoises and shelled reptiles, while someone with thick fur won’t necessarily be seen as a threat by apes.
“You arrive at the oasis-hamlet of Joppa, along the far rim of Moghra’yi, the Great Salt Desert. All around you, moisture farmers tend to groves of viridian watervine. There are huts wrought from rock salt and brinestalk. On the horizon, Qud’s jungles strangle chrome steeples and rusted archways to the earth. Further and beyond, the fabled Spindle rises above the fray and pierces the cloud-ribboned sky.”
The gameplay is just as eclectic as the character creation: if on my first playthrough I decided to go the relatively safe and easy route of playing a Praetorian True Kin, with high amounts of health and wielding both blade and shield, the last character I played was an Esper – a mutant who can only develop his mental mutations – that, due to his high Ego attribute, could sway people and creatures into fighting for him, teleport across the map and create barriers from behind which he could shoot unharmed. There are many possible playstyles, from melee to ranged and tinkerers – inventors of sort – to mental mutants, similar to casters, all the while allowing you to either commit to a single path or create a hybrid character.
Caves of Qud is at its best when it wields its interesting setting and player agency to make the semi-procedurally-generated world a stage for its emergent storytelling. I haven’t got far into the main storyline not because I think it’s lacking or uninspiring, but because Caves of Qud gives me right from the start the possibility of going wherever I want. I can open the map and glance toward certain known locations, like The Six Day Stilt, located deep within the dunes, or to the Grit Gate, home of the Barathrumites, and plot a course toward it – minding, of course, both my food supplies and the water I’m carrying, which in Qud is both required to survive and used as currency.
That’s not to say it’s not without its issues. An entrapment of its genre, Caves of Qud’s permadeath – and relative ease of death, be it a turret you didn’t expect to meet or an enemy that runs faster than you – means you’ll be starting over rather frequently. The repetitiveness is somewhat mitigated by the amount of character generation variety there is, but you’ll still be doing the same quests and exploring the same areas for a good portion of the early game. Dying often can lead to tedium setting in, as Caves of Qud is better when you’re finding new things and carefully reading entries you hadn’t seen before, not when you’re just going through the motions as fast as you can.
Fortunately, if you have the clarity to turn permadeath off – I’ve played too many rogue games to afford me that heres-, I mean, luxury – this can be averted. Some caution during the early stages of the game can also improve your overall longevity, as I rarely felt that a death of mine was unfair, rather a consequence of poor planning or rushing.
What drew me to Caves of Qud and to my death many times over was its exquisite setting and how it was presented to me. It has the same quality of emergent storytelling you see in games like Dwarf Fortress and RimWorld, where the game’s systems and interactions create an infinite amount of branching paths and possibilities. Despite being in early access, the game has several dozen hours of content – I’ve played a bit more than twenty and feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface – and has all the makings of a genre hallmark, as well as having a unique setting that’s a breath of fresh air among the ubiquitousness of Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds.