Review by NetDanzr (2006-05-12)
If there is one game that professional developers and publishers hate, it's Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM). The final version (1.0) released in late 2002, this freeware role-playing game that fits on a single floppy offers an unprecedented depth of character development and a length of gameplay that easily matches the longest games ever released. In fact, ADOM offers more replay value than any game released in the 21st Century, and unlike many of those games, it remains fun no matter how often you replay it.
ADOM is most likely the most complex of rogue-like games. Rogue-like games draw their name from the game Rogue, and are being characterized by several basic features. Probably the most glaring feature is the lack of graphics; instead, ASCII characters form the world (viewed from top down) and represent different characters and monsters. By consensus, the main hero is characterized by a "@", while monsters by alphabetical letters. More modern rogue-like games also include different colors for different characters and monsters, allowing for almost unlimited variety of the latter. However, some games, such as Telengard, are considered to be rogue-like, even though they feature graphics. This is because of the second defining feature: a randomly generated dungeon, which the main character must complete in order to win the game.
Over the years since the original Rogue, the games developed, and finally stalled at the same point: offering roughly the same town, and vast, randomly generated dungeon underneath. Only the story slightly varied, as well as the interface. Moria started out as a black-and-white extension of Rogue, while Angband brought this niche to perfection by multi-window interface, colors and even multiplayer. ADOM is different, though: instead of a single random dungeon, ADOM offers a whole world, full of static and random dungeons, towns, forests, rivers, lakes of water and lava and much more. The game offers such a complex world filled with various quests, artifacts and story forks that it should be considered as something more than a rogue-like game.
In ADOM, you play a hero that finds his way into a closed valley, where Chaos is trying to take over the world. In fact, chaos is corrupting everything around, turning people into monsters and later into goo. The same will happen to you if you don't find a way to stop and destroy the origin of this chaos. Over the course of the game, you will visit several towns, will need to finish a multitude of quests and may opt for finishing a number of optional quests. Playing the game for the first time, it may take you several months to finish, without actually visiting all dungeons or completing all the quests.
What makes the game so unique is not only the size of the world, which if presented in graphics comparable to modern games, would take up a dozen or more CDs, but the freedom the player gets. You start with selecting a character, from a choice of over 200 combinations of race and class, with even more different combinations when you add the birthsign that slightly modifies your statistics. The classes range from your typical fighters, wizards and rangers to almost unheard-of in role-playing games, such as farmers and beastmasters. Each class, each race and each birthsign modifies your statistics. In addition to basic statistics, you will have to keep your eye on dozens of weapon and armor skills and special skills, which you will be able to upgrade over time. The latest versions of the game go even further, including special perks to your statistics upon reaching a certain level.
As you travel across the world, you will have your hands and eyes full, with following all these stats, and much more. In addition to your health, you will have to watch how hungry you are, and how much food you have in your inventory. More often you will die of hunger or poisoning than actually get killed. Speaking of killing, you will have your hands full here, as well. The game features over 400 monsters, many of which with missile capability or other special skills. Many of the higher level monsters can cast different spells, shoot or attack you from up close, and do a great job of selecting their best course of attack. To make the game even more complex, all monsters are edible, but eating them may have some adverse effects.
The complexity doesn't stop there, though. The game features over 600 different items, ranging from weapons and armor, through tools that would allow you to produce your own weapons, to various artifacts. There are dozens of different potions, scrolls and magic wands. All those items can exist in three different states - normal, cursed or blessed, which further modify their capabilities. In addition, the world is ruled by deities, and you will be able to please or anger them with prayers, demands or sacrifices. Yes, even human sacrifices are possible.
However, the bulk of the game still lies in character development. Such a complex game requires a very flexible character development system, and ADOM doesn't disappoint in this aspect. The basic character has a few primary statistics, secondary skills and weapon skills. The primary characteristics hardly change, and the only viable way to do so is to use different rare potions or enter a certain stage of the chaos corruption disease. Secondary skills are all up to the player - every time the character levels up, it is possible to improve three to four of these skills. They range from food preservation, through literacy, swimming and stealth to more obscure skills, such as bridge building. By improving these skills, the player is able to steer his character on a path he prefers. Weapon skills are dependent on how much a certain weapon is used; for each successful hit the skill improves by a point, and levels out from time to time. This allows for greater realism in the game.
As much as I like the game, there are still a few weak spots I ought to mention, though. First of all, the lack of graphics may be viewed by some as a deficit. The fact that there are over 400 monsters, each represented by a different letter and color makes the learning curve relatively high. This is not being helped by the interface, which is fully text-based, and which features so many commands that combinations of two or even three keys are common. In addition, this interface requires the use of the numpad, which makes the game quite hard to play on a laptop. Furthermore, the game is still DOS-based, and certain operating systems, especially Windows Me have problems running it (native versions for other operating systems are available on the official homepage). However, probably the biggest problem with the game is that once you die, it will not be possible to reload an older game; all your saves get wiped out. This may appeal to hardcore gamers, but the mainstream audience would get frustrated very quickly.
Overall, Ancient Domains of Mystery is one of the best games I have ever played. Game designers should take note of this game and finally realize that good balance and great content are more important than the presentation.
Review by Mr Creosote (2016-02-26)
Unfortunately, not even our reviews can be timeless on all accounts. NetDanzr, in his review of ADOM praised the continuous improvement over the years which lead to an amazing depth, but he critisized accessibility issues due to visual presentation and complex controls. It was good timing for a snapshot, because shortly afterwards, development (which had been going on for 8 years before) actually ceased. So his views remained valid for a long time.
In a way, they certainly still are. However, due to the age of "crowdfunding", last year saw the resurrection of ADOM by its original developer. This time, with the explicit goal in mind to turn it into a commercial product. So it may be time for a second look…
Of course, the immediately striking change is that the game will not fit on a single floppy disk anymore… at least if you get the full-blown graphical version (a purely character based version still exists). It also doesn't occupy several CDs (as NetDanzr postulated); that is because the newly formed development team chose a sensible compromise between providing a modern-day facelift, but still keeping it "classic" in spirit. Something which would probably not have been well received back in the early days of this millenium, which was all too technology focused.
Interestingly enough, this also addresses one of the major previous issues. With the huge amount of creatures and items, it was increasingly hard to tell things apart – how many different monsters and characters can you represent by the same @? The graphics now transport a lot of information implicitly which the player had to explicitly pull out of the game with extra keystrokes before (or couldn't retrieve at all; like for example a weapon's material being visible through its colour shading). So beyond simply looking more inviting, this switch comes with very real playability advantages.
The base game with its plot and all its features (which, in the new version 1.2, have been carefully extended mostly in a "more of the same" vein) is, of course, still the one we've known for so long. So all the deserved previous praise may as well be repeated. Truly, the badge of being a "Roguelike" game may, at this point, hurt ADOM more than it helps, because the expectations derived from this are mostly inaccurate.
As the game stands today, the randomised elements of the game basically only account for increased replayability. You will never know which randomly generated items you will find early on or how your god will reward you for your services. So you can never completely plan ahead. Which, no matter how often you play, is hard to do anyway, because the game's long development cycle has resulted in an incredible balance of factors. Many issues just don't have clear cut answers, but rather will have you constantly doing tradeoff decisions and balancing acts – regardless of how much you read up on extrinsic knowledge or how much you explore yourself.
Remember how today's so-called role-playing games are mostly about grinding, i.e. stupid, repetitive tasks to increase stats, powers or gold? Well, may be a good idea in ADOM before entering the more dangerous places, wouldn't it? Sure, but on the other hand, the clock is ticking, as the powers of chaos are gradually getting stronger. Do you take the detour through the dreaded, but completely optional Minotaur Maze, knowing that an awesome artifact weapon waits inside, not just in spite of the dangers involved, but also fully aware that just being inside will corrupt your character (which, on the other hand, may also be situationally useful)? And then, there are of course the completely random and possibly game-changing decisions, like whether to drink from a suspiciously murky pool, which may have vastly positive or negative effects.
All that, of course, is "only" the way through the game. ADOM is designed in a way that it provides the player with a flexible world in this regard, but it doesn't stop there and even offers different endings. Where new players will very likely choose the "default" one, which is sealing the source of the invading chaos and returning home a hero, there are other options which may be less obvious at first, but which are nevertheless there.
This becomes especially apparent playing the new Chaos Knight class. As a devoted follower of Chaos, what would be the player's interest to fight it? Nevertheless, just going with the (evil) flow is also not really a good idea, because these energies will continue to corrupt him until it's game over. So what about playing a double game and usurping the chaos god himself from his throne? Sounds tempting? Well, it is what I'm trying to achieve at the time of writing. Needless to say that this suddenly requires me to interact with completely different characters than before (some of the ones I worked with in previous runs won't even talk to my new alter ego), fulfilling different quests etc.
Talking of previous runs, ADOM is of course still a game which can be daunting. I finished it now for the first time for the sake of this review. Before managing such a feat, you will not only try it once or twice, but fail dozens of times – even in the commercial version which does allow (breaking with another Rogue tradition) arbitrary saving and restoring (and the free version, which still exists, but is unfortunately lagging behind significantly in bug fixes, also doesn't prevent it). Just like me, you will nurture a large number of new characters only to see an untimely death happen to them anyway.
Apart from the generally challenging difficulty level, this is the dark side of the world's depth and complexity. In spite of the existence of a detailed wiki, an active forum and numerous other dedicated websites, even just finding a newcomer-sustainable combination of character race, class, talents and skills and then playing that combination right is hardly trivial (even though the game does do a good job of not forcing you to make impossible decisions for or against learning talents whose use only becomes apparent in hindsight). You think you can't really go wrong with a burly troll wielding a large weapon? Just wait until you meet enemies which will take you apart in melee combat anyway, because of their poisonous, stunning or corrupting attack, or because you happened to step into a special dungeon where the enemies are always at a level multiplied from the player's. So you take a mage? Good luck learning all those immunities and resistences of all the different monsters you will encounter, because obviously, there isn't the one spell to end all battles. The list goes on.
So in spite of all the attempts to polish ADOM (the other major point brought up by NetDanzr, the controls relying heavily on memorised, complex key combinations, is being worked on as well), it will never become a thoroughly accessible game. There is always still a lot to explore; for instance, in spite of having finished the game twice, I've yet to really seriously look into spellcasting, consider alchemy, dabble in herbalism, practice smithing and many more things. It will never be suitable for casual playing, but remain a game of careful planning, immersion and intensive time investment, constantly keeping you on your feet. Good thing there are still games like this!