Developer: Grid Sage Games
Publisher: Grid Sage Games
Release Date: October 17th, 2017
Platform PC (Steam Early Access)
With the resurgence of rogue-likes over the years, gamers have been spoiled by a new generation of accessible-yet-tough classics like The Binding of Isaac, Spelunky and Enter the Gungeon, providing the classic rogue-like experience in an easily digested bite-size form. Meanwhile, the more traditional experience has quietly made a return almost by osmosis. Titles like Tales of Maj’Eyal and Caves of Qud have found a cult audience in this new era of accessible rogue-likes with a melting pot of procedural systems and mechanics mapped over huge worlds. Cogmind is a sleek and expertly designed entry of the more traditional variety but it isn’t just some nostalgia act – It’s also a wonderfully experimental lesson in immersion on a shoestring budget. By blending old-school aesthetics with excellent world building and a veritable witch’s cauldron of intersecting ideas, developer Grid Sage Games manages to construct a sprawling mechanical world of surprising depth.
The most immediately striking element of Cogmind is its visual design. Made from the ground up with ASCII character art, the UI is gorgeous. Emulating a robotic command line interface crossed with some pretty innovative menu designs that keep players informed to an almost dizzying degree. Despite the minimalism and intentionally glitchy throwbacks, the UI design feels impeccably modern and clean. Information never feels confusing or poorly laid. Instead, everything is ordered, logical and clear. Clicking on items often pops up flavour text explaining what the player is looking at and a handy tutorial message system explains some of the more complex UI elements really clearly. For a game that will no doubt draw attention for its difficulty, it does its best to be clearly understood. It’s also just gorgeous to look at, too – Clicking on UI elements will cause menus to recall and retreat with flittering digital bleeps and flourishes. Broken components buzz red and shut down with a spiralling, crushing drawl and sliding doors swish open with smooth futuristic wipes. The map itself is made up of the classic ASCII characters where a tasteful tileset has been applied over the top of them, complementing the dark green flickering CRT monitor feel. It’s incredibly immersive, recalling games like Uplink and Duskers, where the simulation of sitting at an old 70’s era Sci-Fi computer terminal is immersive precisely because the player themselves are sitting at their very own computer screen. Clicking around Cogminds excellent UI feels a lot like what tinkering with the inside of a Terminator might feel like from the perspective of a hacker.
This is an interesting feeling to conjure considering the player character starts as an incomplete robot that must salvage whatever it can from its environment. From the starting room, players will have a smattering of basic equipment to bolt on to several slots on their frame, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, wheels are a quick way to move around but provide almost nothing in terms of safely supporting heavy attachments and armour whereas bipedal legs offer firm stability at a reduced speed. Players are given ultimate agency to craft their robot in whatever way they see fit and a wide array of builds and equipment variety means that players will constantly make tough decisions even as soon as the game starts. Some of the best examples of this are often when trying to size up disparate parts with each other – do you save an ion cannon for later or drop it for a sensor array which might help you detect robots through walls? A vital intelligence tool in the cruel world of Cogmind but without firepower to tackle what’s ahead, is it worth it? Energy weapons will overheat the player, so Heat Sinks will need to be installed to counter-act any melting disasters, but installing a Heat Sink means scrapping a potentially vital component.
It’s possible to level up and gain extra slots which often feel vital – a great way of empowering the player without forcing them to specialize in a particular build by levelling up a smattering of specialized stats. This allows players to improvise on the fly should a component become damaged and broken in combat. Little decisions like these make every choice feel extremely valuable and worthwhile and with a game as difficult as this it all feels incredibly important to make the right choice. It’s a game of improvising on the fly and adapting to severe setbacks and the game supports your freedom to do that by refusing to go the traditional RPG route of incremental statistical upgrades. It’s never possible to create the ultimate robot or to be immensely powerful and specialized. Instead, it’s more important to salvage what’s available and create a kind of tin-pot survival experience among the wreckage of the world.
The world of Cogmind itself feels alive; not all of the bots players meet are hostile. In fact, most of them have their own routines and behaviour that almost never involves the player character. The world bristles with electronic data and digital life. Terminals and computers link up to security and alarm systems. Technician bots scramble to security consoles to raise alerts when the player is spotted. Excavator bots will drill huge expanses of terrain while engineers filter in behind them to build rooms in the gaps they leave. Trooper bots and mercenaries roam the hallways looking for trespassers and alarms while friendly bots lay hidden in secret areas whirring away on their own secret societies hidden beneath the mechanical junk. The world actually feels organic and bristling with energy.
Though it has to be side that Cogmind feels like a particularly silent game. Surprising when considering how the fascinating ecosystem of robotics that buzzes all around the player lends so much to the atmosphere of the game. Even with all the mechanical fizzles of exploding robots and whirrs and buzzes that make up the computer terminals and processor units in Cogmind, it isn’t until later levels that the atmosphere starts to truly unfold. The Barracks, for example, are blood red danger zones that throb with ambient energy and peril, lending a real sense of panic and endangerment, exactly the kind of emotion you need to instill in players that stumble upon what is essentially an entirely hostile level. The Lower Caves groan and yawn, too, filling you with dread amongst the dark jagged terrain. Uncertainty, fear of the unknown, bleak pessimism… That the game is able to conjure such feelings using simple ASCII art and brooding, atmospheric soundscapes is absolutely incredible but in the early minutes of the game where much of the players roaming around is punctured by deafening silence the game could definitely benefit from more of those atmospheric soundscapes, even just to give colour to the digital hallways of Cogmind. Without any audible texture in the background, the game feels emotionally empty until players dig much deeper. Perhaps that might be the point?
Cogmind is also somewhat hampered by its own lineage, too, with the default difficulty meaning I rarely made it out of the first 5 floors alive. Luckily, the game is keen to point out an easy mode, which felt like a bit of a cop out, but in order to see what lay beneath the first 5 layers of this game it seemed like the necessary step. Luckily, easy mode still felt like a decent challenge even with the extra abundance of items and easy kills, with one particularly successful run saw my poor broken droid being so battered and crumpled after a fight with a beast robot that I didn’t survive the next engagement with a lowly mercenary. On the default difficulty, though, it’s pretty tough, but the difficulty comes from the player’s ability (or failure) to plan ahead with sensor arrays which, later on, become vital. Without one, it’s hard to imagine how anyone would progress.
This is only scratching the surface as well. There isn’t enough time to detail how every level has structural legitimacy – where throwing explosives around may actually cause a devastating cave in. There’s not enough time to discuss the deep lore hidden in the systems of the game, or the hidden sanctuaries that act as an oasis in the desert of blinding difficulty. Cogmind is overflowing with secrets to find and random events to discover that merely hinting at them here is almost a spoiler and that’s a good thing. That’s for players to go out and discover for themselves.
While the intense difficulty may block certain players from seeing a lot of the game, Cogmind is still an extremely inventive game, and it’s great to know that in this age of bleak consumerism developers are still working for the love of it. This is the product of one person and four years of work – the passion and enthusiasm bleed from every pour of this game. Its brutal difficulty belies a game of immersive charm and surprises. Whether people have the patience and time to weather its immense difficulty is up to them, but waiting behind the iron curtain of careful planning and skill is a game of intriguing idiosyncratic design.