Source of Madness Review – A clumsy flesh-dance

Gare – Wednesday, May 18, 2022 1:58 PM
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Anyone who knows me knows I’m quite fond of cosmic horror, particularly the works of H.P. Lovecraft, a writer whose oeuvre has served as the inspiration for video games beyond counting – to the point where “Lovecraftian” has pretty much become its own genre. Source of Madness is another addition to the ever-growing list of Lovecraftian titles that tap into our fear of creepy, crawly tentacle beasts and otherworld entities – the project, developed by Carry Castle, attempts to do this in the framework of a roguelite that utilizes procedural generation and AI machine learning. Imagine facing horrific monstrosities that are never the same and get deadlier each time you meet them – it sounds wonderful on paper, as does the ability to customize your build, explore biomes that are never the same, and face ever-changing abominations on each run. Despite its fascinating ideas, however, Source of Madness does falter in terms of execution, and becomes – if you’ll excuse the tired pun – a source of disappointment more often than not.

The sounds and colors from outer space

But let’s start with some good things. Visually, the game is an absolute treat – it’s dark, moody, and looks like a gorgeous medieval painting, regardless of which area or biome you’re currently exploring. The towering cathedrals, abandoned hamlets and twisting, dark caves you’ll encounter guarantee that there’s always a sense of dread and terror in the air… especially when you consider all the cosmic monstrosities lurking around every corner. The soundtrack also complements the visuals neatly, even if the quiet, somber moments are often overshadowed by the hellish screeching of otherworldly tentacle creatures as they lunge at you out of nowhere – which, I must add, is also something I tremendously enjoyed, so hats off to the sound designers. And it’s going to happen a lot: Source of Madness is a game that has absolutely zero chill; other than a few safe spots here and there, you will be constantly under attack by a relentless horde of flesh-beasts (some even as large as buildings) that do not stop and do not give up, ever. There is indeed a certain beauty to the game’s chaotic madness, but it’s this verry chaos that also serves to hinder its gameplay elements.

An awkward symphony of flesh

As mentioned above, there are times when the endless wriggling-writhing nature of the creatures attacking you looks genuinely disturbing and scary… but also times when they get stuck in walls and obstacles and proceed to helplessly flail about. Which, in itself, may still not be a huge issue, but sadly, Source of Madness’ combat mechanics aren’t quite fluid and polished enough to make these encounters not feel tremendously confusing and exasperatingly same-y. While the monsters themselves do come in different shapes and sizes, defeating them usually boils down to the same chaotic mess of simply hammering away at (or holding down) your attack buttons and hoping for the best, all the while weaving in a few dodges and dashes here and there for good measure. I never felt there was much strategy or planning involved in combat, especially since it’s often not readily apparent exactly which part of each monster can hurt you; in essence, what ends up happening is that your character unceremoniously crashes into a monster, and you sort of just… continue this awkward, clumsy-looking tussle until the creature’s HP bar depletes, causing it to explode into a gory mess. Which, admittedly, can look satisfying, but I rarely ever felt like I was truly in control; as such, battles can indeed feel like coin flips in terms of when you’ll actually take damage and when you’ll escape the wriggling tentacles unscathed. The above is especially true for the various building-sized bosses and mini-bosses, where the “hold down the attack button until its HP runs out” method of fighting monsters becomes even more apparent… and even more incomprehensibly chaotic. Don’t get me wrong: “incomprehensibly chaotic” does look good in cosmic horror, but it doesn’t translate to a particularly satisfying combat system or gameplay loop here.

A method to the madness

Source of Madness is a rougelite, and as such, builds upon repetition and persistent progression via permanent upgrades. As you might expect, the currencies you collect during your runs can be spent on a great variety of things, such as the ability to carry your own healing potions, additional dashes, as well as a colorful lineup of different specializations including pyromancy, geomancy, blood magic and so on. You’ll also find various pieces of gear that randomly spawn during runs: rings that grant you different types of offensive spells (this is your primarily way of attacking), trinkets that offer on-demand bonuses and support, as well as clothes that increase your maximum health and other attributes. Spell-wise, there is a decent bit of variety, and I did manage to find a couple of favorites: the big fireball “nuke” spell is highly effective at decimating cosmic beasties, and so is the melee-focused “slash” that manages to mercilessly cleave through everything in its path – the downside to this is that certain other weapons will feel underwhelming and ineffective by comparison, making the player stick to just one or two combinations. The biomes themselves are, naturally, all procedurally generated, featuring random elements such as portals leading to optional areas, NPC shops with various goodies on sale, and even slot machine-like demons that, if you roll well, can grant you valuable bonuses. Or curse you, if you don’t roll so well. There’s nothing like having to beat an entire level while being cursed to color blindness – trust me, I’ve been there. That said, I wasn’t particularly enticed by all the random elements peppered throughout the levels, and none of them really made me salivate at the thought of starting a fresh run. Progression also felt a little stifling, as different classes and specializations need to be first unlocked by finding their respective altars out in the world... meaning, unless you actually find said altars, you are locked out of entire upgrade branches. I also wasn’t a fan of the “friendly fire” elements of certain abilities, as more often than not you’ll end up accidentally burning yourself during a fight (remember how I said combat was insanely chaotic and messy) and lose precious HP, potentially sabotaging the rest of your run.

In conclusion

Source of Madness is a game that’s lovely to look at if you’re a Lovecraft/cosmic horror buff, but its haunting world and wonderfully oppressive atmosphere are sadly accompanied by clumsy combat, lackluster enemies and a somewhat unsatisfying gameplay loop. There are moments of brilliance here and there, like when a tentacled abomination the size of a small building lets out of a bone-chilling scream as it descends upon your unsuspecting protagonist out of nowhere, and having to fight off hordes upon hordes of relentless flesh-beasts can get rather intense at times. But at the end of the day, despite Source of Madness’ small successes, I simply didn’t find it to be all that thrilling to play, nor did it inspire me to keep coming back for more after each run.

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