Sword of the Stars: The Pit – Review

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Platform | Release Date
PC | February 22, 2013
Developed by Kerberos Productions
Published by Kerberos Productions

The Pitch:

A deadly plague ravages your world. Your last hope: a legendary alien facility dug deep into the Feldspar Mountains…a massive Pit, built by the ancient Suul’ka.If ‘The Pit’ really exists, there might be something left. Something that will give your doctors a fighting chance at the cure. All you know for sure is that every expedition into those mountains has failed to return… And nothing sows death like the Suul’ka.

The Pit header

Going from the eye sex that is Crysis 3 to Sword of the Stars: the Pit has been a surreal experience. At every turn, Crytek’s technical mastery wowed me, while the story and gameplay was utterly mediocre. In The Pit, every turn is a surprise, my knowledge of the gameplay systems palpably increased with each session, but the challenge ramped up accordingly. Low-fi games rarely appeal to me, but I was surprised to discover just how much the gameplay clicked with me.

Kerberos has taken their space-4X Sword of the Stars universe as the setting for a top-down dungeon-crawler roguelike. I’m not familiar with the universe, and the art aesthetic gave me an FTL vibe more than anything. Adjusting to the turn and grid-based combat took some time, but I’ve grown to like the pacing it lends to the game. I can stop to think about my next move, I don’t need to master platforming like many roguelikes, and I don’t have to frantically click like most dungeon-crawling games. Die – trust me, you will – and you start over from scratch.

The Pit 01Faced with the certainty of death, the game becomes about intelligently managing your resources, adapting to the randomized dungeons – all in the name of surviving longer than the previous playthrough. While the overall difficulty progression is roughly the same, I’ve been constantly impressed with how my experiences have varied. During some playthroughs I barely received any medkits. Others, my character was constantly starving, which reduces your physical strength. One of my last characters had 750 rifle rounds but no rifle ever dropped.

I spent most of my time playing on Normal, where each “run” will last about an hour, but Easy allows for much deeper exploration and is ultimately more enjoyable. Players who prefer very quick “loops” will enjoy Hard or Insane. Thankfully, you can close the game at any time and resume mid-life, as the save system is analogous to XCOM’s Ironman mode. Each “turn” saves over the previous one, preserving progress while making every decision permanent.

The Pit 02The randomized levels aren’t terribly pretty to look at, and can get boring if you stack too many play sessions together, but they offer new challenges every time. The Pit opens with an interesting “cutscene” with 16-bit appropriate text dialogue. Surprisingly, the mandatory tutorial is fully voiced. And that’s about all of the flavor or story the game has. There are consoles which, when accessed and decrypted, provide crafting recipes and vague story beats, but overall the game is quite a dry experience. There’s very little personality to uncover outside of the combat and loot mechanics. I wasn’t expecting a Ken Levine story, but the developers could easily have added some more depth to the world.

I really like The Pit despite the lack of a developed world, but it has a critical flaw. The game’s allegedly deep, complex crafting system is needlessly obtuse. Well over 90% of the items I attempt to craft fail, and there is no visual language to hint at what recipes might work. Worse, while the game saves successful recipes, it does not prevent you from retrying failed recipes. Decrypted messages provide vague recipes to work from, but the time investment the developers expect from the player to find all of the recipes is, quite frankly, absurd.

The Pit 03This kills replayability. I’ve sunk many hours into the game at this point and I’m more or less still reliant on drops from chests for weapons and ammo. I want to experiment, but failures destroy the items, nor is there any sort of vending machine mechanic to sell unwanted recipes and purchase weapons or recipes. Alternatively, I would gladly pay a couple dollars on top of the game’s reasonable $9 asking price to “unlock” all of the crafting recipes than grind through the game to discover them.

Similarly, I would have preferred custom class generation instead of the three classes the game ships with. The Marine (male) and Scout (female) are quite similar, highly combat-based builds. If the crafting system was better exposed, the Engineer could have been interesting, but the boons to non-combat ability aren’t enough to outweigh his fragility. It would have been great to see an initially fragile character who, later on, could have constructed some insane ad-hoc weaponry from scavenged parts. A 16-bit Isaac Clarke, if you will.

If the core tactical gameplay sounds attractive, you’ll be sure to get a few hours of fun for the price of admission. That said, it’s a tough game to recommend unless the crafting system gets a systematic overhaul. As it stands, the game is a fun diversion but needlessly obtuse.

About David Hughes

David Hughes is an Editor for Splitkick. PC gamer, mod lover, screenarcher, and Elder Scrolls fanboy.
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