Cardinal Quest [$3.99] is a roguelike that hit the desktop scene last year, and it has most of what roguelikes usually entail. It has the dungeon delving, the random layouts and loot, and, more or less, the permadeath. But consider Cardinal Quest Roguelike 101. There's no learning curve, next to no inventory management, nothing that would draw the sort of investment that could make death really sting. You can feel free to dive on in—if you die, that's one more thing to avoid on your next trip down.
The joy of roguelikes is that the experience is never the same. Each time a dungeon floor is generated, the rooms have moved around, the stairs are off somewhere new, and the monsters spawn in new locations. You'll find all of this in Cardinal Quest, mapped out as you go and wiped fresh each time you die. You'll also find treasure chests filled to the brim with equipment, new and old, and spells littered everywhere.
Whether you'll like the way Cardinal Quest handles equipment depends a lot on what you're looking for. If you're looking for a deep experience that gives you a lot of control, you're not going to like it. But it's a brilliant solution for this very streamlined game. Every time you pick up a piece of loot, the game decides whether it's an upgrade. Upgrades get equipped, downgrades get sold. If there's any question of whether it's an upgrade or not, it ends up in your inventory. So you won't need to spend precious moments organizing and reorganizing your equipment—sweeping through every so often to clear out the sidegrades is good enough.
Instead, you can focus your energy on managing your spells. Cardinal Quest has quite a variety of them, and they show up randomly along your journey. You can equip any five at any moment, keeping the extras in your inventory or discarding them for coins. You don't have a mana pool, so stronger spells are limited by their cooldowns. Those cooldowns drop every time you move, so faster characters can cast again sooner. The fighter isn't much of a caster, the wizard is, but the speedy thief can pump out a surprising volume of magic too.
Cardinal Quest isn't really for me, though. That's not a slight on it—it's a well-designed game—but more of a personal problem. I've never gone all-in on roguelikes, so while I enjoy the feeling of risk when it comes to permadeath, I hate the feeling that I've achieved nothing. All I need is some way to track my progress, to see how well I've done and maybe compare it to others. Cardinal Quest has nothing of the sort—no stat tracking, no leaderboards, achievements, nothing. Even the gold is pointless. I find this calls attention to the treadmill; with no permanence I can't even fool myself into thinking I'm achieving something by playing. For you, that may not be a problem.
There is some objectively bad news, though: if you're only planning to play on iPad, you probably shouldn't get this game. Not yet. In my experience, something has gone wrong with that version. The interface elements are unresponsive, possibly because they are somehow misaligned. The scaling looks downright awful. The tap controls for movement, which are totally comfortable on iPhone, are really awkward on iPad because of the extra distance involved. It's just not good, so hopefully we'll be seeing a patch soon. On iPhone, you're pretty much in the clear. Cardinal Quest completely fails to respect the mute switch and there are a few ugly bits (the main menu comes to mind), but the port is pretty solid.
Check out the trailer for Cardinal Quest on PC, which looks essentially identical to the iOS version:
So here's the bottom line: if you're looking for a quick, intense take on the classic roguelike dungeon crawl, Cardinal Quest is your game. Like a shot of pure, distilled RPG, it goes down smooth and doesn't leave much of an aftertaste. The atmosphere is right, dark and foreboding with music to match. It's perfect for those times you're anxiously sneaking through a dungeon, hoping your cooldowns will trigger before the next monster finds you. This isn't a game for the control freak, or for anyone looking for a truly deep experience, but for a nice, light death or two? Load it on up, and see how far it takes you.
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