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Source Of Madness review: machine learning makes this a messy roguelite

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Source Of Madness is a side-scrolling roguelite set in a Lovecraftian setting populated by twisted Bamzooki. And it’s a world where everything was procedurally generated using machine learning. This gives a fabulous, dark aesthetic and Tormented Beasts, but also means it’s a messy roguelite with a loop that leads more to frustration than anything else.

Source Of Madness looks at all the roguelites saturating the market and says, “Hey, you’re calling that procedural generation?” The next day, he looks at them all again and yells, “Pah, that’s not procedural generation, is it?” Two days later, he whispers, “Procedural generation? No way is that what you’re doing.”

The game goes BIG on procedural generation, if you hadn’t guessed it. Its levels and enemies are all powered by a combination of proc-gen and AI machine learning. That means you won’t find the same octopus twice with cleavers for suckers, oh no. Between each successive pass, the octopus is propelled through a code factory where robots swap its body parts like Legos. If the proc-gen production line was Inside The Factory filmed behind the scenes, Greg Wallace would leap around the production line and roar, “IT JUST SCREAMS INDUSTRY, DON’T IT? IT’S VERY USEFUL”.

But forget the procedural generation for a bit, because without it the core of the game looks like your usual roguelite. You’re a sidekick to the Loam Lands, a Lovecraft-inspired world of spiked buildings and quivering swaths of flesh. The goal is to uncover the secrets of the Tower of Madness through the process of roguelite erosion, that is, to shake it down over multiple generations. Die and you can spend Blood and Blue Orbs you’ve earned from fallen enemies on permanent buffs that will help you not die as quickly next time. You get exercise.

And if the exercise is done right, like Rogue Legacy 2 or Dead Cells, then you get The Itch. No matter how quickly a race ends, you’re rewarded in some way, whether it’s gold to spend on a valuable upgrade or a whole new encounter that you look forward to seeing again. The urge for “just one more run” swirls around you, like Robson Green catching a grouper off the coast of Ecuador.

Having played a lot of roguelites over the years, I learned to trust The Itch. Unfortunately, Source Of Madness doesn’t sting my pores or give me a rash. Pushing further into the game doesn’t reward as much as you’d like, often handing out rather paltry rings or hoods for your efforts – rings act as your right and left jabs, while hoods are your only piece of armor, offering health benefits and statistics. boosted. There are other things too, like little turrets you can place or hovering companions that launch orbs at enemies. Variety isn’t a problem, but when you find clothes that barely look better than what you’re wearing, it’s hard for your willpower not to slowly deflate.

Even if you find a powerful object, it rarely excites. They just don’t feel that punchy when you pull the trigger, and that’s thanks to the game’s slight jankiness. I spent a lot of the blood I earned in one of the two large skill trees based on a spell called “Flame Wave”. Flame Vague. Cor, that sounded so cool! But in practice, it was a rather disappointing blur of fire that swept over enemies and spawned insignificant damage numbers.

Sometimes you’ll come across a store full of expensive goodies, but sometimes that’s your only way to pick up an item that fulfills some sort of power fantasy.
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Other spells are a bit better, like a bamboo blast that shoots spikes in a large circle. Charge it up, throw it at an enemy, and it’s like unleashing a massive shotgun blast. There’s also a basic slash that splits enemies with a squish and a squelch. Once you unlock more sidekick classes like Pyromancers and Bloodthirsts, you’ll quickly gain access to bigger and badder spells in the skill tree. But it’s a long and exhausting road for an overly wonky roguelite.

Wobbly? Yeah, Source Of Madness is what you’d get if Bamzooki usurped us as rulers of this planet: a dark, twisted world of Lovecraftian nightmare, populated by rainbow-colored stick bugs and fluorescent crabs which appear to have been welded to the shoe bowling alley. Enemies are lanky, lanky beings that wave horns and spit mud, which makes them menacing, sure, but they make combat and survival an absolute lottery.

This is where the game’s procedural generation bites it in the ass. Roguelites shine when refined to a tee; no excuses allowed. Rogue Legacy 2 is a great example of a perfectly tuned roguelite loop. Maps and enemies are clear, paired with precise moves and attack powers. Die and you’ll be hard pressed to find an excuse other than “yes, it’s my fault”. Source Of Madness and its twisted Bamzooki enemies, coupled with loose movements and imprecise attacks, make for a wealth of excuses when you succumb to a slap or whatever killed you.

Fighting the big bad guys is good. Again, it’s easy to get caught up in their tangle of tendrils and tentacles.

And possible apologies aren’t something you’d want from any roguelite, are they? They should be sealed, with all the many nuts and bolts that hold them together tightly screwed together. Death should be something you control, but Source Of Madness’s love of chance often means it’s out of your hands. Attack patterns are hard to learn when beasts are pieced together by an AI machine, so you always approach every fight with hesitation. That makes for many tense encounters! But the tension also comes from distrust of the game itself. It’s hard to read enemy attacks when they’re QWOP, and you’ll almost certainly be hit by one of many limbs or projectiles – but which was it? !

Where procedural generation really shines is in the world and its dark aesthetic. Each run is relatively chilly, with damp caverns and pointy buildings giving way to rooms that look like giant intestinal tracts. And over multiple runs, the game hits you with more and more random events. There’s a wide-eyed slot machine that will reward you with things like special items and extra money if you’re willing to gamble blood. Hidden coins give way to mega-zooki and golden chests, if you are able to survive.

I tried my best to love Source Of Madness… but it all comes down to The Itch. The game has its moments and the world is beautifully gruesome, but when it’s all produced by a machine learning robot it makes for a roguelite that’s also Random. Yes, you have to think on your feet, but a lack of defined margins means your life is often smothered in clutter. And clutter leads to frustration. And frustration leads to excuses. When you blame your demise on the game itself, it’s hard to find the willpower to continue.

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