A few hours in
Well, I did eventually meet Big Ick. And put him in his place. With repeated shovel-based violence. I did call that one right.
Defeating Big Ick released some sort of… strange ambulatory mushroom, that was trapped inside his bulk. And this kicked off a grand tale of… Well, okay, a sort-of-engrossing story about Sproggi’s attempts to bring ordered society to the realm of Sprog. Sproggi actually gave up his ‘evil dictator’ act fairly early in: turns out they’re just a good-hearted spirit who want to bring some peace and order to their realm!
From there, Sproggi sent ‘me’ on a variety of missions around the realm. Treat with the Goatmother, venerated leader of the Goatkin. Meet up with the Mushroom race. Find my way through the swamp, blazing a path for mushroom explorers. Learn the secrets of wizardry from mushroom explorers. Luckily, I didn’t have to go all that alone: a chest in Big Ick’s lair — through some complicated shenanigans — gave me the ability to ‘send out’ adventurers of different classes, instead of just farming it up myself all the time. So I could meet with the Goatmother as a warrior! Or make first contact with the mushrooms as a rogue! Or defeat the ancient spirit of vampirism as a… vampire, I guess?
And, sure, maybe some of these best-laid plans went a little awry. Maybe I didn’t so much ‘meet with the Goatmother’ as I did ‘kill the Goatmother and her entire brood’. And maybe I didn’t so much ‘make first contact with the Mushrooms’ as I did ‘enrage the Mushroom elders so much that they unleashed the secret forbidden Hulkshroom, which I immediately slew’. Hell, even my mission to meet with Big Ick again, to congratulate him on getting tenure as a Latin professor in Mushroom Wizard college, ended with me killing him again, and no word in the previous sentence was a lie.
I get paid either way, though, so.
Sproggiwood is a strange game, a collection of clashes. It’s ostensibly a story about bringing civilization and order to a wild realm, but most of what you’ll be doing involves murdering leaders and destabilizing communities. It draws you in with promises of cutesy village-building, but this is almost entirely ancillary to the core gameplay loop of roguelike combat. While everything it tells you is couched in terms of building and raising and order, everything is has you do is short-term bursts of murder interpuncted by a lackluster upgrade system. It’s almost as if the earlier ‘joke’ of Dark Lord Sproggi was closer to the mark than the writers want to admit, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.
What’s interesting is that in spite of this babbling chaotic description, which is apparently the best I could come up with, Sproggiwood strongly reminds me of another game. That game is Desktop Dungeons, which three years ago I described as “a collection of random-generated murder puzzles“, and which I praised with a lack of reservation that honestly seems a little strange to me now. Sproggiwood and Desktop Dungeons seem to have significant common DNA: both are at their core procedurally generated roguelikes, wherein individual plays are tied together in a central hub where play rewards can be spent on play-spanning upgrades, often in the form of new fancy buildings in your town. Sproggiwood is a little more shallow in options than Desktop Dungeons, and the story is more of a directed linear experience, but apart from that the similarities are striking. And yet… Writing a review always means wondering to myself if I’m planning to go back to a particular game after the writing’s on the proverbial wall. And in the case of Sproggiwood, I don’t really think I see that happening. I wonder why that is?
Let’s take a closer look at the systems.
The ludic core of Sproggiwood is light short-form roguelike, cleaving fairly close to established conventions. You get the idea: square grid for movement, you take a move and then all other characters on the map take a move, you attack enemies by running into them and they attack you the same way. Levels are procedurally generated, they’re full of secrets that might be good or might be horrible, and you always start from the bottom to work your way to the top. Which in Sproggiwood invariably means murdering the big dog on campus.
I call Sproggiwood ‘light’ roguelike because it’s mechanically not super expansive. Character stats are limited to health, which shows how much punishment you can take, and attack, which shows how much punishment you can dish out. A character can always only carry one armor, one weapon, and optionally one accessory: if you find any in a dungeon, you have to decide right there and then which item to keep and which to chuck into the void forever. While different monsters and monster types have their own special moves, very few of these transcend ‘weird way to move’ or ‘deals more damage to you, somehow’. And the characters…
It’s strange, actually. While you start Sproggiwood as a Farmer, during play (specifically, by clearing some of the levels for the first time) you’ll gain access to other classes, like Warrior, Rogue, or Vampire. You might expect these characters to play significantly differently, I certainly did. But… by and large they don’t? The Warrior doesn’t have more health or meaningful defense at the start of a level than the Farmer. The Vampire doesn’t automatically suck blood or anything. Hell, the Ranger starts out doing melee attacks with their bow.
Character customization comes from two sources: gear and skills. As mentioned, each character always carries one weapon, one armor, and if you’re lucky, one accessory. The way this works is that at the ‘start’, the first time you play with any character class, they’ll only get a basic, nondescript weapon and armor. During play, you might then find loot in treasure chests, or in pots, or hidden beneath leaf piles. Or there might be angry mushrooms beneath the leaf piles, that’s an option too. You can take the gear at that moment or leave it, but regardless of choice, it’s now ‘available for purchase’. If you later on spend gold to ‘unlock’ the gear, you can from then on out bring it as starting equipment on other missions.
This doesn’t sound half bad as a system. Like I said, a little light on the detail, but there’s plenty of room in the roguelike design space for an experience that doesn’t focus on number-crunching. And I’m sure you can envision ways in which this gear can be made meaningfully different for the different classes. Maybe Warrior armor gives more health, and Rogue armor makes you invisible, and Ranger armor helps give you distance… After my first playthrough, I’d unlocked for my Farmer the aforementioned flaming shovel, and ‘vanishing dungarees’, which have a chance to negate hits and teleport me places. Not really super on-brand for a Farmer, I figured, but who knows!
I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this, though.
Here’s the thing: some of the gear is class-specific, but as far as I can tell that’s only a small percentage. Most everything, you find for most everyone. So that Flaming Shovel? Get ready to put that in a weapon rack with a Flaming Sword, a Flaming Bow, a Flaming Dagger, and a Flaming bloody Vampire Fang (not actually bloody). And those Dungarees of the Potter I liked lost some of their shine the first time I found a Mail of the Potter, and a Vampire Cape of the Potter, and so on.
It’s in no way an invalid design decision to say ‘all our gear should essentially apply to all our classes’. I don’t know if I’m a fan, but it works. And I do appreciate that a lot of effort went into making things visually unique: per class, different weapons and armors have different, often wildly varying art styles, ensuring that your cute Cloghead adventurer is at least always visually reflecting what you chose to bring along.
All the same, I thought it was a little… I don’t know, disappointing. I was hoping for more.
I said that some of the gear is class-specific, and this ties into the skill system, the one area where the classes are meaningfully distinct. As the tutorial showed us, each class can level up through combat and gain access to four skills, with the fourth one being an ‘ultimate’ skill of sorts that can only be accessed later. This is your choice of character class becomes interesting. The jack-of-all-trades Farmer gets a ranged attack, bombs, and a healing skill. The Warrior can reflect damage on attackers and cleave enemies around them. The Ranger finally gets their ranged attacks, including a novel arrow system that can eventually even target enemies through walls. The Vampire learns to suck blood.
In combat, skill use is governed by a system that’s as (charmingly) simple as the rest of Sproggiwood. Each character has five points of Stamina, shown as blue stars, and every skill uses between one and three stars. Stamina doesn’t recover naturally, but you get back one point for every enemy you kill. And… that’s it.
In theory, a system like this could enforce interesting trade-offs in when to use what skill, how to read a situation, and whether or not to burn stars now to play it safe, or conserve for later. Sproggiwood doesn’t really roll this way, though: most dungeons are so jam-packed with enemies, shrines, pots, and other goodies, that running out of Stamina is very rarely a factor. You probably shouldn’t spam 3-star skills the entire time, and in boss fight scenarios, the lack of smaller enemies to quickly kill can be a limiting factor. But during normal play… It’s rare for any offensive skill to not kill at least as many enemies as you need to regain your points. That’s the whole point of skill use, that it makes you a more effective murderer than just using auto-attacks. If as a Warrior I spent two stars (and two turns) to Cleave three enemies to death, I come out one star ahead. It might be that things get harder later, and that might be the reason I started struggling in the later levels, but it’s just as likely that things are really that simple and I just had a bad beat. Or I’m too low-powered for the later levels.
See, the principal spoils of completing a Sproggiwood dungeon are gold. And gold is used in your town, to upgrade your heroes for later missions. This takes two forms. One, you can spend gold to permanently unlock equipment you found earlier for later use — and this is me finally bringing that thread of explanation home. And two, you can use the gold to ‘upgrade your town’. Which…
Well, it’s like this. This town of yours, you can pretty much build however you want. From moment 1, you’re given carte blanche to add anything, no questions asked. More cottages, more farms? Go for it. Stone roads, hedges, variety of trees, grass colours? Clearing certain levels for the first time auto-adds buildings like a barracks or a lumber mill to the town, ostensibly to ‘unlock’ the associated classes. But in practice you can just add these whenever. As much as you want. You can move ’em around too.
It doesn’t do anything. The town-building, I mean. The buildings are meaningless. And clearing levels unlocks ‘new villagers’ for the town, but these are also meaningless. It’s cute, and it looks nice, and you can customize your buildings from a variety of palettes, but in the grand scheme of things it’s literally without meaning.
Not that I care, mind you. I put over half of my Fallout 4 hours into building silly wasteland towns, I love this sort of stuff.
But then you can ‘upgrade your town’. In practice, what these upgrades are are hero-independent buffs. The Academy increases rate of EXP gain, the Apothecary increases hit points, the Pottery School adds more pots. These all sound like cool buildings, and I remember thinking it’d sure be nice to have an actual Academy in my little town.
Would have been real nice. I’m still holding out hope. It might appear someday.
This is, I suppose, the dark heart of Sproggiwood: underneath all the cuteness and the fluff, if you strip away the ancillary systems and the silly story and the bright primary colours, the core gameplay engagement loop is a pretty relentless repeated grind. The only ways your heroes get more powerful is by finding and unlocking advanced equipment, or by upgrading the invisible ancillary buildings to make the heroes stronger or the dungeons easier. Both of which cost gold. Gold is gained through play, but significant bonus chunks of gold — 1000 gold pieces, which outnumbers what you’d otherwise earn by about a factor of five — each time you clear a level for the first time with a new class. So after I beat Big Ick as a Farmer, and gained my gold, I went back in immediately as a Warrior, to beat him again. And then I treated with the Goatmother as a Farmer, and a Warrior. This let me unlock the Ranger, so I went back and beat Big Ick with the Ranger, and treated with the Goatmother with the Ranger. Then I talked to the Mushroom Elders as a Farmer, and a Warrior, and a Ranger…
In principle you don’t have to do this. With decent mastery of the skills and a little luck, you can probably get fairly far on just a single character, parlaying those initial level-clear bonuses into the needed upgrades to survive. It got me pretty far, at any rate. All the same, and again behind the cuteness, it’s pretty clear that what drives Sproggiwood is this idea of repeated grinding. Everything costs gold; everything costs a lot of gold. So when you do hit a speed bump (I can’t for the life of me get past the Mushroom Wizard College and its infinite bizarro spawns) there’s not a whole lot you can do but grind.
I’m kind of enjoying myself with Sproggiwood, and I’m halfway interested in seeing where this nonsense story goes — I’m wondering if I’m calling Sproggi correctly, or if this is just a case of the author not reading the situation as the player does. But everything from the upgrades, to the market, to even the level select screen — with coloured dots under each level indicating how many unique classes I’ve beaten that level with yet – reminds me that I’m expected to grind to get ahead. And… I don’t know if Sproggiwood has earned that for me?
Thing is, from a certain perspective, I totally understand why Sproggiwood does what Sproggiwood does. Money-based grind is an easy engagement system, plus it drives players quite naturally to play different classes and try different tactics — otherwise they might just stick with Farmer for the entire game, and then complain about lack of variety. It’s not entirely unlikely that would happen with me, and I did clear the last four levels using only Warrior, so.
And for all my griping about grinding, Sproggiwood deserves to be commended for essentially being a more accessible, more cutesy permanency roguelike. It’s a variant of the rogue formula that’s easy enough to get into, while still having some surprising levels of depth — different enemies demand tactics, different skills open up new venues, and even the gear you bring can be a major factor. It’s not as long-form as Desktop Dungeon, and I don’t know if it has the draw of something like Rogue Legacy, but as its own thing there is definitely room for a game in this mold. ‘Roguelikes 101: Sometimes The World Sucks, And You’re Just Gonna Have To Deal With That’.
I personally feel like the two perspectives are a little at odds with each other. Saying that you’re cutesy and accessible and also saying that you require significant time and effort investment for advancement don’t get super well for me. This might just be me; I can totally see how the upgrade system could also be explained as a safety net for lower-skilled players. If the higher dungeons were actually beatable with no prior upgrades, I’d even be inclined to believe that.
Sproggiwood currently runs fifteen bucks on Steam. It’s also available for fife bucks on Google Play and iOS, which is something that I discovered literally just now, while looking up the Steam store link. That does change the equation: if you’re interested in getting Sproggiwood, assuming equal quality, it likely works much better as a short-sessions mobile game than as a full Steam experience. I’m not planning to buy it again, but had I known, I could see myself leaving Sproggiwood on my phone for long train trips. As for the Steam version… I’m going to give it a resounding ‘Eh’. Worth a look if you’re real big into roguelikes, or mushroom civilizations. But then, who isn’t?
Jarenth’s first Stellaris civilization was mushrooms, and don’t pretend yours wasn’t, either. Argue mushroom benefits on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?