Along with Rogue and Nethack, Thomas Biskup‘s Ancient Domains of Mystery (ADOM from here on out) is often billed as one of the great fantasy adventure games of the ASCII era. It’s a sprawling epic of a game, dozens of races and classes and possibilities and a hundred years of implied backstory set in the giant world map of the Drakalor Chain. It’s the first and so far only one of those big three games that I’ve actually played, and I have good (if time-dulled) memories of sitting side-by-side with a friend, playing our respective characters and dying our respective deaths and slowly figuring out how all this stuff works. And how we could subvert the whole no-save thing with clever use of hand-written batch files. You know who you are, friend who still reads this work; say hi in the comments!
I recently learned of, and got a review key for, the Steam version of ADOM. I interpreted what I saw and read as an attempted remaster, which got me interested: For all its perks, ADOM is very inaccessible, in the way that ASII games from that era usually are. A remastered ADOM, made visually accessible and incorporating contemporary game design wisdom, has the potential to be an incredible thing. I happily entered the key, downloaded the game, booted it up, and rolled my first Grey Elf Elementalist, figuring everything would be alright forever.
I’ll give you a moment to take in the title of this review real quick.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, basically nothing. Mechanical, basically inscrutable.)
(Game source: Review key.)
So, why didn’t I manage to extract a proper review from this? Let me go through the three major reasons in order…
ADOM is still ADOM
Probably the least significant of my three points and the one most likely to get me deserved pushback, but it’s here all the same. When I said that I interpreted this new ADOM as a ‘remaster’, what I meant in my mind was that I hoped for a game that built on the original. ADOM, for all its perks and deserved accolades, is very much a product of the game design mores of the time: Content and range trumped secondary considerations of ease-of-use, accessibility, and intuitive controls. I figured that, if the designers were putting in the effort to create a new version anyway, now would be an excellent time to update some of those now-outdated concepts to the game design standards of the twenty-first century.
And in a sense, that did happen.
But in another, more real sense, that didn’t really happen at all.
I don’t aim to diminish the work done in this update. This ADOM is more accessible, in a few key ways. The incorporation of mouse controls is a big one: You can now click on areas, monsters, and items, and the game will smart-parse that you intend to walk there, fight that, and pick this up. The mouse controls also neatly tie into the buttons on the right of the screen, which contain a summary of common game commands: These can be clicked on to activate them directly, or hovered over to see the appropriate keyboard shortcuts. A context-sensitive right-click menu also adds a lot of accessibility goodness, assuming you can get it to work right — but we’ll get to that part later. It’s good that it’s there.
But crucially, this improved accessibility layer is very much still a layer. A shell. It is to the core game’s functionality what the improved graphics are to the original ASCII: A nice tileset, obfuscating the immensely more difficult reality of the actual chaos engine under the hood.
When I say that ‘ADOM is still ADOM‘, I mean that quite literally: This is still pretty much the original game, gussied up to look better and greased through once or twice to address that squeaky wheel, but otherwise still the same thing. Crucially, the core systems logic hasn’t changed at all: This is still the game with different buttons for eating, drinking, preparing food, inspecting food, and probably seasoning food, and it’s still the game where the lowercase button z has a different effect from uppercase Z (one is for using wands and one is for casting memorized spells). There are still two dozen races and three different classes, some only marginally different, and dozens on dozens of skills, perks, and numerical values that are either life-or-death important or a complete waste of time and effort, depending on a hundred situational factors.
And don’t get me wrong: If all you wanted was more ADOM, a prettier ADOM with native Steam functionality, that’s good! Here’s the game for you, end of review. But me, I was hoping for… maybe more of a full overhaul. This game is such a bloat, bursting at the seams with options that ‘make sense when you think about it’ but that also ‘should probably be cut in the interesting of lean game design’. This new ADOM takes some steps in that direction with the smart mouse controls, but otherwise is content to completely lean into its old self.
Again, this is not necessarily a criticism of the game itself. But it feels like a waste of your time and mine to review a game that hasn’t really meaningfully changed from its 1994 debut.
Still, this wouldn’t have necessarily stopped me from doing a longer review, were it not that…
ADOM is massive, and massively hard
If you know the ADOM of yore, this will hardly be news to you. If you don’t, well, I’d recommend you get comfortable with this screen:
See, as a rule, I try to play any game I review for as long as it takes to get a feel for it — I won’t necessarily force myself to complete it, as long as I have the idea that I’ve seen most, or almost everything. You can argue whether or not this is necessary, but I like to think that it is: The more complete my view of any game, the fairer my representation is likely to get.
ADOM‘s overworld contains many villages, hidden caves, dungeons of the finite and infinite variety, and the Caverns of Chaos, a sprawling underground complex riddled with mutating background radiation that holds the Portal of Chaos, the ultimate goal in any of the game’s four or five possible endings. There’s a web of interrelation between places, characters, and events, and the interplay between the player’s food consumption and the environments they travel through directly determine how much it’ll even be possible for them to reach the final boss. On three separate occasions, I had a character die in the early levels of the very first tutorial cave.
I’ve died early and often. I haven’t completed a single quest of significance, or completed any dungeon that’s not the starter one (if even that one). I think I might have hit level 10 once? I can’t really tell you all that much, is what I’m trying to get at.
For instance, the skills! There are so many skills. Some are straightforward enough, like ‘Haggling’ or ‘Healing’ or ‘First Aid’ or ‘Find Weakness’ or ‘Food Generation’. But what good does Music do? Why is it important that I have high ranks in Metallurgy? All I’ve used that for so far is have the game tell me which items aren’t made of metal. Is it really valuable to be able to Weaponsmith? What’s the interaction between Concentration, Literacy, and the stat Learning?
And so on, and so forth. What happens if I read from a spellbook multiple times? Can Elementalists learn new spells the same way Wizards can? How do I determine what I can and can’t sacrifice to which god, or which god I call for help? How do I survive the fever incurred from eating kobold meat — which, yes, I do keep forgetting not to eat? How do I spit acid? Why do I spit acid? If I play the Farmer class, should I settle down to start a crop rotation early, or wait until I get the ultra seeds? Which tactical stance is the best in which situation? Is there a more accessible form of quick healing than health potions, or praying to the gods and hoping I don’t get smote? Do I always lose an item when swimming or was that just bad luck?
If these are the sorts of questions you enjoy figuring out, good news! If you don’t mind essentially being forced to check a wiki for the more obtuse answers, double good news! In other situations, I might even have enjoyed this stuff myself? There’s definitely an incredible lot to do and to find out in ADOM. But it turns out that having to start over time and again, without real insight into what my stats mean, what my gear differences indicate, why my starting dagger was cursed, and what I could do to avoid dying in the same way I died before, has something of a sapping effect on my morale. I’d rather play games that play nice, I guess, or that at the very least don’t frown on me for wanting to use quicksaves.
And even then, that might not have held me back from trying to get in further; sure, I’m bad, but I’m also curious and eerily capable of getting past frustrating situations. Were it not that…
ADOM is crash-happy
My monk creeps through the hallway. Or runs through the hallway, I can’t really tell: She’s got a high Stealth skill, but I don’t know if I need to activate this and I don’t know if the W-direction auto-move does so. But whatever, that was last paragraph’s point. The entire floor is clear, as far as I can tell, except for the door at the end here. It might hold the stairs down. It might hold monsters, meaning I’ll have to fight my way through and look for the stairs somewhere else. It might hold loot, or traps, or nothing. Only one way to find out. I reach the door and try the handle. Stuck. I could try to jam the door a few times to get it open, but I didn’t roll monk for nothing, now did I? I rev up a mighty kick…
The game crashes.
This is the point I’m least able to make funny jokes about, and also the point that’s most damning: This new ADOM just isn’t very stable. I’ve had half a dozen crashes over two or so weeks of play, all out of the blue and all completely destroying my game in progress, as ADOM doesn’t do auto-saving and only allows manual saving in that old-fashioned style. I’m still not even sure what caused any of them. An overtaxing of the draw engine caused from having too many moving tiles on-screen? Me using full-screen mode, or windowed mode, or windowed full-screen? Celestial alignment?
Whatever the case, I’ve learned to start shivering whenever the game doesn’t immediately respond to a command. Load times can be a little off the hook, sometimes, so not every stutter is an immediate death sentence. But at this point it’s happened often enough to have me treat them as such.
On the one hand, I want to be optimistic about this: Obviously this crashing is unintended, and maybe a side effect from this remaster being early in development, so it stands to reason this’ll be addressed over time. But on the other hand… Even know, writing all this low-impact complaining, I still feel like I want to play this game. I’ll never be good at ADOM, and I doubt I’ll ever get anything beyond the most pedestrian ending, but it’s still neat. I still want to see more. But then I remember all the cool games and interesting runs I started that got cut short due to unavoidable crash nonsense, and…
I want to believe this crashing business’ll get addressed. But until I see direct confirmation of this, I don’t know if I can afford to put into ADOM the kind of time that a full playthrough needs. If a crash can happen early on, it can happen anytime: When I reach new levels, when I fight hard bosses, when I’m close to the end. Any of those would be devastating in a game like this, and what’s worse, any of those would be nobody’s fault but my own — I know this game is highly unstable right now, so why would I even go for a full playthrough in the first place?
I still want to, in some way. There really is no game like ADOM, inaccessible warts and all. But maybe… maybe later.
Jarenth wonders if his ADOM memories should have stayed in the past. Reminisce with him 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?
Secret end-of-review update: