I will admit that when I initially saw a top-down action roguelite called Curse of the Dead Gods, complete with swords, bows, environmental hazards, and semi-random rewards based on what room you choose to enter next, my first thought was “Hey, this seems a bit like a Hades knockoff.” It turns out, I was completely wrong. Despite featuring a smorgasbord of clear influences from other roguelites, Curse of the Dead Gods stands out in that increasingly crowded genre thanks to some cool new ideas of its own. Its curse and corruption mechanics add an extra strategic layer to its already excellent reflex-heavy hack-and-slash combat by forcing you to make tough and meaningful decisions at every step of every adventure it takes you on.
Curse of the Dead Gods doesn’t do much in the way of storytelling, opting instead to simply throw you into a cursed temple, get out of your way, and let you read up on unlockable codex entries if you’re truly interested in learning more about its lore. It’s a bit of a bummer to see it pushed to the side considering the way Hades has recently raised the bar for storytelling in roguelites (and its art style’s similarity to Darkest Dungeon makes me long for a creepy baritone narrator), but the moment-to-moment gameplay of Curse of the Dead Gods is its true focus – and it’s so good that a thin plot is easily forgivable.
All of the familiar roguelite mechanics that come with the territory are here: you fight your way through increasingly tough procedurally generated levels, collect new weapons and upgrades along the way, and when you reach the end (or die trying) you start your next run from scratch – except for permanently unlocked upgrades that make your next attempt just a little bit easier. But Curse of the Dead Gods does a number of interesting things to break from tradition. For one, instead of stacking all of its levels together, they’re divided into three different temples for you to attempt to conquer in turn, each with their own set of devious traps, brutal bosses, and bloodthirsty enemies – from the godforsaken electric babies in the Eagle Temple to the plague-bearing monstrosities of the Serpent Catacombs.
Furthermore, instead of having you hopelessly attempt to beat a full temple right from the get-go, Curse of the Dead Gods eases you into its impressively challenging gauntlets by only giving you access to their first floors to start. Each floor is made up of just nine levels, including a boss battle at the end, and it’s only once you beat those first floors that you’re then able to challenge each temple’s second one – then the third after that, until finally you open up the true roguelite experience of trying to conquer the entirety of a temple in a single run. It’s a much more natural and forgiving difficulty curve that allows you to achieve small victories and have them mean something as opposed to just losing over and over again until you finally win.
Those victories also reward you with a large amount of Crystal Skulls and Jade Rings, two currencies that allow you to purchase permanent upgrades that aid in subsequent, more difficult runs, and there’s no shortage of choices to be made here. Blessings can be bought with Crystal Skulls and provide you with various powerful buffs, like the ability to deal 50% more damage for six seconds if you kill three enemies in quick succession, or one that causes bosses to drop five pieces of loot instead of just two. You can also spend your Crystal Skulls to improve weapon altars which determine your starting loadouts, or extra Divine Favors, which allow you to re-roll the gear at any mid-run shop. Jade Rings, on the other hand, can be used to unlock new weapons so that they are added to the pool of ones that are allowed to appear on subsequent runs.
This progression system borrows a lot from ideas that work brilliantly in Dead Cells, but there are a couple of factors working against it in the context of Curse of the Dead Gods. For one, Dead Cells’ system of adding new gear to the existing pool works great partly because there’s such a breadth of different types of weapons, items, and gadgets that can dramatically alter how you approach a run. In Curse of the Dead Gods, most of the weapons that you unlock are only slightly more interesting versions of the base weapons that may add elemental damage, critical hit chance, or damage scaling with a particular stat. There are definitely exceptions, mainly in the form of rare cursed weapons that typically throw in a disadvantage that you need to work around in order to make use of their powerful modifiers. But for the most part, I was never particularly excited about returning to the shop and adding new weapons to the pool because it felt like most of them didn’t matter.
That said, even though the unlockable weapons aren’t as exciting as they feel like they should be, the basic versions of the 10 different weapon classes are a ton of fun to use and have notable nuances that encourage different playstyles. Guns, for example, can interrupt enemies if you use their off-hand combo finisher in the middle of their attack; spears will always trigger critical hits if you land with just the tip of the weapon; claws can use their charged attack to dash behind an enemy and get out of the way of their attack; and shields can be used to bash enemies into spikes or other forms of environmental hazards.
Curse of the Dead Gods’ combat is mechanically simple, but impressively deep. Its backbone is its unique approach to stamina; the stamina meter is segmented into five chunks, with dodges, finishers, sub weapon attacks, and heavy weapon attacks all costing a single stamina point to use. Once you’re out of stamina, you’ll have to wait about a second for it to start refilling again, which can feel like an eternity with how aggressive enemies tend to be. Crucially, though, there are other ways to restore it. Every time you kill an enemy, you gain a point back; whenever you perfectly time a dodge you’ll get a point back; and for the truly daring, if you time a parry to land just before an attack hits you’ll gain two points back, in addition to putting your attacker in a weakened state that causes your attacks to do more damage. That gives parries a really nice risk/reward balance.
A good combat system isn’t worth much if the enemies don’t push you to engage with its depth, and fortunately Curse of the Dead Gods’ enemies are certainly up to the task. Most standard bad guys have pretty simple tells and give you plenty of time to react, but the stamina system can make even the basic baddies threatening if you exhaust yourself on offense and suddenly find you’re unable to dodge an incoming attack. To make matters worse, as you get deeper into the temple there are elite versions of enemies with more health and special attack properties. A regular archer might only fire one shot at you, but an elite version will fire three shots in quick succession that must be either parried or dodged.
Add that great variety of enemies together with an assortment of environmental hazards that can be turned around and used in your favor, a dynamic lighting mechanic that strongly encourages you to think about whether you’re fighting in darkness or in light, a multiplier that increases the gold you gain if you kill quick and don’t take damage, and a ton of small nuances for each weapon (from sweet spots, to off-hand combo finishers, to charge attacks) and it’s easy to see that there is a lot to Curse of the Dead Gods’ combat. But even with so much going on, it never feels overwhelming and always stays satisfying to execute, which is a credit to how naturally these different mechanics blend together.
What a Horrible Night to Have a Curse
Appropriately, the biggest thing that sets Curse of the Dead Gods apart from so many other action roguelites are the actual curses of the actual dead gods. Alongside your life meter, there’s a corruption meter that fills whenever you enter a new room, take darkness damage, or decide to buy an item with a blood offering as opposed to paying gold. When the corruption bar fills up, you’ll be burdened with a random curse that ranges from only slightly bothersome effects like exploding barrels having a larger blast zone, to extremely annoying ones like enemies have a chance to explode and send out a damaging shockwave. These curses stay with you for the remainder of the run, up to a max of five at a time, and can only be removed as a reward for beating a boss.
On their own, curses typically aren’t that bad, and sometimes they even have benefits that outweigh the negatives, such as one that puts traps on all treasure chests but also gives them a chance to drop two items instead of one. This tempted me in my earliest runs to just carelessly buy items with blood offerings whenever I couldn’t afford the gold price and accept curses left and right, which turned out to be a terrible idea because the fifth and final curse isn’t random. Instead, it’s basically a death sentence that causes your health to rapidly drop until it reaches 1 HP. Unless you’re confident in your ability to play without taking a single hit, you’ll want to avoid that one at all costs.
Even beyond just the corruption meter and the curses, there’s a lot to think about before you even enter a level in Curse of the Dead Gods. Each level is tied to a specific reward, whether it be gold, a stat boosting relic, a new weapon, an upgrade to an existing weapon, or attribute points to your constitution (health), dexterity (damage), or perception (item discovery). Everything has a price, so I had to consider whether I should pass up a tangible reward in favor of collecting gold so I could afford the next shop, or whether I was able to spare the corruption cost of using a blood offering. It’s very strategic in ways that favorably brought to mind deck-building roguelikes such as Slay the Spire or Monster Train.
It took me a little under 30 hours to beat the final boss for the first time, after which I unlocked a small handful of harder levels that I’m currently happily still working my way through. There’s not much of a reason to return to earlier levels outside of farming Crystal Skulls and Jade Rings in order to get 100% completion, but it’s worth mentioning that there are challenge runs that offer a ton of currency if you manage to beat their specially-themed temples but only give you one attempt to do so per day. One might take away your HUD and map while forcing you to play with a film grainy black and white filter so you never know what’s coming up next or how much life you have left, while another might flip the light/dark mechanic and make you more vulnerable while illuminated and more deadly while shrouded in darkness. They’re neat diversions and offer a nice taste of the full temple experience even while you’re still early on.