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Here’s a brief list of fun, free Roguelikes that I have played and enjoyed over the years. Some of these titles are perennial favorites that are well known to fans of the genre, while others are relatively new. These games are roughly organized according to their age, with older games near the bottom of the list, because you’re likely familiar with the classics if you’re reading this article.
Here’s a short version of the list if you do not feel like reading the entire thing:
Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead
Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup
DOOMRL (AKA DRL)
PRIME (with download)
This game was released relatively recently and draws on some venerable titles that include Nethack, Angband, and Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. At the same time, Zorbus distinguishes itself with an extraordinarily user friendly interface, open ended character progression, and deep squad based gameplay. These features make this game a good choice for players who want a more hardcore RPG experience, but do not enjoy some of the more fiddly aspects of the classics.
The goal of Zorbus is simple: Delve into the dungeon in search of the legendary Zorbus. According to myth the Zorbus can transform a mere mortal into a demigod. Just like in any good Roguelike, players will find all sorts of weapons and spells to aid them in their quest. Players will also find allies who can be recruited to the cause. Oft times these allies can assist your hero by attempting tasks he or she is incapable of completing.
Zorbus is still very young by the standards of this genre, so it has a few eccentricities like poor follower AI, bugs, and mechanics that feel a bit sparse in some areas. That said, these flaws do not hold Zorbus back from being a great game and it’s highly likely they will be ironed out in the months and years to come.
Want to learn more about Zorbus? Visit the game’s official home at:
Pathos is a direct descendant of Nethack, one of the oldest and most complex Roguelikes in existence. The creator of this title has, with great success, attempted to retain the depth of Pathos’ ancestor while giving players a more modern experience. Players can choose from a number of races and classes, each of which has its own unique traits. Wizards, Barbarians, Gunslingers, and Knights are just a few of the classes available to players. You can also choose from races that include boring humans, dwarfs, and giants.
A host of monsters await players as they explore the dungeon and there are plenty of objects to interact with. Those familiar with Nethack will recognize interactable objects like fountains and alters, but there are plenty of twists in this game that breathe new life into old ideas.
While this title has a lot going for it, there is a learning curve that players should be prepared for and some of the graphical assets could use a bit of polish, though it looks beautiful by Roguelike standards. Pathos is available for tablets, smartphones, and PC.
Check out Pathos for PC or learn more about getting it for mobile:
Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead
Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead is perhaps the most complex game I have encountered. Set in a zombie/cosmic horror/alien invasion apocalypse CDDA puts players in a world where just about everything wants to kill them. When not fending off (or running from) hordes of zombies, players have to eat, sleep, and find some way to keep their character’s morale up. All of this happens in the near future, so players will find everything ranging from smartphones to chocolate bars in the ruins of New England.
What really sets this game apart from other Roguelikes is its grandiose crafting system that allows players to make everything from a simple stone ax to a house. Players can even assemble vehicles or fix up existing ones, so this is your game if you ever wanted to drive a fully loaded death-mobile though a zombie infested hellscape.
There’s also all sorts of game scenarios, character traits, and even followers. Players can become the leader of a scrappy group of survivors, a lone hero battling the denizens of the netherworld, a simple farmer, a mutant, or just about anything else that a person can dream up. A massive arsenal of weapons that include guns, swords, and whatever else you can cobble together helps flesh out the gameplay. CDDA is also very mod friendly and comes packed with popular mods like Magiclysm, which adds magic spells and items to the game. Players will also find an endless assortment of beasts to fight and dangerous areas like secret laboratories to explore.
As great as this game may be, it gets bogged down by its attempt at realism. Players have to keep their character fed, well rested, and entertained, which is hard enough in a zombie apocalypse. Recent updates have added weariness (which is somewhat connected to the player’s need for sleep, but also its own thing), crafting proficiencies on top of the already existent skills needed to craft, and even things like pockets to what was once a generalized storage system. While these features are improvements in many ways, they force players to further micromanage a character that needed a lot of detailed commands in the first place. All this serves to degrade the overall fun of the experience, but the game is still great and there’s nothing else quite like it aside from Dwarf Fortress.
Here’s the link to the Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead homepage:
Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup
Based on Linley’s Dungeon Crawl, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup is a stripped down Roguelike that focuses on strategy and character development rather than inventory management or the other minutia games in this genre get bogged down in. Another remarkable aspect of Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup (DCSS for short) is its wide array of race and class combos. Players can make gnoll wizards, vampire gladiators, and many other character types. Additionally, characters can see a lot of in-game growth since their species/class is more of a template to work off of rather than a strict set of rules. This means players are often free to choose what weapons and spells they learn, though the race/class combination has a strong influence over a character’s performance.
Players can also choose from a variety of gods for their character to worship. Gods grant players new powers as they slay enemies or perform other actions that please them. Some actions anger certain gods and some gods handicap players in exchange for their blessings, so players have to be willing to make tradeoffs for the powers granted by any given deity.
DCSS has a strong online presence and can be played on a number of servers with leaderboards or launched from a stand alone app. Fans of this game can also find a number of variants that include Bloatcrawl and Hellcrawl.
Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup is an awesome game, but it is not without its foibles. The devs update the game routinely and some updates are better received than others. From personal experience I can tell you that the dev team has no qualms about nerfing, buffing, adding, or cutting things (RIP Death Knight class) so be ready to adapt to an ever changing experience if you want to keep up with current versions.
Link to the Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup site:
DOOMRL (AKA DRL)
As the name may suggest, this Roguelike is based on the FPS classic DOOM. Players can choose from three classes at the start (Marine, Scout, and Engineer) and must explore a ravaged space colony on a journey that will take them through Hell… literally! This game is notable for being strategy and build focused in a manner similar to Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, while also having a rather frenetic, fast paced feel. Much of this is thanks to DOOMRL’s efficient, no nonsense UI and perk based character development. This title also features an excellent sound track and effects that should give any classic DOOM fan a bout of nostalgia.
It’s difficult to fault DOOMRL even though active development for it ended in 2013. The only bad thing I can say about this game is that runs feel a bit luck based at times, though that can be said for most Roguelikes. Incidentally, DOOMRL saw a sort of reincarnation in the form of Jupiter Hell, a highly polished Roguelike made by the same team with a similar theme. On a side note, Jupiter Hell would have made it on this list if it were free and I recommend checking it out sometime.
DOOMRL’s home page:
Cthangband is technically one of many Angband variants, but it is different enough from the game that spawned it that it deserves its own place on this list. As a descendant of Angband this game is based largely on exploration and combat. Strategy, character build, and equipment figure strongly into the player’s odds of success.
This title has a strong Lovecraftian influence that sets the game in the early 20th century and pits players against Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors as he or she explores a mysterious world. As an added twist, the race/class system in Cthangband allows players to control heroes that are more in line with Lovecraft lore. Players can become Zealots, Great Ones, and skeletons in character generation from the very start.
The game starts in one of several towns where the player can visit shops before entering the dungeon. Like Angband, players can clear dungeon levels multiple times to accrue both loot and experience levels. Additionally, there are multiple dungeons scattered throughout the game world. Players will have to explore a bit to find these dungeons and finish the game. Cthangband also features an overworld and a semi-openworld style of gameplay.
While I highly recommend Cthangband, especially for people who enjoy games like Angband and Dungeon Crawl, it’s only fair to warn readers of this game’s unusual issues. For starters, the text and graphics on some of the screens tend to clash, making it hard to read important information. The game also has a sort of stretched out look on modern monitors, though this may be fixed by tinkering with the window size. The user interface is also a bit dated, so get ready to do a lot of repetitive button tapping. In all fairness to the dev, I have to add that this game is still in active development and the issues I just complained about may be fixed in the future, so expect a more polished version of Cthangband than the one I played.
Download Cthangband at:
Angband, the Roguelike that launched a thousand variants, is still one of the most enjoyable titles I’ve encountered in this genre despite the fact that it’s ancient. Interestingly, Angband can trace its lineage back to an even older game called Moria, which I have yet to play.
Based on the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, Angband places players in the dread dungeons of Morgoth. Your task is simple, yet the challenge it presents is almost insurmountable: Journey to the deepest level of Angband and slay the dark lord, Morgoth. To accomplish this mission, you will have to collect powerful artifacts, master swords or sorcery, and fight through hordes of monsters.
Players can control classes like the Ranger, Mage, and Paladin and choose from a list of races that range from High Elves to Kobolds. Fans of The Lord of the Rings will recognize many of the races and other features of this game, though many liberties were taken with the source material. That said, everything in Angband meshes well with LotR lore.
Combat and exploration make up the bulk of the gameplay, though players will have to visit town to buy things in shops, rest, or store loot. Overall, this game is fairly fast paced and can offer countless hours of entertainment.
Of course, as an older game Angband’s UI hasn’t kept up with the times and performing certain actions can be a bit tedious. Luckily, this game isn’t too heavy on inventory management and there’s not a lot of crafting, so the UI suffices. This game can also be a bit of a grind at times, since players need certain pieces of equipment and items to survive the depths of the dungeon.
It’s also worth noting that the code for Angband has come under the wing of a new maintainer whose development choices have overhauled several aspects of this classic for better or worse. Personally, I like the direction the game has gone in so far, but the older version of the game may appeal more to some players.
If you want variants, FAngband, Zangband, and FrogComposband are just a few of the many, many “bands” floating around on the internet. Even TOME started life as an Angband variant.*
*TOME is also an excellent game. It was left out of this list due to the fact that some classes have to be purchased.
Get Angband at:
PRIME draws a lot of inspiration from Nethack, so much so that it can be considered a sci-fi adaptation of the game. That said, PRIME sets itself apart with its sci-fi setting and game mechanics. It also has its own built-in tileset and ASCII options. In keeping with PRIME’s science fiction motif players can control an Orc Stormboy, Space Marine, or a Yautja as well as many other character types. Fans of franchises like Star Trek, Warhammer 40k, and Predator will recognize references in this game.
If you want more details on how this game works check out the NetHack section below. I’m not going to criticize this game, because I only played it briefly about 8 or 9 years ago. It did leave enough of an impression on me to include it on this list. More importantly, PRIME is nearly extinct since the server for it is down. Fortunately, I found a copy and you can download it by clicking the link below. Please be aware that I did not make PRIME and I am merely sharing it here to make sure it is available to potential players.
It’s not necessary to go into the history of NetHack here, but I will point out that this game is not far removed from Rogue, the great granddaddy of all Roguelikes. Having been in active development for longer than some of its fans have been alive, NetHack is incredibly complex.
Even the story, which simply places the player in a dungeon and tells them to find the Amulet of Yendor, unfolds to reveal a rich history full of literary references as the game progresses.
Players can choose from a variety of races and classes. Most of these include the usual dwarves and knights associated with RPGs, but there are offbeat classes like the Archeologist. While the class system may seem cliche on the surface, there’s an intricacy to each class’s innate abilities and how they interact with the game world that is difficult to sum up. For example, a knight starts with a pet pony and a lance. It’s actually possible to ride the pony and attack things with the lance just as one would expect. Or maybe you are hungry and happen to know the stone to flesh spell, use it to turn the nearest boulder into tasty meat. NetHack is full of clever features.
Players can also sacrifice monsters to their deity by slaying them on alters, copy spells into books, bless their dinner, and haggle with merchants to name just a few of the interactions possible in this game. The dungeon itself is also incredibly fleshed out with a run of the mill underground labyrinth, gnomish mines, and even Gehenna. The possibilities are endless in this game and it can take years to master even a single race/class combination.
All of NetHack’s complexity comes at a cost, however. To say this game has a learning curve is something of an understatement. There’s a lot to learn and new players will likely die many times until they figure things out through trial and error or get help from an outside source. The game isn’t user friendly either. You will not know what a potion, scroll, or wand does when you first acquire it and there’s an entire complicated system of testing/note taking that even experienced players must undergo to figure out the effects of items from game to game. Furthermore, items (including weapons and armor) can be cursed, and players risk serious harm if they use or equip things without testing them. Needless to say, all this testing and deduction can make NetHack cumbersome and boring at times. Luckily the sheer genius of this game’s design redeems it and NetHack has variants like UnNetHack that attempt to add to or improve the base game in some way. Countless tilesets and servers have also been created by fans over the years, so this game can be customized in an almost infinite number of ways.
Learn more about NetHack at:
Thanks for reading this article. I may write more in the future, so feel free to make requests or give feedback in the comments below.