Review: Classic Roguelike ADOM: Ancient Domains of Mystery Gets a Modern Makeover

Image courtesy Thomas Biskup

ADOM: Ancient Domains of Mystery has been around since 1994. Originally developed for Linux-based systems, ADOM used ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Exchange) to create rudimentary shapes for a turn-based fantasy roguelike rpg. Since its creation, ADOM is now considered one of the originators of the roguelike genre, and renown next to the likes of Dwarf Fortress. Now, after a long hiatus and several upgrades in both graphics and gameplay, ADOM makes its return in a big way with a new look, new sound, and new game modes for one of the most intricate, patient, polished, challenging, and endlessly replayable roguelikes I’ve ever played.

Image courtesy Thomas Biskup

Developed and published by its original creator, Thomas Biskup, ADOM takes your player created (or randomly generated) character and tasks them to save the land of Ancardia from the corrupting force of chaos. How you go about doing that is almost entirely up to you, as you’ll complete quests, slay monsters, delve into dungeons, and find treasure. The title boasts 12 different fantasy races from classic mainstays like orcs and dwarves, to unique races like ratlings and four elf races. The same goes with the 22 different character classes; starting with the typical fighter, thief, and wizard, and newcomers such as the chaos knight, beastmaster, archer, and elementalist. Each race gives you different stat bonuses while each class has their own strengths and drawbacks. Depending on which game mode you’re playing, this doesn’t even touch on the point-based stat system, how to increase your skills through gameplay, or how different weapons and pieces of armor affect your characters movement and combat performance. Outside of the standard game mode, character customization can be daunting for the beginning player.

Image courtesy Thomas Biskup

Let’s use “daunting” as the operative word for ADOM. Even though it has brightly colored, nicely made character sprites set against an easy-to-read top-down view, and a simple, no-frills user interface, it’s still very much a roguelike. Which means death comes swift, unexpected, and brutally to anyone unprepared. Do yourself a favor and start with the tutorial first, because ADOM has a fairly steep learning curve, requiring you to learn not only how your stats work, but also the different modes of combat such fighting stances that change your armor class, hotkeys to quickly explore a dungeon, and even how to open, close, lock, unlock, and kick down doors. It’s almost like playing Dungeons and Dragons with a finicky, yet fair dungeon master.

The turn-based design works very well in the game’s favor. In ADOM, no one moves until you perform some kind of action; villagers and monsters alike. This lends itself to a more thoughtful level of play, where you can calmly act against an enemy ambush or after springing a trap. ADOM leans more on your prep work to supply yourself before a dungeon, your ability to strategize when surrounded on all sides, and how your character’s statistics work, than how twitchy you are on a mouse. Even when your a new characters die over and over again, the slower, plodding gameplay is calming, almost relaxing.

Image courtesy Thomas Biskup

ADOM wouldn’t be a roguelike if there weren’t a million ways to die. Being rushed by monsters, slowly poisoned, or mutated by chaos doesn’t even scratch the surface of what’s against you in this title. For instance, my first character, an orc paladin named 3CR, met her ignoble defeat after a minotaur kicked her into a river where her heavy chain armor caused her to drown. Another time, my grey elf thief delved into a dungeon, racking kills and amassing treasure, when, by my own hubris, he was stung by a poisonous spider without an antidote on hand. In a panic, I tried to run back up the labyrinthine halls, losing him in a dark room without a torch, where he succumbed to his wounds. And while I could save my game, it only goes as far as being able to continue where I left off, because permanent death is still very much a thing in ADOM. But if you’re so attached to your lost characters, you can create a simple word file to share with friends and memorialize the life of your fallen heroes.

Image courtesy Thomas Biskup

There is still so much more to ADOM than I could cover here. There is a Hardcore Mode that ramps up the difficulty for seasoned vets, a Personalized Mode that lets you fine-tune specific options on your playthrough, a weekly challenge that saddles you with a specific character with a specific mission and specific win conditions, and an Exploration Mode that gives you a magic ‘wish-granting wand’ just to let you experiment and mess around with the games’ mechanics. There’s even a multiplayer mode where players can join up with friends and quest together.

ADOM is a thinking-player’s roguelike: deep and complex, yet rewarding to those who sit down and learn how to play. The graphics are simple, but the level of mechanical detail is staggering. It might not be for everyone, but for those who love deep, engaging roguelikes ADOM is a modernized classic. 

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