Review: Cinco Paus23 Jan 2018 1
Review: Cinco Paus
Released 25 Dec 2017
Roguelikes have become something like the mobile gaming equivalent of comfort food, what with their familiar genre conventions which make every moment count whilst demanding whip-sharp memory and risk-assessment. A safe bet and easy recommendation, with plenty of variety and personal favorites. Fortunately, there's usually appetite for more of the same, and some appreciation for risks and innovation in design, of which Cinco Paus has in spades.
Fans might already know of Michael Brough's previous hearty offerings to the genre, from the cyber-caper of 868-HACK to the spaces-as-equipment twist of Imbroglio. When considering Michael Brough's latest roguelike, Cinco Paus (translated as Five Sticks, or more charitably, Five Wands [and also "Five Bucks" -ED]), keep in mind two words: 'discovery' and 'five'. The game's release itself was the first discovery, appearing unheralded on Christmas day, seemingly flouting the AppStore's policy of a holiday freeze period wherein nothing fresh can be released or updated. (This was circumvented by simply having the app reviewed and approved before the freeze's start date, and setting the automated release for the 25th). In hindsight, Mr. Brough had cryptically been teasing the game for weeks prior.
The second discovery was less joyous and more perplexing, for the game's descriptive text is entirely in Portuguese, making learning to play a matter of initial guesswork. Close attention to the icons and timing of in-game effects, along with a handy set of cognates (words like battle, dormant, tremor, jog, bruja, fin) made deciphering things pleasureable and only moderately difficult. The novelty of learning the mechanics has been folded together with the novelty of a lesser-known language. (This is written with some bias, of course, for Portuguese is the sixth most-spoken language globally). While the end result of this combination might be a vexing barrier to entry for some, their synergy and unique context it provides makes learning it an idiosyncratic part of Cinco Paus's charm.
More to the point, the distinctness of the two layers of challenge makes for a vivid memory and unique context, which in turn actually function as an additional memory aid. If a player is challenged to be twice as sharp, the results speak for themselves, given a bit of persistence. Within the system of Cinco Paus, I learned the word for explosion, the symbol for explosion and the effect for explosion more or less as a single unitary fact, and what might appear as symbolic redundancy or opacity is actually just systematic richness. The game is in Portuguese like a handshake is in Portuguese.
The third, final, and most wondrous surprise was the gameplay of Cinco Paus itself. A wizard sorties through levels, collecting treasure and firing their unique set of five wands to complete each dungeon run. Keys unlock the doors in each level; health potions heal one damage; chests are worth a flat five points; each fifth gem collected grants an artifact which can be used once each run and is persistent across runs; tomes, upon pickup, reveal untriggered wand abilities. The treasures are technically the game's scorekeeper, with each non-chest item worth one point and high scores serving as the ultimate goal of play. But the spirit of the game lay in the wands, whose effects are picked from a preset tableau of possibilities, shuffled around and parcelled into five pluripotent tools for success. Each level has five enemies (ghosts, shrimp, lizards, frogs and roosters) with different health points who gain additional specialized abilities after many consecutive runs.
Whenever a wand's effect activates because its conditions were met, that symbol is revealed and saved for future reference. These are wands of weal and woe, with effects ranging from type-specific OHKO to status effects, teleportation and a few more esoteric ones besides. Each wand can be fired once, but recharges upon reaching a new level. By the time the wizard reaches the fifth level, most of the effects of this five-fold arsenal of magic wands will be known quantities. As stated earlier, the goal of the game is to accrue the most points carried across a series of runs, with the five wands and their effects resetting to a new random configuration after a completed run. Points are gained by picking up items, which are available on the dungeon floor, dropped by enemy roosters when killed, or occasionally generated by a few of the wand effects. Knowledge becomes the most precious kind of resource, gleaned opportunistically by firing off wands with a mixture of hope, confidence and intelligence.
The amount of abilities in the game and the level of interaction between them is stunning in its potential for clever players and little twists. This review has already perhaps revealed too much but suffice to say that a mind-controlled army of cloned frogs hopping away through spacetime is well-within the realm of possibility. Learning such systemic quirks as these is half the fun, personally, but a glossary of gameplay effects and terms has also been compiled in the weeks since the game dropped and can be researched by inquiring minds who want to be brough up to speed right away. Five enemy types, five levels per run, five health points, five wands with five effects each, all played on a 5x5 grid. Small wonder the game was released on Christmas, billed at five dollars.
Cinco Paus's unstinting faith in player curiosity and ingenuity, along with the game's rich interactive systems and perpetually fresh uncertainties make it an instant classic. Despite all these merits, it is regrettably necessary to qualify the heaps of praise. Cinco Paus is a perfect specimen of a rare type, and while it demands much of its players and cannot be universally recommended, it gives as good as it gets. Michael Brough said a good while ago "I prefer to control my exact perversions of language," and he has accomplished a similar feat with his latest game, keeping the essence of roguelikes at once recognizeable and radically new. Each run the wizard starts out with a fresh permutation of wands, a fresh perversion of perfect knowledge (that is, a colorful deviation from the norm). Cinco Paus delights, instructs, challenges, and recombines its sense of fortune and knowledge into a heady mixture that should be experienced.