The Loam Lands beckon you. Source of Madness‘ nightmarish world, full of eldritch abominations and Old Gods hides terrifying cosmic secrets. But none as great as that which lurks at the heart of The Tower of Madness… on the moon. As a new Acolyte, you have an epic odyssey of mayhem and death ahead of you as you try to make your way from the last bastion of safety in the Loam Lands to the moon itself.
Developed by Carry Castle, Source of Madness is a side-scrolling action-roguelite, filled to the brim with Lovecraftian lore and cosmic horror. While that’s nothing new today, when cosmic horror has stepped out fully from the shadows to infect every aspect of our entertainment, Carry Castle has its own set of tricks up its sleeve to stand out in what is now an overcrowded genre.
To begin, you have a choice of three characters to start your run with, each sporting slightly different gear and stats. Picking your cultist, you’re dropped into what amounts to humanity’s last bastion in this desiccated world – a cathedral full of other cultists and acolytes, all waiting for someone else to make this journey into the Loam Lands.
After a quick tutorial on your base abilities, you’re left to die pretty quickly out in the wilds. And die you will until you figure out how the game works. You see, there’s no levelling up in Source of Madness, at least not in the traditional sense. Each death will see you pick a new cultist, with a new loadout, to begin another run. There’s no shortage of cultists it seems but you aren’t always guaranteed a good load out to start with – initially.
Instead, as you progress through the world, you’ll pick up new gear and experience from each monster killed. The gear you equip affects your stats so it’s always in your best interest to make a note of what works for you (pro-tip: pay attention to the item descriptions as you can miss out on some really useful kit otherwise). That XP you earn goes towards unlocking gear, new classes, and spells in the skill tree. Classes though, have to be discovered in the world before you can unlock them. Thankfully, once unlocked, gear drops get better with each successive run.
You can assign an offensive piece of gear to each hand, leaving you with options for both ranged and close quarters combat at the same time. And you’ll need that flexibility when dealing with the many beasties prowling the world.
Source of Madness’ combat feels very floaty and imprecise at first. As with all things, the more you progress, the more fun it becomes once you get used to its 360-degree combat system. What you equip will determine the ease of combat and just how much you can manipulate the system to your advantage. One of the Pyromancer rings, as an example, can deal out a stream of fire while another essentially works as a rocket launcher that allows you to “rocket jump” your way out of danger. Combine it with the teleport dash that leaves a poison AOE behind you, and you have a fantastic little kill box beneath your airborne feet.
Nestled at the heart of Source of Madness is Carry Castle’s bag of tricks: a procedural generation system and, *blows trumpets*, “AI machine learning“! But what exactly does that mean for the player?
Firstly – and most obviously – the levels and monsters are all procedurally generated. Think of it as an assortment of pieces sitting in the background that the game assembles its levels and monsters from. In theory, they’re relying on that old selling point of “an infinite number of possibilities and runs”. The reality, for procedural generation, is entirely different.
While Source of Madness has a unique visual style that combines H.R. Giger-esque visuals, pulsating sacks of pustulent flesh and a haphazard look to the way pieces of the world are layered on top of each other, repeating elements and entire sections begin to appear shortly. And, as the levels increase in size, it can get difficult to tell where you’ve already been. On the plus side, the art style and repetition do add to the overall theme of reality-altering madness.
One visual element that Source of Madness does get right with regards to its Lovecraftian inspiration, is in the enemy design. As they’re also procedurally generated, cobbled together from a series of pieces, that whole “indescribable abominations” hook that most horror stories vie for gets a rather successful visual take here. Outside of some creatures that you might be able to connect to specific Lovecraftian monsters, there’s just a whole pile of teeth, claws, tentacles, and wings assembled into nightmarish conglomerations trying to rip you limb from limb.
The other selling point is the AI system. Now machine learning has been around for a while in the entertainment industry, most notably to deal with upscaling artwork in remasters. So placing the core of your gameplay on this system is a pretty ballsy move.
The AI system powers and animates the game’s enemies while also, supposedly, learning how you play. Sadly, I found this less effective in practice. Regardless of what I was fighting and how much offensive firepower it wielded (and believe me some are walking attack machines), every enemy behaved exactly the same: pure, blind aggression. Whether they were flying or land-bound, they all rushed me in the same sort of boneless, flopping all over the place, rolling fashion. I also couldn’t tell, even after multiple runs, whether or not the system was learning anything from my play style as I continued to back away while creating chokepoints to wallop them with the heaviest weapon in my arsenal.
Don’t be mistaken, even though I used this tactic the combat remained fun because these blighters would blow up real good and satisfying. It was just disheartening to find myself face to tentacle with the same attack pattern repeatedly, regardless of the monstrosity.
I’ve discussed the visuals in depth but the sound design deserves special mention. There’s a creeping sense of dread and unease permeating the world and the enemies throw out some wonderful roars as they head your way, especially for the much, much larger enemies. Even more satisfying is their wonderful death throes and the meaty “whumpf!” when you blow one of them to kingdom come.
Overall, Source of Madness is an interesting attempt at the Lovecraftian roguelite genre. It’s an even more intriguing attempt at neural net learning and procedural generation, even if it doesn’t work the way you’d think it would. If you’re looking for something new from the genre, then you should check out Source of Madness‘ attempt to breathe some new life into a crowded market while still being a creepy and fun monster smasher.
A review code for Source of Madness was provided to Gameblur by the publisher.
Source of Madness (Xbox Series) ReviewSource of Madness
Sound8/10 Very Good
Gameplay8/10 Very Good
- “What in God’s name is that?” enemy design
- Satisfying combat
- Great sound effects
- Lots of procedural generation repetition
- Unclear whether or not the AI was learning from the way I played