Ok, so I'm just going to come straight out and say it. No mincing my words or dancing round the outcome… Source of Madness just didn't click with me. Like at ALL. On paper it sounded right up my street, a sidescrolling roguelike powered by AI machine learning that created a Lovecraftian-inspired world filled with dark and twisted monstrosities. In execution though, it just felt off. After just a few hours of gameplay I was ready to quit and had to force myself to play enough to write this review. I probably wouldn't have stuck around half as long as I did if this was a title I was playing just for fun. So let's all gather round, grab yourself a brew, and come read the details that describe why this particular reviewer struggles to recommend Source of Madness…
Now to be fair, it's not all downright terrible. There are even some parts that are rather well done, it's just that they're overshadowed by things that feel off, just don't work, or are executed poorly. Take the setting and story for instance. You control a new Acolyte, a different one each run, as they leave the safety of the Sanctuary to begin a journey through the nightmarish Loamlands. This world is filled with horrible demonic entities who are little more than lumps of cancerous flesh with limbs. Chitinous appendages, insect wings, boils, eyes, open wounds, tentacles, and everything else disgusting are fused into a living mass of corruption that will do anything to stop our hero from reaching their goal. The death of each of the elder gods that have enslaved humanity… Or at least that's how I read it anyways.
I'm pretty sure this is correct but you aren't really told an overarching narrative in much detail. It's all very otherworldly, incomprehensible, and unknowable in a Lovecraftian style. Not understandable by the human mind and all that stuff. Bits and pieces of information are given through signposts, notes, and encounters with NPCs but it mostly boils down to just a few lines of text about how tortured they've become, how afraid they are, how horrible the world is, and so on. This type of storytelling has become popular right now, with games like Elden Ring pulling it off to great effect, but I just wasn't drawn in by Source of Madness's narrative. There were no interesting NPC stories to find (at least that I encountered), no little glimmers of hope to discover, or really anything more than "Oh it's so horrible, I've gone mad/been broken/physically wrecked!" type encounters. And these were all with stationary characters, just people standing around, "all telling and no seeing" type stuff. It's all a bit one-note, a note that isn't particularly interesting at that, and didn't live up to the deep mythology available to a Lovecraft-inspired world.
But we'd forgive a bare-bones story if there's some great gameplay involved, so maybe not all is lost? Yeah, don't hold out too much hope on that front either frankly. So how it plays is as a "head to the right" type side-scrolling roguelike. You begin each run by picking from 3 different acolytes, each with their own starting magic and class chosen randomly from those you've unlocked. Then you set out across the level, using your 2 available rings to destroy any enemies you come across. They're a load of spells to unlock, each with different styles to get to grips with. You can throw fireballs, launch webs, send out shards of bamboo, slash with energy blades, and more. As you take down enemies you'll find new rings and equipment to swap out, gaining more powerful versions or new ones altogether. You'll also collect Blood from each slain opponent, which can be spent between runs to unlock new classes, new ring types, upgrades to basic abilities, and more that persist across all characters and will hopefully make the next run easier. You continue through each stage in this fashion until you encounter and destroy the boss at the end, or you die. You'll then start the whole process over again with a new Acolyte, trying to get further each time. A nice detail is that you also don't lose this blood upon death, making even a crappy run worthwhile as you earn some more currency towards upgrading for the next attempt. Which will happen quite a bit. Something I noticed was how inconsistent runs seemed to be. I'd fly through a level one time, doing things quickly and easily, and then the next I'd be killed after a few minutes. It would all come down to level geometry most times, an unlucky arrangement where a rock could get me stuck underneath an enemy, and that run would be a total write-off.
How many runs will you actually want to make? As I said earlier, I truly struggled to stay interested in this one because the actual moment-to-moment gameplay just isn't fun. Now it isn't the genre here btw. There are plenty of games, Dead Cells for example, that use this same style really well, utilizing great level design and blending it with interesting enemy types and smooth flowing combat, while also having pixel-perfect platforming and movement too. Source of Madness has none of these. Take movement for instance. Jumps and falls are extremely slow and floaty, feeling like your character is on the moon or that gravity is all screwy. They'll rise and fall in slow arcs through the air which makes movement feel weightless. It also makes quick jumps to avoid damage difficult to pull off and detracts from the feeling of agility the character could otherwise have. You probably could get used to this, however…if the other controls weren't also just as crappy feeling. The left stick controls movement, walking left and right, but also uses the diagonals for light aiming of your 2 offensive rings. These are on the trigger buttons, LT and RT, and allow you to attack in whichever direction your cursor is pointing. The right stick completely controls aiming and is much more useful than the more annoying left stick aim mode as not only can you shoot in 360⁰ without moving, but you can also walk in one direction while shooting in another. So far so good, it's the typical twin-stick control scheme for the most part, and should work well… Except it doesn't, and this is why. Jump is assigned to A, while dash/dodge is on B.
Now the more astute among you might instantly see the problem with this. Yup, to jump or dodge enemy attacks you need to take your finger from the right stick, quickly do what you need to do (while losing the ability to precision aim), and then quickly get your finger across to the right stick again so you can continue aiming. That delay caused by moving, although only a split second in real-time, is easily enough to cause a dodge to be too late or a jump to result in an attack landing rather than it missing. Even more annoying though is that the dash dodge is really difficult to aim without having the right stick for precision targeting. Pulling off a double jump then dash is WAY harder than it should be and I found even a simple version hard to time as you jumped between the A button, to the right stick, to the B button, and back to the stick again. The controls, along with the floaty low gravity feeling throughout, all conspire to make combat feel hectic but not in a good way. You feel hindered by the system, wrestling against the controls, rather than fluidly pulling off dodges as you control a nimble character. It just makes the experience unsatisfying to play, especially when combat should be the highlight.
Not only is combat boring but so are the levels you're traveling through AND the enemies you'll be fighting. There's an interesting story behind their design though, and it's here that some credit should be given. You see the levels and enemies are all built by an AI construct. From the research I've done, it seems it was programmed to understand what a Lovecraftian world actually is and then build one from the parts it was given. It chose the various background, foreground, and texture styles and placed them together to create a unified aesthetic. Or at least that was the theory. Visually the game has problems; mostly with how it's all tied together. Individual assets can look very good and the Acolyte themselves looks great. There are some cool backgrounds and great individual pieces as well. It's pulling it all together into something fun to play through that's the problem. For instance, the starting levels have a "fields and village" style where it's mostly farmland with hills, trees, and the occasional house spread around. You quickly realize though that every tree is exactly the same: there are only like 2 house designs (extremely simple too) that are repeated over and over. Destructible rocks are spread around but look like flat-bottomed blobs rather than true rocks. This gets worse later on when you enter underground cave-style environments. Rocks sections repeat over, then suddenly change to a crystal style out of nowhere, with no attempt but to blend the two together. It all feels like randomly clumped together assets, all jumbled together, with only the loosest connection between them.
It could be classed as all a bit "otherworldly", which would fit the Lovecraftian theme well, but when playing through the levels it just feels boring, especially as there are no real paths to choose from. There are sections where you can choose a "high" path or "low" path, where the path splits, but it won't be long till it joins up again. It is as simple as "go right" for the most part which feels like something from a 20-year-old title, not a modern-day roguelike. When compared to other games in the genre, it can't help but come off poorly. And nowhere does this become more noticeable than the basic enemies you'll come across in moment-to-moment gameplay. Again they were all assembled by an AI. It was given a ton of assets and it "chose" the ones that "felt" most "Lovecraftian" to it. This is where I think it did a decent job. Large cancerous pulsing blobs, Chitinous insect wings and limbs, tentacles, Compound eyes, Thick spikes, boils, teeth, and more all make an appearance and could have been used to great effect. Note I said "could"... In reality, all you get are an indistinguishable mess of randomly joined together bits and pieces. Thrown together with no real thought or reason behind them. Now again, this suits the whole Lovecraft thing quite well. "Otherworldly and incomprehensible to the human mind" and all that jazz. In practice though, what you get is every enemy type feeling just like the last. They're all a blob of a body with bits stuck on or sticking out. They'll roll float towards you, bobbing along in a floaty fashion as they move through the strange low gravity world, while occasionally lashing out with whatever attack appendages they have when in range. They don't have any moves to link together, no counters to your attacks or special attacks specific to that type. They're barely a threat, for the most part, simply backtracking and shooting is more than enough to deal with them 99% of the time. The only time they tend to be a problem is when they pin you against the weird geometry in a level, getting you stuck under an outcropping of rock or against a tree. That's where they'll be able to clobber you to death easily as it's almost impossible to see attacks coming when everything is dark and dingy, with particle effects going off everywhere and random monster parts swinging around wildly. Bosses aren't much better either. They are better constructed, looking more handcrafted but are annoying as hell to fight. The first one, a giant worm, has acid shooting boils all along its back that must be taken out. It fires in all directions and you must dodge them to survive. If you remember what I said above movement and control though, you'll know that it isn't exactly a strong point in this game. So you end up dying and starting again, starting the process over, which only drives home how subpar everything is compared to its competitors.
In my opinion, Source of Madness is an experience that doesn't reach the heights it could have. This sidescrolling roguelike, powered by AI algorithms, left me feeling disappointed. Combat is boring, with annoying controls and a floaty low gravity feeling when jumping or falling. Enemy designs all run together in a way that nothing stands out. In fact, that applies to the whole aesthetic and to the gameplay experience. Nothing stands out, it's "meh" all the way through. Sure there are some nice assets to see. The acolytes themselves are pretty cool, some individual monster parts look great, and some spells are nice with cool effects but they just don't pull together into an overall style. They get dragged down by floaty movement and subpar controls. Combat dulls in comparison to other games in the style, becoming a "run away while shooting" event rather than a stylish and powerful battle. As an experiment or advancement of AI learning, it's definitely to be commended. It's a step towards the future where AI can make creative additions to videogames. As a game though, it's just not a great example of the type. With so many great roguelikes out there, you'd be much better served with one of those. Firmly a mid-tier experience at most.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review.
Final Score: 5/10
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