Playing Time: 20-30 hours per winner, 150-200 hours total
Some time ago, I was feeling fed up with the vile piles of shit that were being pumped out by the major gaming companies, and so I got tempted to try out some roguelikes. Of the big 5 (ADOM, Angband, Dungeon Crawl, Nethack, and ToME), Dungeon Crawl was the one that seemed the most appealing to me at first, but knowing that the two major categories of roguelikes were Hacklikes and *bands, I gave Angband (then on version 4.0.1, though it got up to version 4.0.5 before I put it aside) a try as well.
Boy howdy, did I hate it at first. I mean, I'm usually all for games forgoing insulting tutorials and letting you just learn by playing, but that only works when the game is designed in a way that suits an organic learning curve. With Angband, there was so much information bombarding me that I couldn't make heads or tails of it, and I ended up getting killed by the loser peasants in town without even venturing into the dungeon.
I felt like there was something I just wasn't getting, so I looked around the internet and found a fantastic Let's Play of Angband by TooMuchAbstraction. After getting a better understanding of the basic mechanics and some tips on how to play, I went back in. And man, am I ever glad that I did.
Before I got into that, though, let me touch on some of its flaws.
Obviously, being a classic roguelike, you're not exactly in for a cinematic experience. As far as story goes, do the words "Excuse Plot" mean anything to you? Morgoth is an evil asshole, and you've gotten it into your head to delve into his dungeon and kill him. Get it done. It takes a lot of elements from Tolkien's Middle Earth works along with Dungeons & Dragons, but none of that really matters in the actual experience of playing the game.
Refining the start to be more accessible for new players might be an improvement, but really, once I got the hang of things, having nothing but my own caution to stop me from sinking like a stone through the first few dungeon levels in order to start getting worthwhile rewards faster was much appreciated.
In terms of the overall gameplay, there isn't a whole lot to say, but I mean that in a good way, because its simple elegance is a strength. Everything is turn based, so you've got all the time in the world to think through what you want to do before inputting that next keystroke. Field of vision and line of sight are asymmetric, so it's important to learn how to compensate for the former and manipulate the latter, particularly if you're a bloodthirsty player who tries to kill anything that isn't a significantly out of depth spawn (why yes, I did have a winner that killed all of the uniques, why do you ask?). The procedural generation of the dungeons does lead to some stupid bullshit, but the inclusion of templates for special rooms (also known as vaults) means that there are plenty of opportunities to take on handcrafted designs, albeit still with randomized loot and enemy spawns. Like many classic RPGs, there's an obvious Dungeons & Dragons influence, but Angband manages to do its own thing without relying on that.
That all having been said, the real treasure in Angband is that the overall game design is fantastic, managing to use RNG elements to add unpredictability and replay value without going so far as to feel like you need to be lucky to win, and the game mechanics work in a way that you can actually learn as you play, once you get past the initial information overload.
In contrast to the intricate mechanics of Hacklikes; specifically, applying situational resolutions to interactions based on the game's fluff and real world logic; Angband proved to be a remarkably straightforward game. Things work in generally consistent ways that aren't too hard to understand if you pay attention to the message log and apply some common sense. This isn't to say that the game was easy by any means. It had its challenges, but they're generally handled in a way that lets you not only learn about how to deal with that particular enemy but also how to extrapolate the solution to a broader scale. For instance, learning about dealing with summoners from encounters with weaker mages or demons gives you much-needed practice for dealing with quylthulgs or ainur later on, or merely annoying light hounds serve as preparation for the much more terrifying high tiers of the zephyr hound enemy group.
Really, the only game mechanic that was a little tricky was picking up on the secondary effects of the various types of elemental damage. Some of them are intuitively obvious (e.g. fire burns stuff), while others seem to almost be designed to catch you with your pants down the first time you come across them and to just serve as a complete pain in the ass whenever you're not fortunate enough to find resistance to them (nexus and chaos stand out). That'd probably be my main gripe about the game design after the initial hurdle, and it's the main thing that held me back from giving this game a perfect grade.
Aiding in learning about why you're getting your ass kicked is the monster memory feature. Basically, as you encounter enemies, see their special abilities, get hit by their attacks, etc., you fill in a database of information that can be accessed by that character AND all subsequent characters in the same user file. This is a wonderful feature, and I think it's far more useful than the generic "it hits VERY hard" type of information that the monster descriptions in Dungeon Crawl give. Now, granted, Dungeon Crawl gives its full descriptions all the time while Angband requires you to fill in the information bit by bit, so you're at a major disadvantage when you're encountering something new for the first time. Hell, sometimes that disadvantage can last for a long while, like not realizing that Omarax can summon other beholders until fighting him with a melee character instead of cheesing him from range or relying on teleport other. In the end, though, the fact that you can get such detailed information makes it far more valuable in the long run.
I suppose I should mention that you can also just cheat and give yourself the full information on all of the enemies with some simple file editing. A lot of people recommend that, but I didn't do it, and I think it lead to a better experience. A major roguelike like Angband is supposed to be a big time investment, so taking a shortcut like that seems wrong to me. Once you reach a certain level of power, it's possible to get a beefy pile of HP and multiple escape options that let you get out of almost any situation as long as you play smartly. It's not exactly foolproof, and I did lose a few characters on 70+ dungeon depths, but I think it's an acceptable risk, since the game is surprisingly lenient once you figure out how to leverage your advantages. After dungeon level 20 or so, it's exceedingly rare to just get straight fucked by the RNG, and deaths take happened because of mistakes are part of the learning experience.
While I'm talking about how I played it, I should also mention that I played with forced descent and randarts. The former disables stairs going up, so the game changes from a theoretically endless grind into a timed mission to get strong enough to kill Sauron/Morgoth with no more than 99/100 dungeon levels, respectively. The latter changes artifacts from having fixed properties to drawing from randomized pools of effects (similar to the differences between set/unique items and rare items in Diablo 2). Both of those options made the game far more enjoyable for me, since they incentivized improvising based on what you found rather than grinding until you get some idealized set of gear. One of my most memorable winners was a paladin who had to fight Morgoth at range since I simply didn't have good enough equipment to handle him in melee, and considering that paladins are probably the worst class for fighting at range, you can imagine that I was feeling a lot of trepidation going into dungeon level 100. That made the win all the sweeter.
Getting back to the actual game, though, another feature of Angband that added to the initial information overload but ended up being much appreciated is that the program allows for several sub-windows to display secondary information. It might not sound like much, but having a constant display of things like the visible monster list, the visible item list, your monster memory, or your inventory is a huge convenience.
Perhaps most important of all, though, is that it's just fun to play. You start out as a weak little @ who can't even deal with fighting certain types of bugs or molds, you spend the middle of the game needing to be wary of what types of enemies can potentially take you out in a single hit (which can be especially exciting when it comes to raiding vaults, where you need to balance the desire to see what those goodies might be against the risk of getting wiped out from a careless mistake), but by the end, you've grown into an entity capable of slaying a god. The character progression just feels so rewarding, and that comes strictly from the game itself, since I'm someone who didn't give two shits about Tolkien's works prior to playing this game.
Ultimately, for something that you can get for free and would have to go out of your way to not be able to run on any half-decent PC, it's hard to ask for anything more. Highly recommended, particularly for anyone more interested in challenging their mind than their reflexes and dexterity.
Total Playing Time: 150-200 hours