Cryptmaster is a dark, goofy dungeon crawler powered by word games and typing

A different kind of text adventure —

Ask a necromancer to lick a shield. Type out “HIT,” “YELL,” “ZAP.” It’s funny.

Cryptmaster screenshot showing the player typing out

Enlarge / Sometimes you gotta get your nose in there to remember the distinct aroma of 1980s RPG classics.

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There are people who relish the feeling of finally nailing down a cryptic clue in a crossword. There are also people unduly aggravated by a puzzlemaster’s puns and clever deceptions. I’m more the latter kind. I don’t even play the crossword—or Wordle or Connections or Strands—but my wife does, and she’ll feed me clues. Without fail, they leave me in some strange state of being relieved to finally get it, yet also keyed up and irritated.

Cryptmaster, out now on Steam, GOG, and for Windows, seems like the worst possible game for people like me, and yet I dig it. It is many things at once: a word-guessing game, a battle typing (or shouting) challenge, a party-of-four first-person grid-based dungeon crawler, and a text-prompt adventure, complete with an extremely goofy sense of humor. It’s also in stark black and white. You cannot fault this game for a lack of originality, even while it evokes Wizardry, Ultima Underground, and lots of other arrow-key-moving classics, albeit with an active tongue-in-cheek filter.

Cryptmaster announcement trailer.

The Cryptmaster in question has woken up four role-playing figures—fighter, rogue, bard, and wizard—to help him escape from his underground lair to the surface, for reasons that must be really keen and good. As corpses, you don’t remember any of your old skills, but you can guess them. What’s a four-letter action that a fighter might perform, or a three-letter wizard move? Every time you find a box or treasure, the Cryptmaster opens it, gives you a letter count, then lets you ask for clues. “SMELL,” you type, and he says it has that wonderful old-paper smell. “LOOK,” and he notes that there are writings and drawings on one side. Guess “SCROLL,” and he adds those letters to your characters’ next ability clues. Guess wrong, well, better luck next time.

  • Okay, so none of my characters can get really good prices through group buying, got it.

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  • Gelatinous cubes, of course, but this one makes you think on the fly about which verbs you can use.

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  • A lot of the characters in Cryptmaster are, well, characters.

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  • In case you didn’t get enough word games from the main gameplay, there is a mini card game you can play with its own letters-and-words mechanics.

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  • Uncovering more verbs reveals more of your dead characters’ past lives.

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Once you’ve got a few verbs, you’ll want to learn them and figure out how they fit together, because you’ll have to fight some things. Combat is all about typing but also remembering your words and juggling cooldowns, attack, defense, and ability costs. Strike with your fighter, backstab with the rogue, fling a spell from the wizard, and have your bard reset the fighter’s cooldown, all while a baddie very slowly winds up and swings at random party members. Some fights can be avoided by maneuvering around them, but successful fights also let you choose another letter to potentially reveal new verbs. Apologies for the somewhat vague descriptions here, but I’m trying not to give away any words.

There are a few other mechanics to learn, like smashing wall-crawling bugs to gather their ability-powering essence, and defiling shrines to better suit your undead needs. But let’s talk about the Cryptmaster. Saying the character is “voiced” by the game’s writer and co-designer, Lee Williams, truly undersells it. As with some of the best adventure games, Williams and coder/designer/artist Paul Hart have anticipated so, so many things you might type in when prompted to guess, ask, or interact with their gloomy little world. Maybe there’s a point at which the Cryptmaster—a far more dour version of the HBO Cryptkeeper eternally disappointed in you—stops being surprising in his responses. I have yet to find it after a few hours of play. (How the team pulled off such a huge response range is detailed in an interview at Game Developer.)

Go ahead and recapture some of your childhood sense of wonder: Swear at the Cryptmaster. You won’t be disappointed.

You can play the game in turn-based mode, removing the pressure of remembering and typing out actions, but it’s not the recommended setting. While I played with only typing and relished the chance to give my mechanical keyboard a workout, you can also play with voice prompts. If you’re not sure if this is the kind of game for you, there’s a free demo on Steam that should clue you in.

Was that a pun? Maybe. Cryptmaster gave me a bit more appreciation for word-guessing games—the kind with enjoyments that are not easily, shall we say, spelled out.

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