Cinco Paus

released on Dec 25, 2017

You have five magic wands but you don't know what they do. A Portuguese roguelike from Michael Brough.

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I'm a huge proponent of games which do more with less, so it's little wonder I adore Michael Brough and his design philosophy. He is a gem of the TIGSource-era indie scene who believes above all else that games are about making choices. Always making choices. His brand of roguelikes, endearingly referred to as Broughlikes, embody this ethos well, be they designed by Brough himself, or his ardent supporters. Their most important features are:
Small play areas
Zugzwang (compulsion to move)
Singular control (moving is identical to acting)
Predictable randomisation
Maximal exploration of a singular element of roguelikes
This foundation is an immediate and apparent departure from the prototypical roguelike experience, wherein boards can be very large, their spaces ultimately uninteresting, where players can freely wait for an advantage in combat, where actions are discrete from one another, where random elements can make the totality of the experience feel dependent on luck. That notion of luck is superficially present in Broughlikes as well, but only due to a lack of understanding fundamentals of their design.
As detailed in his dev notes, Broughlikes have each tackled different elements of Rogue[-likes] such as single-use items (Zaga-33), reusable spells (868-HACK), empowering items (Imbroglio), and in the case of Cinco Paus, item identification. Stemming from a conversation with Zach Gage, Brough wanted to explore how Rogue[-like] items don't need to be approached in binaries of knowing nothing and knowing everything, rather, if an item has multiple effects (like cursed items in many RPGs and roguelikes) some might be apparent up front, and others are only known later. Furthermore, some effects might be arcane to those unfamiliar with a game's vocabulary. Drawing from his own experience of learning Portuguese, Brough replicated this abstraction through having every scrap of text be in the world's sixth most spoken language.
As perhaps the most distinct of the Romance languages, this wonderfully approximates a vague understanding of the terms at play here. I can deduce, from context and my own scant knowledge of French and Spanish, that 'pontos' means 'points,' but cognates can only carry one so far. As one uses their wands to determine their effects, little icons appears next to them which can convey some meaning, but nonetheless leaves some layer of non-understanding. Only through greater experimentation then could one reasonably ascertain that 'Tesouro Escondido' means not only 'Hidden Treasure,' but that it mechanically requires your beam to end in an area with three walls. One of the most befuddling effects in my experience was 'Terremoto' -- 'Earthquake' -- which only goes into effect when the beam crosses the centre-most tile of the room.
When the particulars finally snap into place, the feeling of understanding is unmatched by almost anything else I've ever encountered in a game. It is a pitch-perfect recreation of how learning works. The issue is that, like learning, it is a largely uphill battle with little perceived reward until it is completed. This is perhaps what most puts people off of Cinco Paus, as they have not put in enough effort to reap the benefits of that effort. Without knowing how wands and effects and enemies and items and everything coincides with one another, it reads as chaotic, random, and arbitrary. Like with a puzzle, chance success reads as just that, chance, a feeling of 'How was I supposed to know that?' whereas naturally reaching the solution feels earned through the application of tools and rules.

Cinco Paus
follows a stepped curve, much like learning. Progress is staggered and by no means smooth. With enough time and effort, one reaches a new plateau. The effects are learned incrementally, the mechanics comprehended, successful runs achieved only for additional layers of complication to, inevitably, be added on top. Collecting five talismans confers an artefact with its own specific effects and use outside the bounds of the wands. Further successful runs completed in sequence add modifiers to existing elements. There is always a next level of understanding to be achieved. That is precisely what has kept me coming back to Cinco Paus month after months, year after year. That is what keeps me coming back to Broughlikes in general. I stumble through 868-HACK runs. I have a low level knowledge of Imbroglio thanks to other people's decks. I am slowly improving at Cinco Paus. I see runs posted others and feel like I'm being presented differential equations. I come across strategies like this and my head aches. Much more than that, I see some of my favourite developers like Derek Yu and Raigan Burns falling head over heels for this goofy games with a silly blue wizard and I am infected by their passion. I see others replicating Brough's philosophy in their own games and I hope these constrained games never stop. Even if they do, the possibilities laid bare in those minuscule grids shows how Brough is a mind on the level of gaming's best and brightest.

Cinco Paus is a game about language, curiously written in Portuguese, a tongue that the game's designer did not speak natively. The gameplay rather ingeniously mimics the experience of struggling to understand a foreign language, with mechanics that are randomized and concealed at the start of every run. While there is more than enough consistency in its rules for you to slowly accrue knowledge that persists across your playtime, each new attempt inevitably sees you scrambling to re-learn the language of play. It can be frustrating, especially at first. but writing the game off as entirely RNG dependent is seriously jumping the gun. It's undeniable that luck plays a factor in your success here, but the game has been designed and balanced in such a way where game knowledge and strategy trumps luck and brute force. Like any language, Cinco Paus takes patience and practice to learn. I'm not fluent in it yet, but maybe someday I will be.

Roguelikes and I generally don't mix. I find that their narratives aren't compelling to me - the endless cavalcade of new generated rooms, layouts and spaces without distinct purpose. I have yet to find one that I find artistically provocative. Unfortunately, Cinco Paus feels about as basic as they come.
It's impressive how it all comes together. The premise is that you get five different wands with randomized effects each time you play, and you don't know what the effects are until you use the wands and see them in action. Each enemy has a different amount of health, and attacking them while adjacent to them deals damage to you as well. Each room is like a puzzle of experimentation. I will say, though, that's a bit hard to parse what the wand effects do - the game doesn't really tell you what the symbols mean and it can be easy to forget.
But those core mechanics are the only mildly interesting thing about this game. There is nothing underneath them, they aren't telling me anything about anything other than themselves. It's really a shame, I was interested in this game because I'd never heard about it before! But the core gameplay loop just feels like a distilled roguelike experience, even moreso than the average roguelike - which is not a compliment. What is the point of a strong set of systems when those systems aren't in service of anything else? I don't know. Maybe you can figure that point out for yourself, but for me, it's just not interesting.

This is some truly irredeemable garbage that is offensive to everything I believe about game design. On paper it sounded kind of neat, I'm down to play it as basically a textless game with it being in Portugese, the idea of wands with random abilities each run is cool, but the execution is dreadful in every possible way. First off, this game objectively runs too bad to be playable. Even if I care a lot about performance, I normally wouldn't say that, but this incredibly simple looking game runs at about 1 frame per second and the core gameplay of dragging wands to use them hardly even works because it's so unresponsive. As for the actual gameplay, the core concept doesn't work at all. You're heavily relying on the wands to get through levels, as the basic roguelike combat outside of that is heavily weighted against you and damage is unavoidable in many situations outside of wand use, with health being hard to recover and not resetting between levels. The wands having random properties is a neat idea on paper, but you can't see anything they do before using them, and you can only use each one once per level. The effects are too inconsistent to use with any kind of strategy or knowledge that you'll be safe, which leaves this feeling like a mess of RNG. Sometimes enemies can move/attack after you use a wand, sometimes they can't. Sometimes wands will do damage, sometimes none at all. Despite having their effects "revealed" after first use, wands still change behaviors between levels or mechanics don't act consistently. I really don't think there's any kind of skillful gameplay here, it's just a complete mess. One of the worst games I've ever played.

This game is a perfect example of how to make discovery enjoyable. Figuring out what every rod does each run is fun and has you praying that it will help you in one way or another only for it to blow up in your face and have you almost die. Then on the next room, you use that explosion to kill 3 ghosts at once and find out it also kills the frogs instantly. Having all text in Portuguese is great because even though I don't speak Portuguese, it shares enough common roots with Spanish/French that as someone who had to take a language in high school/college, there are a few things that I can sort of understand and those clue me in on what things do. The art and sound are like nothing else and really help this game stand out. It's a ruthless strategy rogue-like that is nothing like I've ever played before. Very possibly the most unique game I've encountered, and one I see myself going back to often to try and discover more of its secrets.