Do you ever wonder in light of all the crazy societal things going on around us whether the end of everything is near? Nuclear weapons are everywhere, pandemics could happen any day, and our governments breed tension, strife, and war. These aren't things I enjoy thinking about. I like my life as it is and it's questions like these that keep me up at night. And yet, despite all of that, there's something mysterious or intriguing about the possibility of the world ending which makes you wonder what if it were actually plausible? What if the world really did end? What would you do if it did? I suppose we won't really know until it happens, but if my experience with Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead is any indicator, I wouldn't be very long for the world.
Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead is a brutal, post-apocalyptic, survival horror, Rogue-like role-playing game. And if that mess of words doesn't make any sense to you maybe these allegories will help. Imagine, if you will, that the video game series Fallout, the television series The Walking Dead, and the novel I Am Legend came together in one big melting pot. And for flavor, you sprinkled in a few cryptids and some conspiracy theories. The result of this mixture would be something akin to the experience of playing Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead.
The game itself plays like many other Rogue-likes. It features a procedurally generated game world, turn-based gameplay, your choice of tile or text based graphics, and the kicker: permanent death - there's no restarting this game, which makes every action you take matter to your experience of it. When your avatar dies the game ends.
In addition to those elements, Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead includes a post-apocalyptic setting where the world has been destroyed a dozen times over (nuclear war, zombie apocalypse, triffids, demons from hell, aliens, etc.) and somehow against all the odds you are the only survivor. At your disposal are a number of ordinary things that nobody else needs anymore, such as cars, camping equipment, guns, electronics, medicine, and other things. Your one and only goal is to survive as long as you can through whatever means suit you, assuming you can find what you need.
Like in real life, your avatar has certain needs. You'll require food, water, sleep, clothing, shelter, and occasionally some sort of entertainment. Failure to collect these things in a timely order results in the death of your character. There's always other risks that arise too in the forms of mental and physical injury. You shouldn't be ashamed if you find yourself self-medicating with vices like drugs or alcohol either. There's no one left to judge your actions anyway. Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead asks the question, "How would you survive the apocalypse?" and there's no right answer.
Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead also includes a robust skill-based character development system. From the moment you generate your avatar, these skills drive your ability to perform actions like shooting, driving, cooking, and even building or maintaining your own vehicles. You have full control over which skills you choose to practice and whether you think they would benefit your experience of the game. The destroyed world of Cataclysm contains only remnants of useful things, like broken down cars, dilapidated buildings, or grocery stores of full rotting food. From these skills you can construct a new world for yourself, and I mean that very literally, as one of the things you can do is build your own structures. The skill system is marvelous.
It's the wide variety of interesting things you can do that keeps me entertained by this game. As I alluded to, you can create vehicles in this game which provide you with mobility and a place to store the stuff you find. You can also build structures like cabins and reinforce them by boarding up windows. It's all insanely comprehensive. If you can think of something, even if it seems crazy, it's likely something you can do inside the rules of the game. Of course, the bigger the idea, the more risky it'll be to prepare for. You have to gather all the parts you need, which risks running your avatar into trouble. Zombies are prolific following the Cataclysm. If you aren't prepared to fight them or any of the frightening horrors that exist, well, it might be better to wait to implement that idea. Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead takes advantage of the game design philosophy known as the Cycle of Discovery, Risk, and Reward.
Unfortunately, establishing yourself within the game comes at a price. Building a cabin provides you with shelter, as opposed to hiding in zombie-infested homes at night. Building a car grants you enough mobility to outrun most enemies or run them over. Essentially, the challenge dwindles off and you have to make it for yourself instead of just surviving. I've found it to be a rather strange outcome of the game systems that it can at times be a little boring, once you reach a certain level of stability. Ironic that. Sure, there's plenty of danger to get into, if you let yourself do so, but after spending so much time avoiding danger it almost seems counter-intuitive. That said, the danger to be faced opens up with some of the late game content that Cataclysm has to offer. If you dive into military installation you might find a fabled suit of power armor, or if you crawl into the bottom of the science labs you can find phials of mutagens or even cybernetic implants, and potentially, the very causes for the cataclysm itself.
Here's just a few examples from my experience with the game. In one play through, I decided I'd try to live off the land and build a cabin in the woods, and then while I was out hunting I got eaten by a bear. In another, I stumbled across a farm in a rural area of the world. I grew crops from seeds the farmers had left behind. When winter came, I died from starvation as I didn't preserve my food. I have one ongoing play through where I've been living life like a nomad, raiding towns for tin cans of baked beans and ammunition. To make this work, I reconstructed an old RV and attached 50L drums to the back of it to catch the rain. Eventually, I'll have to stop for fuel and that may very well be the death of my avatar.
Of course, Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead isn't without criticism. One of the absolute worst things I find is the "skill rust" system. Remember how I described that you could choose what skills you want to use and how you can use them? Well unfortunately, if you fail to use all of your skills regularly they get rusty and while this seems realistic it isn't a lot of fun. Fortunately, this can be easily resolved by adding modifications to the game to remove skill rust. The developers in their grand wisdom have made the game very easy to modify and support user-driven content.
There's also the learning curve. Many Rogue-like games suffer from high learning curves, but with enough patience and access to the game's unofficial encyclopedia you can take the Cataclysm head on.
Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead is available for free on Linux, Mac, and Windows systems or if you'd like you can compile the source code yourself for whatever platform you most use. You can follow the ongoing open-source development of Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead on GitHub and request your own changes or commit new features. Please be sure to check out the contribution guidelines first. For Windows users, I highly recommend taking a look at the C:DDA launcher which allows you to keep up with nightly and experimental builds of the game, if you're so inclined. The launcher gives you easy access to any available user content, graphical tile sets, and sound packs. Best of luck surviving the Cataclysm!