“This is the age of Great Heat.
This is the world it destroyed.”
What if an angel gave you a gun and asked you to go forth and kill god with it? And then…
What if you did what it had asked?
It’s only when you’ve been inexplicably returned to the surface of this shattered world after performing this extraordinary act that Sting’s 1998 “Newtype 3D RPG” Baroque truly begins, stranding you in a place sparsely populated by nothing more than the distorted remnants of fragmented souls living under rust-red skies, the endless horizon pierced only by the deceptively organic curves of stone and metal that form the Neuro Tower – the key to and the cause of all the world’s problems.
The reason for the world’s current plight and the unfolding events you may come across that offer a faint glimmer of hope for a better future must be pieced together by the player from scattered fragments told by unreliable sources; some with their own hidden agendas, others recounting the hazy memories of others or trying their best to suppress their own unwanted thoughts. It’s to the game’s credit that even when presenting players with such a tangled web of plot threads you never believe Baroque is eager to obscure the truth for the sake of keeping you busy chasing ghosts, more that you are bearing witness to this cataclysmic after, the surviving shards of all that came before patiently waiting for you to gather them together. Even if you have no desire to delve too deeply into Baroque’s knot of traitors and sabotage it’s still an irresistible setting, your amnesiac mute avatar trapped on an endless wheel of death and rebirth within a thoroughly broken world, stumbling upon odd devices, old regrets… and ultimately the god of creation herself, lashed to a wall with prehensile cables and buried beneath an impaled angel.
Standing between yourself and those deepest darkest reaches of the tower where god awaits is an ever-shifting labyrinth of halls and corridors inhabited by not only an increasingly deadly selection of outlandish monsters but more ex- (or never) people than still exist in the outside world. One you’re likely to meet early on is actually two: Two separate people fused together, one a mere face on the other’s shoulder, two separate consciences slowly, slowly, buried alive within a wall over your many revisits to the tower until only talking lips and wriggling fingers remain. Further down you may find Eliza, an enigmatic woman beckoning you to follow her to a secret sanctuary behind a false wall where she will eventually hold out her hands and ask you for pure water, or Alice, who can hear the cries of the Littles – strange cherub-like creatures you may have already seen flying straight towards you shouting “Help me!” before vanishing without a trace. Venture again and again through the Neuro Tower’s expanding number of floors and you may also find forgotten nameless comrades, their cocoon-like bindings pierced by bloodstained chains and begging for the release of death, or a ghost wearing your own face, asking which one of you actually died.
All of this subtle horror is experienced, at least in the original Saturn release I’ve played through before writing this (also the only version shown in the screenshots here), exclusively from a first-person point of view, battling increasingly strange beings with either too many or not enough faces in and around the winding corridors and thick snakes of pipework within the Neuro Tower, a place where the sounds of unseen machinery and unnatural whispers rush through dark passageways, perfectly complimented by Masaharu Iwata‘s eerie soundtrack of muted synth choirs, industrial droning, and distant thunder, as if the ruins of a desecrated church were quietly echoing scraps of a forgotten hymn. You aren’t much better than the cursed creatures you face, compelled as you are to munch on bones, devour hearts to keep your vitality up, brand yourself and your equipment to grant various stat bonuses, and use parasites to bestow a selection of effects and enhancements. The nature and usage of these items paint a picture of an unforgiving world where the strong literally consume the weak – and those who do survive here do not escape unchanged.
Even with so much outward eccentricity there’s actually quite a “normal” roguelike sitting at the core of Baroque’s hostile world, a solid sensible framework based on an already successful formula that enables the weirdness to flourish freely safe in the knowledge genre fans and newcomers alike are only a read of the manual away from understanding all of those bones, brands and injections are the direct equivalents of the more familiar range of scrolls, traps, and potions to cast, eat, or throw at an oncoming enemy. There are of course a few unusual effects to keep everyone on their toes: One undesirable status effect makes everything – everything – look like a beautiful woman, so you can’t tell if a room’s filled with malformed beasts desperate to end your latest existence or stuffed with helpful items until you get close enough to either get hit in the face or pick them up. I found a bone once that when crunched on makes you deaf, and a laughing box that emanates a slightly disturbing cackle at random intervals while it’s in your inventory – the sound of which attracts the attention of nearby monsters.
Once these beasts are aware of your presence some will doggedly pursue you no matter how far you run (which can lead to a pile up in a dead-end room if you’re not careful) while others will try to take a bite if you get too close but quickly lose interest if you’re able to get far enough away from them – there are even a few that’ll sit quietly until you hit them (or another in the room of the same type) and vicious headless beings that’ll motionlessly hang from the ceiling, just waiting for you to walk close enough for them to strike…
The potential irritation of taking damage from all sorts of unseen things at a diverse range of heights either off to the sides or straight behind you is eliminated by your avatar’s constantly audible heartbeat, the rhythm of which increases whenever a monster gets close enough to land a physical hit even if they’re not currently within your field of vision. It’s as an effective warning system as it is a chilling one, as if your silent self is wordlessly panicking at the monster’s approach – and if they are, then maybe you should be too.
Not everything in the tower is an enemy or a key plot point awaiting your arrival, and there are a few NPCs found over the course of your many deaths and rebirths that are not only safe to approach but can actually be extremely useful if you know which items to offer them: A bone-thin man who cares for nothing but his precious boxes, the shawled woman who can read hearts and throw out bones for you to catch, and a cursed “angel” composed of two spinning brass-coloured masks who will swirl two offered items together into something new.
With just one main location to hack your way through (in this Saturn version there’s also a short training dungeon and a small single room laboratory and nothing else – to be honest I appreciated the tight focus) it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to wonder why anyone would bother going through Baroque’s Neuro Tower over and over again but even for those not desperate to learn the game’s elaborate backstory or see the true ending there’s always something new to see or do on every expedition, and the randomised-with-rules layout (ex: God is always at the very bottom, [NPC A] is always somewhere on floor , etc.) adds an exciting uncertainty to the mix but still makes each run worthwhile as whatever NPC or special area you seek will always be there, you just need to find them. The sheer amount of unexplained phenomena makes your adventures feel like snatches of somebody else’s dream, from the oversized seedlings growing through metal grates on the wall – seedlings that may have begun to flower on your next visit – to switches that can cut off the red-hot heat in a room… which will also freeze levels much further down, turning vast pools of water into solid ice. Special conversations and hard-won offerings make the tower go deeper and become more dangerous than ever before, throwing new monsters and strange new scenery before you – if you can survive long enough to see them, that is.
And just this once there’s a good chance you will: I find some roguelikes can feel so impossible or obtuse that it’s not seriously worth engaging with them unless you’re completely smitten but Baroque always feels dangerous without pushing things too far. The floors never get too complex or too large to make finding the exit feel like a tedious slog, and there are no boss battles to contend with between you and the lowest level. Baroque still has plenty of inventive ways to cause unexpected problems for you and I’d never consider it to be a game without “teeth” but even an amateur like myself always felt there was a way to think my way out of every deadly situation – even if I didn’t quite manage it on my first time around. This can-do attitude is helped in part by some thoughtful item drops: Monsters are likely – but not guaranteed – to drop items that cure the status effect they inflict, with the rest down to Baroque’s fantastic balance. One of the main things that made the game’s unstable dungeon feel so captivating for me was knowing a level one character without armour or a weapon of any kind can – at least in theory – successfully complete even the deepest credits-rolling dive into the Neuro Tower. Good equipment used well will make success far more likely, but it’s an aid rather than a requirement and the game’s strictly limited carry-over system (you may throw one item into special pulsating orbs rarely found within the tower) stops you from viewing any run as a “filler” item-collecting/enhancing exercise in preparation for a real go next time, which in turn removes the worry your most recent death was a failure to spend hours grinding out a +20 elemental sword rather than a combination of bad luck and the wrong decision at the wrong time.
Baroque’s a haunting game that lingers in your mind between those fraught descents into bowels of the Neuro Tower, that heady mix of roguelike unpredictability and the melancholy cycle of forced forgetfulness creating a game that truly feels like no other. Whether you live long enough to reach the bottom or succumb to a game-ending injury just a few floors down you can’t help but wonder what you could have done differently, wonder what you might have seen if you’d been a little braver, or a little luckier, or if you’d found and then spoken to Alice, impossibly floating all alone above her gently glowing pool, just one more time…
The false sense of familiarity built up by the superficial repetition leads to a few jump scares and some genuinely unsettling moments as well: Finding tiny angelic beings suspended in gigantic glass tubes in a room you’ve never seen on a floor you’ve visited many times before – what do they say to you, these Littles whose pain can be felt by Alice so many floors away? These spirits who have already begged you for help before you even knew what they were?
The way the screen fills with “Don’t go insane” as you approach god and you’re not sure if that’s you silently steeling yourself for the final confrontation, a concerned plea from them to you, or if it even matters at all as you step forward and become one with the blinding light set within a tangle of pipes and thrumming machinery ready to lovingly embrace you, everything ending and beginning anew one more time.
Baroque is an endless and irresistible loop, an open invitation to adapt, die, or both, over and over again…
If digital archaeology is your cup of tea – and if you’re reading this then it probably is – then you might enjoy having a poke around Sting’s (mostly) functional Saturn Baroque website: http://www.sting.co.jp/baroque/ss/index.htm