Review: Dungeon Lore31 Jan 2013 0
Game designer Jordane Thiboust, in a recent piece for Gamasutra, took on the unenviable task of categorizing RPG subgenres (with a delicious cake analogy), trying to define what makes certain RPGs “good.” A title like Dungeon Lore invites us to ask what exactly it is we look for when it comes to this finicky “roleplaying” genre. In one sense, it’s pure turn-based dungeon-crawling, no frills attached. The question is: Are you sure you don’t want those frills?
So, here’s our hero. He’s a dude, burly and in vaguely Roman-looking armor. His name? Well, maybe you’ve been sufficiently inspired at this point to give him something along the lines of “Thag Oakenshield” or “Dedric Vandersneak” or “Marius Firewhisper.” Or, maybe, his name is just your name too.
Now we come to the stats—oh, the stats. Subgenres aside, what RPG is complete without at least one sort of crunchy number-monster of a stat page? The sort that both thrills with possibilities and chills with the threat of making, horror of horrors, a wrong choice. Here, we roll for initials (and likely continue to reroll until they’re just so), and choose some skills. Skills such as “Sword Master,” “Quick Reflex,” “Keen Eye,” and “Master of the Elements.”
What do these stats and skills, um, do? The game doesn’t bother to tell you (though 3D Attack do have an FAQ on their website). Here’s the first—and really, main—problem with Dungeon Lore: it rests heavily on the laurels of RPGs past. On the one hand, these skills aren’t explained, which makes constructing a tight character out of a semi-classless system difficult. But, on the other hand, if you’ve ever played any RPG, ever, you generally do know what these skills do. Better sword boffing and magic blasting, yeah? Dungeon Lore knows this ain’t your first rodeo, so, why bother? The bored looking clerk manning this stat screen convenience store shrugs at you, you shrug back, and it’s onto the quests.
And the quests are solid. Minimalist, even. Despite abusing gaming tropes like collegiate a capella groups abuse the music of Journey (rats… giant spiders… cursed mummies… goblins… more rats… more rats—OKAY RATS ARE GROSS I GET IT), Dungeon Lore consistently offers discrete little loot runs of only a few rooms, with serviceable theming. There’s even a deep-voiced narrator fella, straight aping Baldur’s Gate, who chimes in to set the scene every now and then.
But how to make your way past these [FANTASY ENEMIES] guarding these MacGuffins? Combat in Dungeon Lore is turn-based, with each turn letting you (or your enemy) execute two actions. These can be as simple as doing a basic sword attack, or as slightly-less-simple as casting a spell or moving your character a certain distance. Intriguingly enough, there’s even some sort of initiative system at work influenced by dexterity or agility (presumably), with the combatant having the most dextri-agitous roll going first. Intriguing further still is that this initiative seems to be calculated for every round of combat, meaning that you’re never sure if your opponent is going to hit you twice in a row, or four times in a row, killing you before you’ve a chance to heal. Nice element of chance, or cheap and unfair? Depends on whether or not you’ve been running the same dungeon over and over to no success. Oftentimes combat is less about throwing oneself into the thick of things than it is about risk management and constant, pace-killing healing.
And that’s largely it. Naturally, there is a shop, where (unnaturally) the gear seems to only increase in quality after you’ve bought previous items of a kind, so no skipping up to the best sword after saving some gold. You could very well have a moment, like I did, where you forget to buy lockpicks and can’t loot a treasure room properly and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll rightly blame yourself while at the same time praising the game for not holding your hand with constant “Stock up on lockpicks at the shop” tooltips.
There’s the Hunting Grounds too, a curious pastoral arena with leveled enemies specifically designed for grinding. So, yes, the game all but admits you’re going to have to do some grinding. Refreshingly honest, but off-putting nonetheless—that’s Dungeon Lore in a nutshell. So much of the game seems built to cater to preconceived notions of RPGs, and it’s workmanlike in its attention to detail. It’s only that those details are just serviceable enough. The camera is mostly stable; looting repetitive, but functional; touchscreen navigation fine, if wonky; combat having the endless tapping of a Torchlight or Diablo without the speed or visceral punch, but that’s okay because it works, right?
Dungeon Lore gets you into that RPG routine of playing just to see what goodie (or baddie) is around the corner, even if what’s around the corner is dependably average. To return to Jordane Thiboust, he writes that the key to developing any RPG, regardless of subgenre, is to “always clearly define your main experience.” What’s the main experience in Dungeon Lore? RPG. Plain old vanilla RPG. Inoffensive and tasty, but better utilized as part of a larger recipe.