Review: Dungeonism21 Jan 2014 0
Released 08 Jul 2013
The blood of goblins and fell warriors drips from my blade. I have my sword at my side, my bow on my back and the primal forces of magic at my fingertips. This dungeon has been a long and gory trek, but, as I am cunning, I butchered the beasts in the last chamber without a scratch. The exit cannot be far. It will not be long now before I leave the dungeon lands to return home; laden with treasure and radiating martial glory, ready to crush the jeweled thrones of the world 'neath - oh no. Oh no.
In the next room is my worst nightmare made flesh. An Imp and two snakes. Fat snakes. And one of them is right next to the door.
To look at Dungeonism and its odd, half-abstracted graphics, you might think it another addition to the roguelike horde - but you would wrong, amigo. Turn based and plain Dungeonism might be, but there is no permadeath to be found here, and if the details of the levels are randomly generated, the gear you get turns out to be surprisingly stable across playthroughs. Equally, though, this is not an entirely straightforward hack-n'-slash affair. Yes, the thrust of the game is "go into dungeons, get loot, kill monsters preventing acquisition of said loot", but gameplay wise its a more cerebral affair than your standard Diablo clone. It might not embrace the brutality of final death, but Dungeonism won't put up with you mindlessly tapping away like one of Skinner's pigeons.
Dungeonism's combat puts a premium on positioning. Frontal attacks, both by and against you, are automatically blocked, reducing damage and preventing status effects taking hold. Your avatar must attack from the sides, and since your character can only move two spaces and attack in the same turn, this means you must either use sneak attacks or defend and let monsters get into melee range before dealing the damage. Power attacks stun beasties, but blow your energy faster - and being hit while at low energy means a horrendous increase in damage taken. Getting surrounded or cornered can be fatal.
Dealing with monsters in Dungeonism, then, is not a matter of brute force or having the right build, but of careful positioning, hit-and-run tactics, use of the environment and careful management of aggro. It's no accident that the game has every few direct damage spells and many that deal out status ailments or move monsters around. With only a single character to control and sometimes cramped environments to constrain your actions, the combat isn't deep enough to sustain the game by itself, but it has enough twists, and punishes mistakes harshly enough, that it mostly remains engaging.
So yeah, the combat is smart. This is a genre, however, where a game thrives less on great central mechanics than how well it stokes our unquenchable lizard-brain thirst for bigger imaginary numbers. So how does Dungeonism do at appeasing our power fantasies with the traditional sacrifices of big stats and sweet loot? Well, determining your characters stats isn't an exciting part of the game - there are no talent trees to play with or new playstyles to unlock, just doling out xp to boost your chosen numbers by a point here and there. There are a few twists: experience is gained from pick-ups rather than monster killing to encourage sneakiness - and the more you use a skill, the less xp your next increase in it costs. The stats themselves, though, seem poorly explained and overly fine grained - boosting your archery by 1 isn't interesting when you're not even sure what a point of archery does.
If leveling up, though, feels unexciting, the gear makes up for it, enabling the kind of shenanigans that would make a Dungeon Master green at the gills. Dungeonism credits your intelligence too much to expect you to get excited over a sword because it has purple text and marginally bigger numbers attached. With the right spell, you can teleport through walls or block off a door with roaring flames, shaping the battlefield to your advantage like some one-man magical engineering corps. Equipment has similarly satisfying, chunky effects. The most standard gear available boosts something - healing, defence, magic damage - by a whole 50%, and even swapping out a couple of pieces can change your playstyle dramatically. Some of the pieces of gear picked up in dungeons can make even bigger changes to the rules. Not bad for a game where it took several dungeons before I even realized it had equipment.
Indeed, an occasional if severe source of irritation is the game's reluctance to explain what it considers obvious. For the most part, the game is forthcoming with the data every dungeon-diver needs - witness the oddly lovely red-tinted examine mode. Core mechanics, though, tend to be spelled out a comically long time after you learn to use them, and it's easy to miss an important thing or two - it took me an embressing amount of time into my first play through to find the shop menu. These kinds of hiccups can cause you problems when things should be smooth sailing and disrupt the pacing of the experience.
The other flow-breaker in Dungeonism is part and parcel of the randomised elements. Sometimes, a dearth of the items you need or a particularly brutal room can bring you to a halt. For the most part, the game is good about giving you a way through if you're creative - even if that creativity involves running like a heavily armed craven coward. Sometimes though, some especially nasty enemies will cluster in an area which offers no opportunity to separate them or slip past. Your options, in these cases, are to take a beating and limp through the rest of the level, or to die and redo the whole thing. The random elements of Dungeonism's levels keep the player on their toes, but the trade off is the occasional puzzle with no solution.
It's worth putting up with the frustrations, though - when Dungeonism is good, it is very good indeed. The game's odd graphical style and puzzle-like elements can make it seem like a cold-blooded experience, but when the flow is right and the pieces fit together, it all sublimates into a shockingly immersive experience. You become a fantasy hero in the mold of the Grey Mouser or Elric; slithering past threat after threat through cunning and sheer desperation as much as combat prowess. And the moments where you hit a tough but beatable room, where the wish fulfillment slips back and the tactical puzzle takes centre stage, provide the counterpoint, as suddenly hard and bracing as diving into cold water. With it's diverse toys, hidden levels and push-your-luck endless bonus dungeons, Dungeonism rewards curiosity, persistence, and a refusal to be cowed by the occasional setback.
Dungeonism isn't a game content to pick one thing and do it really well. It's not a tightly focused game - it's not a deep tactical experience, it isn't supported by an immersive world or storyline and it doesn't have the sprawl or tension of a true roguelike. If you go into the game looking solely for one of those things, Dungeonism will stymie and disappoint you. If you go in willing to put up with some quirks, maybe juggle a couple of different characters, and let the game surprise you, you'll find a game that, like its environments, is far deeper and more thickly filled with treasures than the you'd guess from gazing at the surface.