Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Eyehook Games
# of Players: 1
ESRB Rating: None
In this year of huge-budgeted "Triple-A" releases that get massively hyped midnight launches, expensively overblown limited edition bundles and millions of juiced-up fans blowing each other away in online matches while ignoring the single-player aspect, Eyehook's brilliant (and brilliantly simple) Epic Dungeon crushes them all with its no-nonsense approach to challenge and pure fun. For a measly 80 Microsoft Points (one whole dollar!), you're getting a tough game with infinite replay value, a great "retro" look and overall, an absolute must-play for anyone who considers him or herself a true gamer. Easily worth twenty times its cost or more, don't let the cheap-ass price point fool you into thinking this is some play once and dump forever bit of fluff. A minor bug or two aside, nothing should stop you from finding out just how awesome and addictive this gem of a game is.
If you're a fan of Rogue-like RPG's, Nethack, Gauntlet and so forth and so on, the game is a definite and automatic purchase. If you've never heard of any of these, but like Diablo II, any Mystery Dungeon games or have an interest in dungeon diving for fun and profit and don't mind what your games look like, well, that's a buy for you as well. What's here is a classic hack-fest where you create a character, hop into a deadly dungeon that's 50 floors deep and hope for the best as you use your wits and best gear to survive. Toss your modern gaming expectations out the window and forget about hand-holding and easy cheats for blowing past those tough foes. For all of its classic charms, Epic Dungeon can actually be quite terrifying to play thanks to the element of randomness that occurs as you acquire and use new items as the game progresses.
Like the ancient Sega Genesis game Fatal Labyrinth (or Dragon Crystal, if you happen to have actually owned a Sega Game Gear), using or equipping certain items can curse, poison or outright kill you when coupled with a few swipes from a beastie that rushes in as you're incapacitated. Survival here relies on your paying attention to your surroundings, keeping enough oil for lanterns and healing items to get you back to a reasonable level of health. Death comes easily here and is permanent, forcing you back to the beginning with a new character. As there are only four classes, you'll definitely want to play each one just to see how that deal with the assortment of enemies out to slay you and turn you into a pair of new boots or whatever. Shopping carefully is also key, as trading in crappy gear for the good stuff can keep you alive longer and grabbing a rare item drop at the right time can help you mop the floor with enemies that formerly gave you grief.
Combat is fast-paced and in real time, so a bit of deft reflexes are needed when you see swarms coming your way. Controls are excellently implemented and you'll never fell like you're suffering a cheap death, that is, until you get mobbed on occasion and yes, die a cheap death. Even then, you'll more than likely just laugh it off, create a new hero and dive back into the game. While ED might be seriously difficult at times (particularly to impatient newbies), the use of humor here is excellent and welcome in this day and age of "gritty" games that make eyeballs roll back in many heads when they get too dramatic. You'll get a laugh out of some encounters thanks to amusing bits of text coupled with events that require you to give an answer to a few pointed questions with a nice risk/reward factor tossed in.
I can see some folks griping about the intentionally simple visuals, but I love them, having played dozens (if not hundreds) of similar-looking games back when they weren't called "retro". For me, everything clicks from the character portraits, the typeface used throughout the game and even the great (minimalist) sounds and music that don't intrude upon the action at all. Hell, you ca turn the volume all the way down and still play through the entire game, without missing a beat, a GREAT sign of a product that's meant for as wide an audience as possible. Sure, there's no multiplayer modes (*yawn*), dozens upon dozens of towns to discover or anything resembling "today's standards: here. However, that's precisely why ED works so damn well.
While you can bash and blaze your way to the final floor in around five hours or so, that's only with a great deal of luck plus trial and error (translation: a LOT of deaths and restarts). Replaying the game offers up the same adrenaline-pumping amounts of thrills and once you're hooked in, you'll definitely go back again and again no matter how many times you reach the end. I'm sure Eyehook is cooking up a patch to deal with a little bug with the teleport scrolls as well as some sort of sequel down the road. Whatever is in the pipeline, I'll be there with a big flag waving new players in and passing out tissues for the whiners who complain that the game is killing them way too much.
My only major complaint here is yet again, we have a stellar game with enough appeal to be sold at a higher price point on multiple platforms, but yup, it's a Live Marketplace only release (and a dollar game, at that). I'd more than gladly pay twenty bucks for this on a DS cartridge or UMD with the possibility of new content or other bonuses added in a retail package and I'd bet a lot more folks would too. A dollar game exclusive to ONE console, no matter how great it is means a certain segment of gamers won't touch this simply because they have no means to play it. Hell, I'd love to see Microsoft release all their indie games lineup on Windows at some point (in a retail package), or at least allow Eyehook and other indie developers locked into Xbox Live let folks pay them a buck or so directly in order to download a PC (or other OS) version. That, to me would actually be the true meaning of "Indie" game.
Anyway, stop reading this and go get Epic Dungeon if you've a Live account. Trust me, it's the best damn dollar you'll spend on a game this year, period. Could this one be Game of the Year material? Well, in terms of sheer bang for the literal buck, I'm certainly thinking about it along those lines, that's for sure...