Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Review: Desktop Dungeons

Platform: PC

Developer: QCF Design

Publisher: QCF Design

# of Players: 1

ESRB Rating: N/A

Official Site

Score: A+

I made a rather interesting "mistake" a few months back and I don't think I'll recover anytime soon, nor do I want to. I'd stopped playing Fallout: New Vegas while waiting for a patch to be released and one thing I did during that downtime was check out QCF Design's Desktop Dungeon, a free rogue-like RPG that condenses hours of gameplay into quick ten minute (or less) sessions. The "mistake" was downloading, then playing the game, thinking it would be yet another well-intentioned indie with a few too many charming flaws. Oops. That ten minute session (which was actually twelve, according to my PC clock) hooked me in and I've ended up finding a few minutes every other day or so to dive into DD for a quick session or eight. Best mistake I've ever made, but definitely very lousy for productivity, laundry and a few other non-Desktop Dungeons related things.

Like Eyehook's brilliant Epic Dungeon on the Xbox 360, you're getting that classic "old school" gameplay and endless replay value, but DD edges out ED in terms of the sneaky layers of depth as well as the amazing condensation/concentration of a rogue-like's core gameplay into a few simple rules. On the surface, the game is instantly accessible (the tutorial is hilarious), but as you go further into the game, ranked dungeons and new character classes appear that make the game even more challenging to complete. Couple that with an ever-changing (optional) online leaderboard and you have a game that's a guaranteed modern classic. That, and DD is an Independent Game Festival finalist, it's completely FREE and even allows for more creative users to add their own tile sets. For a measly 4.3MB download, what's here is amazingly addictive and essential for anyone who craves a high level of challenge and wants a game that's going to hook them in for far longer than ten minutes.

The goal of the game is simple (but the game sure isn't). Clear a one-floor dungeon packed with monsters of different levels, then take on the boss and (hopefully) defeat it. Beat that boss and another floor opens with tougher random challenges and so forth and so on. Monsters go from level 1 to 10, with 10 being the boss (of course). You level up by killing monsters (duh!) and regain HP and MP by traveling to new areas within the dungeon, quaffing potions or praying at certain shrines. Shrines in the game are another innovation to the classic formula, as you'll find a few types in each dungeon and choosing who to pray to can make a massive difference in how things turn out.

Some deities demand sacrifices such as not using or destroying magic, killing much stronger enemies or turning them into stone. Others will punish you for using magic, killing weaker enemies or not killing enough in their name. You earn and lose piety points depending on which shrine you pray to, and those points can be spent on stat-boosting worship. While you can switch religions if things are going poorly, it's best to try and make your way around a dungeon to find out which shrine offers the best bonuses and stick with one. Earning enough piety allows you to "buy" a big stats boost or some other help against any remaining enemies or that final boss that's lurking nearby waiting to spit on your grave.

Praying to a vampire deity drains your health while another Deity gives you the power to transmute dead enemies into impassable plant life. Losing too much piety is a bad thing, particularly if your deity is a vengeful or amusingly tricky one. One shrine offers a random choice of full healing or instant death depending on your piety, a pretty startling (but funny) way to live or die should the need for rescue arise and you've no other options. What's excellent here is that the usual races (Human, Elf, Gnome, Halfling, Dwarf) and classes (Fighter, Thief, Priest, Wizard) aren't tied at all the their respective (and "expected") skill restrictions. Fighters can wield magic, a Wizard can bust heads with his trusty staff and so forth and so on. In fact, using what you have to get where you need in the main point of survival in DD.

Yes, you can indeed whip through one of the single floor random dungeons in ten minutes... beating the boss is another story altogether. What makes the game so great is how it demands you not only pay attention to the levels of the assorted monsters on screen, but to what sort of spells, weapons, potions and shrines are on the map. In addition, movement plays a huge role in the gameplay, as exploring new areas in the dungeon recovers health and mana (very helpful should you have no potions handy). If you're a fan of rogue-likes, you'll take to DD like a duck to water, but there are twists to the familiar formula that make the game even more brilliant. Most new users will die over and over until they figure out how to level up properly and save enough movement space on the map to regain health mana and/or piety.

Speaking of mana, magic spells in the game are presented as random glyphs scattered around each dungeon you can collect and use as long as your mana supply holds out. While there aren't a ton of spells here, making use of what's available is yet another thing that adds to the fun. You can break wall blocks, teleport your character or a monster to a random spot, cast a fireball, turn enemies into stone and a few other things. There are even some attack-based spells that allow for a first strike or add a damage percentage to an attack. You can only carry three spells (four for the Wizard) and any glyphs you don't need can be converted into different useful items of stat boosts depending on the character class.

While the visuals are simple on the surface, they're perfect and as noted above, customizable with a bit of work. The latest build has some wonderful tiles done up by dedicated and ridiculously talented fans such as Derek Yu (of Spelunky fame and fortune - go check it out) and poking around the Internet in the right places will reveal even more tiles. Want to play with an R-Type, Warhammer 40K or old GameBoy visuals? Go hunting and see what you can come up with or heck, make up your own look for the game. The music is minimal, but fitting - you'll be too darn busy listening to your brain churn away at some of the trickier maps to bother griping about more music anyway.

There's nothing "bad" at all to say about the game. Yes, the newbies and folks wanting an easy mode or some other simplistic hand-holding will be banging their heads against their monitors and wailing for mommy, but that's what the DD Wiki and message boards are for. there's a load of depth to discover here and the game rewards your efforts with loads of new stuff. I'm still dialing through some of the tougher dungeons (damn you, snake pit!), but this is one of those games where the random nature means you'll never win EVERY time you play (which is a good life lesson).

Bottom line, as a FREE game, Desktop Dungeons is an absolute MUST, period, no questions asked, no quarter taken, none given (there's a pun in there somewhere... I just KNOW it). Hell, I'd PAY real money for this if it were on a DS cart, UMD or polished up nice and sparkly in HD and slapped on a game disc with a ton of extra levels, a level and tile editor and other functions us lazy folk who don't mind supporting hard-working indie game developers don't normally see in those bigger-budgeted, premium price games. The only reason this review is so long is I'm trying to wean myself off DD so I can do stuff like laundry, getting to the pile of other work I have and maybe seeing what the outside world looks like. Well... maybe I'll play just ONE more game before I get to that stuff...

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