Can one of my favourite games of 2010 also end up being one of my favourite games of 2011? That’s a question you’ve been worrying about a lot, I know. So, allow me to answer it: maybe. Now allow me to answer that more usefully. Desktop Dungeons was a freeware indie title which pretty much transformed a roguelike into a logic puzzle. One dungeon, one character, an array of monsters of varying toughness scattered around it. Your challenge was to work out how you could kill your way up to the boss monster, by way of using spells, pickups, stat upgrades and devising the most efficient ways to level up without losing too much health or perishing in the process. Honestly, it’s an apparently effortless example of fitting one genre neatly inside another. Best of all, it only takes 10 minutes to play a session, and as such the original DD – now its ‘alpha‘ – will probably stand proud as a perfect gaming snack regardless of how well its new, Unity-powered do-over does.
That latter is a paid game and now in beta, but accessible only to those who’ve preordered. I’ve been taking a look at it (by ‘look’ I mean ‘playing until 3am’) and some thoughts follow. But – big but – these are thoughts on an unfinished beta, which has a ton of features, polish and changes yet to come. If you so much as hint that you’ve interpreted this as a ‘review’, I’m going to smack you so hard.
If you were hoping the move to a paid game meant whoopdedoop 3D graphics, you’re outta luck, sunshine. DD remains resolutely 2D and even unanimated, and that’s just how I like it – emphasising that it’s a highly tactical affair whose every move requires patience and forethought. It is to something like Diablo what Chess is to Pictionary. The only extent to which chance comes into it is in what items the game deposits into each dungeon when you first enter them, and even then you’ll often need to weight up pick-ups’ advantages, long-term and short term. This is particularly true of spells, only a couple of which you can hold at any one time. Is instantly turning an enemy into stone better than mildly bullying it with a fireball? No, because you won’t get any experience points for the former. But: yes, because it does give you a 50% experience boost on your next kill, and if your next kill is of a monster of higher level than you, that means mega-points. Or maybe you could just trash both spells, which if you’re a Human warrior will give you a permanent boost to your attack power. Choices, choices, agonising choices. Important choices, every one of them.
Where I most enjoy DD is the moments where you seem stuck in an impossible situation, and the everything-must-go desperation which results. The interface is telling you that your next attack means your death, you’re out of health potions, you’ve explored every square of the map (every time you move into an unexplored square, you recover some health and mana, which is a crucial tactic both in terms of survival and not wasting your movement when you’re at full health). It’s over, right? Unless… trashing all your most prized possessions, the stuff you can barely bear to part with, might just get you the boost you need. There are tons of ways and means like this, layers of tactics and last-ditch gambles that, realistically, don’t pay off most of the time. But when they do, oh when they do… how like a god you will feel.
None of this is anything at all like news to you if you’ve played the free version of DD. I restate it now because I’m impressed by how much more dramatic such edge-of-disaster moments and hypercareful juggling is when the context is something more than ‘win.’ The major addition to nu-DD, other than excellently weird new art which depicts characters as bulboid, angry freaks, is a metagame.
It’s important to note that you are not and do not have a persistent character – the nature of DD is that heroes are disposable. Either they’re killed, or they beat the dungeon and that’s that. God knows what happens to the survivors – probably out of their skull on some foul ale or too traumatised to ever countenance another dungeon run. So, each time you embark on an adventure you start afresh with a level 1 character and another randomly-generated dungeon filled with baddies and bonuses. There’s a backstory I didn’t entirely pay attention to, but essentially you’re some sort of unseen leader trying to build up a settlement while fending off the forces of some kind of darkness, who lurk in nearby dungeons. Get a hero to a dungeon and back again, and he’ll bring cash with him. This cash is then spent on upgrading your town, which means primarily unlocking new classes but also adding various options to start a dungeon run with some stat-boosting equipment already in hand. I’m quite sure this will become vital for later, harder dungeons.
The character classes are the main draw. In the old DD, they simply unlocked when you beat a dungeon with a particular class or defeated certain odds-stacked-against-you challenges. Now, you’re picking and choosing which you want, in which order, allowing you to specialise and refine your tactics. However, even if you’re not interested in, say, unlocking the Beserker class, you might want the ancillary bonuses, such as being able to retain some loot found in a dungeon rather than auto-selling it for cash. The metagame works so well because it doesn’t interfere with the meat of the game – the puzzle-based dungeoneering. Instead, it adds context to it, a reason to beat those damnable dungeons way above and beyond the fleeting feeling of triumph the alpha offers.
It could be argued that this is just bloat around a quickie puzzle/RPG, but for me it adds purpose. In old DD, I tended to play two or three games in a go, or however it many it took until I beat a dungeon then sat back and felt pompous. In new DD, I’m playing and playing and playing, because I’m thinking about long-term gains like unlocking the top-tier classes or the fruitiest starting weapons. This is even before most of the town features are in there, as the beta’s due to evolve hugely over time. Even if you don’t like the metagame, there’s a series of challenge dungeons in there (only some straightforward, tuition-based ones at present, but this is due to expand) which lean closer to the drop in, have a crack, drop out nature of the clutter-free alpha.
In short: I’m hooked, and hooked on just the skeleton of what the game will hopefully become. While I can sympathise with anyone who thinks $10 seems a bit much for an almost animation-free game that runs in your browser (via the Unity plugin), what’s already there and what’s yet to come makes it a price I’m entirely to pay. Not to mention that it being cloud-based means that your metagame progress will pick right up from absolutely any PC you load the website on. Also, a standalone client is promised later too.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and watch NASA send a robot to Jupiter. Have a lovely weekend.