Wot I Think: Pixel Dungeon

Oh happy day! There is no roguelite I’ve played more of, nor enjoyed more, than Pixel Dungeon. But until now its modern versions being confined to my portable telephone has precluded declaring said delight in the hallowed halls of PC gaming. But what’s this popping up, unannounced, in the Steam new releases? It’s Pixel Dungeon, rebuilt and perfected for returning to my desktop computing machine! Here’s wot I think:

Pixel Dungeon is the most refined and minimalised of rogue-lites, and yet absolutely compelling and surprisingly deep. You pick one of four classes – Warrior, Mage, Rogue and Huntress (the last of which is unlocked) – and then begin moving around the top-down 2D dungeons, killing rats and crabs, gathering potions, scrolls and seeds, and descending, always descending.

The focus is on exploration, revealing each level and searching for the downward stairs. (Who are these madduns who design their dungeons with staircases in different locations for each floor? For starters, it’s enormously impractical, but it would also be exceedingly more expensive. Ridiculous.) In between there are enemies, equipment, hidden rooms (meaning you’ll always want to be hitting ‘S’ to discover doors in the walls, weighed against the time it uses up to do so), and boss fights. There are shops every five levels, there’s the always-pressing need to pick up food to stave off hunger, and there’s the constant danger of traps to avoid.

I dread to imagine how many hours I’ve spent playing the game on my phone and tablet. It will definitely be edging toward a hundred of them. I first discovered it on a flight back from GDC in 2014, thinking I’d give it a quick go, and then spending most of the ten hours in the air failing to get any further than level 4. (The game was tougher then, I swear. And it didn’t help that I was insisting on playing as the weakly mage or vulnerable rogue.) But despite this incessant failure, I never grew frustrated, and kept wanting to try again and again. I haven’t stopped wanting to since, and I’m pleased to say I’ve seen levels in the high teens before being whomped.

Following some traditions of Rogueing, each new play resets the contents of various coloured potions, and the effects of the rune-labelled scrolls, meaning extraordinarily risky experimentation is generally required to learn the contents of your inventory. There are some rare identification fountains, and identification scrolls are a boon (but only once you’ve, well, identified them), but at a certain point there’s always the teeth-gritted click on the unknown, ending in either delight, death, or complete anticlimax as you learn you’ve wasted the ability to hover on a level without any holes in the floor.

Also horribly risky are gravestones and skellingtons. Clicking on these can reveal some really nice loot, or perhaps a horribly deadly ghost beast thing that’ll polish you off if you don’t have the right sort of handy wand. The game becomes about balancing risk and reward, or if you’re me, always picking risk and then starting again.

The more time you spend in the dungeons, the more tricks you pick up. It’s a treat realising the different patterns of enemy types, and exploiting it via the real-time-but-turn-based movement. It’s a much bigger treat when you realise there are so many tiny details to discover, like how potentially poisonous crab meat can become safe when cooked, and the entertaining ways cooking it can come about. You’ll start to favour particular items in shops on which to spend your very limited gold, and learn the foibles of each boss and attempt to equip yourself accordingly. Will you help the friendly ghost find his rose, or slay the fetid rat, for the risk of his handing over armour or a weapon better than what you currently have? Is it worth heading up that unexplored corridor on almost no health, or just nipping down the next stairs in the hope of getting deeper?

The mobile version is always changing, with new content, new items, and tweaks to the extremely high difficulty. I’ve not been back to it in a couple of months, so new elements in the PC build might have appeared there too, but either way, the game now includes new treats like bombs, honeypots, and mimics, and horrors like item degradation. Oh come on! Like it wasn’t hard enough! You can switch the latter off, but at the cost of not winning badges and your score not being ranked.

If you’re familiar with the Android version, then there will be few surprises here, other than the good news that it plays just as nicely with a mouse and keyboard. You might also know that the original game is free on Android, and released as ‘free software’, meaning you’re welcome to access its code and use it as you wish. You can also get hold of the original itch.io version for free, too. Or you could stump up a measly £4 and get this superb Steam version. I bloody love it. I think you will too.

27 Comments

  1. ironman Tetsuo says:

    This is awesome news! I’ve had this game installed on my phone for a few years now, Its the one mobile game I never delete as it’s always evolving and great fun to play, a real passion project from the developer.

  2. John O says:

    I <3 Pixel Dungeon. It's the perfect coffee break roguelike.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Tom-INH says:

    I’ve played hundreds of hours of this on Android. If you fancy a bit of variety, check out Shattered Pixel Dungeon which is a remixed version:

    link to play.google.com

    • jmtd says:

      By coincidence I discovered the free pc version of this just today.

    • HSuke says:

      Didn’t realize Pixel Dungeon was open source.

      What I really want is an “easy” mode for Pixel Dungeon in which you have a 25-50% chance of winning that doesn’t require all the stars in the galaxy aligning.

      • Ironbeard says:

        There are a couple of variants called Soft Pixel Dungeon and Shattered Pixel dungeon, which are less brutal than the original. They’re in the Android store.

    • Premium User Badge

      Neurotic says:

      Yes, Shattered is good stuff, I recommend that too.

  4. HSuke says:

    I love this game, but it’s so damn hard. Either I’m doing something wrong, or this is way harder than FTL.

    • John O says:

      It’s very hard. It’s very rare for a character to venture to the deepest levels, most don’t make it past the 4th-6th dungeon. Which makes it an extra special occasion when you actually do get there. It’s part of the fun I had with the game, finding out how to get the most out of the first couple of floors so I was prepared when I got farther down. It makes you pick apart every little mechanic in the game, weigh every decision carefully. Which sets it apart from many other games where your decisions have little or no impact.

      • Mateflasche says:

        I totally agree. This feeling when you make everything work perfectly is extra good because it happens so rarely.
        I played vanilla and then switched to Shattered.
        However, there is a version of it called “Soft Pixel Dungeon”, some of you might want to check that out. It’s got a savegame function and better drops, both optional. It’s good for learning the game (since the enemies are the same).
        Just wanted to throw that in here.

    • John O says:

      Oh, also there are little things you need to figure out, like the ghost tactic in a post farther down the page. It’s probably most fun to not look them up though. It may take you days or weeks to hit on one, and when you do get one, it’s great.

  5. Arathain says:

    Hmm. I do quite like the game, and I’ve certainly played it quite a bit on my commutes. The thing that stops me from going back is the extremely high dependence on finding a good weapon and some decent armour, and how rare those things can be. It means that most runs end not from a mistake made by the player, but how lucky you are. Bosses are hard stops for many a run, providing unwinnable fights.

    The other thing I dislike exacerbates this: there are very few ways to escape from a fight that you can’t win, and few ways to avoid getting into fights you don’t want. The best of the genre make you feel like each character death is your own damn fault. This one doesn’t often give me that.

  6. Premium User Badge

    SoundDust says:

    I wonder what the deal is with the Ultima VI graphics – did they have permission to use it, or is that stuff all free to use now? Looks cool, though.

  7. ribby says:

    Favourite Rogue-likes everyone?

    Mine is Cataclysm DDA link to en.cataclysmdda.com

    Because it’s basically THE sandbox, open-world zombie apocalypse survival game everyone’s always wanted, done right, in roguelike form.

  8. oatmeal2k says:

    Great game, finally beat it when the item / scroll stars aligned and haven’t gotten close since.

    For a meatier experience try Brogue which directly inspired many of this game’s basic mechanics (enchantment scrolls, item requirements, identification methods, many specific effects)

    link to sites.google.com

  9. Cederic says:

    So how does it compare with the games that have run on the PC for decades like Rogue, Angband, Nethack and the thousands of forks, imitators and innovators in that genre?

    Just that I played Angband in ’92 and you’ve just described an inherently simpler and less developed game. Does this do anything new or interesting or worthwhile that we haven’t seen dozens of times in the last couple of decades?

    • mpOzelot says:

      I don’t think it does anything new ( it’s a spinoff of bRogue ), but it is a very polished and streamlined experience for beginners to the genre.

      • Fnord73 says:

        It *does* sound more or less like a Nethack-lite. Ah, Nethack.

  10. SquidgyB says:

    I think what you meant was:

    “I dread to imagine how many hours I’ve spent playing the game on my phone and tablet while taking a shit.”

    It’s a fantastic shit game, I must say.

    • mpOzelot says:

      That’s a genre on its own, and should have its own tag on Steam.

  11. mpOzelot says:

    I don’t want to sound annoying, but I think this one does catalogue as a rogue-like.

    Pixel dungeon has been a close friend of mine on my daily work commuting for a long time, it introduced me to the genre, and I believe it to be the best title to get started with if you are curious about rogue-likes.

    That said I do have to admit that once you reach a certain level of knowledge the game has few to offer. The core of rogue-likes to me is the continuous learning curve, you keep playing because you want to figure out the rules and mechanics that govern the world, the supposed end goal (grab the amulet, beat the boss), is pretty much a mcguffin (OMG IS EVE ONLINE A ROGUE-LIKE THEN?).
    In light of the above, it’s then easy to spot how the small amount of systems and interactions between them that Pixel dungeon offers can be an issue.

    But then again, I’ve tried to get into more complex rouge-likes, but haven’t find anything as pretty and as friendly as Pixel Dungeon so far.

  12. reybiz says:

    Tip for the ghosts that emerge from the tombstones: walk through a door. The first hit after a monster opens a door is a guaranteed hit and this way you one shot the ghosts. For the next ghost walk through another door, etc.

  13. jrodman says:

    “the extremely high difficulty”

    Sad. The way to make a good roguelike is not to make it difficult, but to give the player ample opportunity to screw themselves avoidably.