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Wot I Think: Pixel Dungeon

Roguelitelike

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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.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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