Dungeon of the Endless is a roguelike defense game that rewards fast thinking, inventive solutions and tactical awareness. No, that's not quite right. Dungeon of the Endless is a cocktail of genres that rewards inhuman omnividence, uncanny forward thinking and strategic oversight. Closer?
Dungeon of the Endless is an original creation made of familiar parts and further proof that Amplitude are a studio enjoying a rapid ascent to peak power.
I first played this game, whatever kind of game it might be, when it was a young whelp dipping its toes in the turbulent waters of Early Access. Half an hour after seeing the menu screen for the first time, I quit, hoping I'd seen it for the last time. I expected a roguelike spin-off of Endless Space, basically Sword of the Stars: The Pit set in a different sci-fi world, and instead, there was this...
And, just like that, we're back to the initial struggle. How is Dungeon of the Endless best described? I was eating weird pizza with Graham at Gamescom earlier this year when conversation turned to Endless Legend. Yes, we'd spent all day looking at games until our eyes turned into single pixels and we should have changed the topic, but when you work in a toy store, there's far more inclination to talk shop after hours.
My attempts to explain how difficult and strange I'd found Dungeon of the Endless to be confused Graham. "Isn't it a tower defense roguelike?"
Having gone into the game cold, I hadn't realised that 'tower defense roguelike' was a description that had been attached to it - I wasn't even sure it was a description that could be attached to ANYthing. But it made sense. Specifically, it explained why I'd struggled so much with the game. I'd been trying to play it as a tactical dungeon crawler, rushing toward the end of each floor and gathering experience and 'loot' as I went. But, like my attempts to define what the game is, my approach to playing it wasn't quite right.
Dungeon of the Endless isn't wholly comparable to a tower defense game because it isn't about protecting a static location. The object to be defended is a crystal and as well as surviving each floor, it must be transported from the entrance to the exit. So Dungeon of the Endless is a game about creating a safe route through a random configuration of rooms, some of which contain monsters, some of which contain modules, and some of which contain item chests or resources.
To reach the exit, with the crystal intact, it's necessary to master the use of modules, which provide resources, act as turrets, and can even buff every other module or hero in play at any given time. The flow of the game - once you're over the inital hump of flowing from the menu screen directly into the grave - is complex and erratic. There's constant impetus to explore and gather, but rooms must also be converted into temporary sanctuaries for passage. Some heroes will be used as crystal carriers while others must multitask, acting as the first point of contact, defender, soldier and mechanic.
The actual process is simple - go from A to B carrying C - but there are enough variables to make every attempt feel fraught with anxiety and danger. I've become accustomed to using Mormish, who I think of as a hero for all (or at least most) seasons, but I think my reliance on his skills is probably holding me back. There are some heroes that I've struggled to get along with and others that have absorbed me into their comfort zone.
A breakthrough in my understanding of the game came when I noticed that the abbreviation DotE was almost a play on DotA. I'm MOB-Averse so the comparison may be wildly inaccurate, but Dungeon of the Endless is how a competitive lane-pusher might translate into a single player experience. Knowledge is an essential part of the player arsenal - heroes and their skills have specific utility in the many situations that can arise - and an ability to concentrate on details while maintaining an overview of the wider situation develops over time.
I've spent far too many hours playing Dungeon of the Endless now and most of them have been tense and exhilarating. Whether I'm any closer to figuring out what it actually is, I'm not entirely sure. A single player dungeon defense MOBAlike? Does it matter? Whatever it is, it's a remarkable game, taking recognisable pieces and making something astonishing and unexpected with them. It's as if Frankenstein took a load of rotten corpse-bits into his lab and emerged with a forty foot tall mech.
Despite the much tighter focus, Dungeon of the Endless has a great deal in common with Amplitude's other recent release, Endless Legend. Both are evidence of a studio that is entirely comfortable pushing at the boundaries of a genre and once acclimatised to their willingness to experiment rather than hold hands, I've found both games extremely fulfilling. In the case of Endless Legend, it's refreshing to play a 4X game and realise it isn't simply jostling for a place in the rankings, it's sidestepping them entirely by doing its own thing in its own territory.
As for Dungeon of the Endless, there's nothing to rank alongside it. Influences and borrowings be damned - it stands alone and is as brilliantly designed, challenging and cunning a package of ideas and aesthetic choices as anything I've seen this year. Short-form but a long-term commitment.
I suspect there's much more to come from Amplitude and on the evidence of 2014, they're among gaming's most inquisitive and rewarding studios.
Dungeon of the Endless is out now.