RELEASE DATE: October 27, 2014
LEAD DESIGNER: Amplitude Studios
Dungeon-crawling has long been one of the central pillars of video gaming. Whether it is Adventure on the Atari 2600, or the Wizardry series and Moraff’s World on the PC, the concept of exploration and interaction is perfectly suited to the video game format. Even games not traditionally considered dungeon crawlers–a first-person shooter, for instance–could be said to trace their lineage back to this simple concept. And so, the format has endured and proliferated to this day.
In order to keep dungeon explorations unpredictable and the games replayable, developers have often turned to procedural generation–whereby the layout of the levels and arrangement of the monsters and treasures therein is randomized. This combination of elements, coupled with turn-based gameplay and enforced permadeath has come to be known as roguelike (in honor of the genre’s progenitor game, Rogue). Apparently, “pure” roguelikes use only ASCII art, but for me, that dyslexic stew can be hard to wade through.
Thankfully, once a template or definition is established, people are always at work around the fringes, recombining design elements to create new fusions and hybrids. Whether these new concoctions are just a simple tweak or something more transgressive of the genre, it’s often at the boundaries of categorization where I find the most excitement. Of course, as categories evolve, they spawn their own nomenclature like “rougelike-like.” In my opinion though, such terminology is evidence of a reverse taxonomy that doesn’t really clarify anything (how can a genus beget a family?).
This brings us to Dungeon of the Endless (technically, a rougelike-like–something which Amplitude Studios made fun of in one of its promo videos).
The game’s concept is simple enough. Your spaceship has crashed, leaving you and another survivor marooned on an alien world. You start each level in a room with a power crystal and are tasked with protecting it. Your goal is to explore adjoining rooms until you find the exit, then transport your crystal there to proceed to the next level. Do this twelve times and you’ll escape. Simple enough. But what I didn’t tell you is that this world is populated by all manner of aliens who will spawn in unpowered and unattended areas of the map as you explore. “Well then, I’ll just keep all of my rooms powered and attended.” The game makes sure that you’re not going to have enough power or people to do that. For me, the Dungeon is about striking a careful balance of spreading my team out to avoid monster spawning and keeping them concentrated to deal with the inevitable onrush. The best situations are those when I am able to create a defensible “fire-tunnel” to the crystal and mow-down the aliens marching toward it.
But as this is a procedurally generated world, sometimes the structure of the dungeon doesn’t allow one to shepherd the aliens in a logical way. It requires you to divide your scant resources even further. Like any great rougelike, the further you get, the greater the sense of accomplishment you feel.
One of the most interesting innovations of Dungeon of the Endless is the way the turns are structured. It’s not so much that you have a turn, then the aliens have a turn, but instead, the game takes place in pause-able real-time. You can run around to your heart’s content and get things set-up just the way you want them, and when you’re ready, open another door. Doors function as the turn timer, triggering new aliens and resource collection. And speaking of resources, like other games in the Endless series, Dungeon operates on the same set: food, industry, science, and dust. (One thing I really appreciate is how the iconography is the same across Amplitude Studios’ games–it is an example of the ways they lower the barriers to entry across the series.) You’re constantly faced with decisions in managing and spending these resources. Should you spend all of your industry points to build that new defensive module, or save up to build something that will generate even more resources down the line? Since resources are only harvested when a new door is opened, it all introduces an interesting push-your-luck element as well. Should I open this door and risk another alien onslaught I might not survive, or just get out while the getting’s good? It’s possible to squeak through the first few levels without much in the way of strategy, but if you don’t manage your resources appropriately at the beginning, your recklessness will inevitably catch up with you.
In the Endless world, dust is what makes the world go-round–the currency, if you will. And when you think about it, dust plays a big role in our world too–it transports nutrients around the globe and into the oceans, nucleates cloud development, and keeps the Pledge line of products in existence. But our earth-dust doesn’t glow bright golden. We might encourage its accumulation if it did. Maybe lemon Pledge doesn’t exist in the Endless. In Dungeon, dust is used to power rooms (thereby keeping the aliens at bay). You can never have enough dust. The further you progress into the dungeon, the scarcer it seems to get. By the halfway point, if you haven’t upgraded your characters and modules adequately, it can get hairy when you only have enough dust to power half of your rooms.
Like many of its rougelike peers, Dungeon of the Endless throws-in a number of character and dungeon-type unlocks to further enhance replay value. Unlocks are the kind of thing that a lot of people get excited about and feel compelled to complete. Me, I appreciate that they are there, but if I don’t enjoy the base game systems, no amount of extra content will get me to come back. Thankfully, Dungeon‘s atmospheric presentation (this is another pixel art beauty) and clever gameplay are ample hooks for my inner completionist.
Some critics have complained that the game starts to feel “samey” after a while. I don’t think this is fair as the same could be said of any rougelike. (Or really, any activity for that matter.) The pursuit of mastery takes a lot of repetition. Athletes put in countless hours training. Musicians practice their scales. And gamers grind. When that grind “clicks” is when a game works. Every player has their own unique preferences, but for me, Dungeon of the Endless doesn’t feel arduous–it’s just the challenge of me versus the playing field. I know the rules. I know what to expect. The question is just how well I can do each time I boot it up. And isn’t that simply the reason we play games?