Obscured deep within the almost bottomless and unlit lower levels of geekdom, stuffed away behind bad ascii art and guarded by the most evil of random number generators hides a genre infamous for its depth, involvement, and unforgiving, cruel nature. I’m talking about the Roguelike, a genre most people these days likely know from games like Nethack and spin-offs like Dwarf Fortress and titles inspired by them like Spelunky. Roguelike is a genre quite famous for elitism and snobbery. you’re using a graphical pack? People like you are what’s wrong with the gaming industry! And an incredibly masochistic player base. Winning is boring. Losing is fun!
Let’s take this genre, famous for being deep and confusing, and make it easily accessible and almost arcade-like in nature. No, I’m not talking about the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series. I’m talking about Desktop Dungeons.
Desktop Dungeons is a roguelike in which games tend to last about 10 minutes from beginning to end. You have one single floor to explore. Max level is 10. It’s highly graphical. It’s easy to pick up. Basically, it’s almost the exact opposite of your basic Roguelike… but it’s still hard. Really hard. Even though you’ll only have one floor to explore, chances are you still won’t make it out alive.
Something that will throw off most fans of the Roguelike genre is the fact that this game actually has a tutorial. Despite being a very straight-forward and easy to understand game (at least compared to other games in the genre), the tutorial is a very welcome feature. Through three specially constructed dungeons you learn how to fight, use skills, buy items, worship gods, and die.
The dungeon crawling itself almost plays out like a puzzle game. As there is only one floor to the dungeon and the level cap is 10, you have to figure out how to make the best of what is given to you. Whatever monsters, items, altars, glyphs and possible (un)fortune are thrown in your way, you have to find some way to beat the final boss of the dungeon, a level 10 monster. Like any roguelike, everything in the dungeon is randomly generated. Something that still works out quite well with the simplified nature of Desktop Dungeons. And even if it sounds like it would get old fast, there’s still enough twists to the basic game itself that you can unlock.
Each time you beat the a boss character, stronger items, monsters and classes get unlocked and start appearing in the game. It’s a simple enough tactic, but it’s enough to keep you playing. Even if it isn’t, there’s still special game modes besides the standard dungeon runs to play through.
One of the biggest problems I had with the game is how often I got stuck with completely unbeatable dungeons. Like starting out in a small room and several monsters above level 4 blocking the exits. There wasn’t really much to do outside of retiring or getting myself killed and trying again. Then again, it’s not too different from my usual Roguelike experiences. Even the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series. I’m not sure if comes down to my luck (which I’ll admit, is really terrible), me being horrible at this genre (and again, I’ll admit, I’m really terrible), or it being the game itself.
If it sounds weird that monsters were blocking exits without moving, get used to that. Likely in an attempt to make the game more arcade-like and accessible, monster cannot move by themselves. Most roguelikes allow monsters to move within the same turn as you, leading into situations where you’re running away from monsters you’re trying to evade or luring them into traps. Desktop Dungeons however has them nailed stuck to their position. They can’t walk. They’ll only attack you if you attack them. It feels a bit odd at first, but it works out. It allows you to pick and choose your enemies, while trying to figure out an effective way to explore (uncovering new parts of the map gives you health) the dungeon. Because of this I’d almost class this game as puzzle game rather than a roguelike.
Desktop Dungeons, despite not even being anywhere near finished, is an interesting casual approach at dungeon crawling. It’s also a freeware title and your first few runs will take less than 10 minutes combined, so if you’re interested you really have nothing to lose. Careful though, you can get sucked in and play the game for much, much longer if you’re not careful.
Interesting note: reading this review likely ate up more of your time than playing your first game will.